Among the critically endangered animals, people in Southeast Asia may be less familiar with the black rhino (Black Rhinoceros), which is native to the African continent. However, the reason it is endangered is closely linked with Asia.
Why is this "living unicorn" facing extinction?
About African black rhinos
The black rhino is the smaller of two species of African rhinos, with the other being the white rhinoceros.
The most notable difference between the white and black rhinos is that the black rhinos have hooked upper lips, while the white ones have square upper lips.
Rhinos once dominated the African savannah, with hundreds of thousands of them roaming the lands in their prime. However, from the 19th century onwards, the European settlers began to hunt these rhinos, considering them prized trophies.
By the end of the 19th century, white rhinos in southern Africa already faced extinction. While numbers of the southern white rhinos have been recovering, the northern white rhino sub-species is down to its last two individuals as of 2020.
As the trade in rhino horns peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, a large quantity of rhino horns flowed into the markets of the Middle East and Asia for profit. Although there isn’t much scientific evidence, the horn of a rhinoceros is still a prized item in traditional Asian medicine, where it is commonly ground up as a powder and believed to treat a variety of ailments.
Between 1960 and 1995, black rhino numbers dropped by a sobering 98 per cent to less than 2,500. However, thanks to persistent conservation efforts across Africa, the species has bounced back from the brink of extinction. While the current black rhino number is around 5,600, it is still classified as a critically endangered animal.
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Fun rhino facts
Rhinos are herbivores:
The ferocious-looking rhinos are actually vegetarian! They mainly eat plants and fruits. Their pointed lips help them pick leaves, branches, buds, shrubs and fruits. Research has shown that they eat more than 220 kinds of plants.
Mud bath devotees:
Rhinos look strong and have thick skin, but they are actually very flexible and fun-loving! They are like kids, and enjoy standing on their hind legs or lying on the ground to sleep. What they like most is to play in the mud or sand, which is the origin of mud baths!
Rhinos were once lords of the savannah. They can easily adapt to the local climate, and can survive without water for five days during the dry season.
The rhino is one of the heaviest animals (after the elephant and hippo) on land. A mature rhino measures 3 to 3.75m in length and stands at 1.4 - 1.8m high at the shoulder, and weighs around 400-700 kg.
The largest among them can weigh as much as 1,400 kg, which is 45 times that of an adult male human. How astonishing!
Purpose of the rhino horn:
The savannah is a world of wild animals. Horns are not ornaments for rhinos. When they are guarding their young in territorial fights, rhinos without horns have lowered fighting capacities and can get hurt easily.
Rhino horn myths:
For hundreds of years, Asians, especially in traditional Chinese medicine, overvalued the rhino horn, regarding it as a precious medicinal ingredient. Li Shizhen mentioned rhino horns in his Compendium of Materia Medica, claiming that it has medicinal values including bringing down a fever, boosting the "yang" element, preventing a hangover and curing cancer.
Although scientific proof is lacking for these claims, rhinos are still being slaughtered for their horns because of this belief.
Black rhino crisis
As mentioned earlier, horns play a vital role for the rhinoceros in the wild, but it seems like these horns have become a curse when the rhinos encountered humans.
What drove rhinos to the brink of extinction?
The medicinal value and decorative function of rhino horns have led local hunters to kill rhinos. Rhino horns may be banned from legal trade but prices are still rising in the black markets.
It's said that 1kg of rhino horns - referred to as "platinum" - is worth US$30,000. The high prices drive poachers to ignore international regulations.
Middle Eastern cultures also regard rhino horns as a symbol of social status. In Yemen and Oman, rhino horns are made into dagger handles for ceremonies to represent one's high standing in society.
At the same time, Asian markets are extolling the medicinal value of rhino horns, and even their thick skins and meat, putting rhinos in a more precarious situation.
Ironically, since conservation staff are unable to stop the majority of these poachers, many conservation districts have resorted to putting up large "rhinos dehorned" signs, hoping that poachers will spare the lives of these hornless rhinos.
Some districts have even come up with new ideas, such as dyeing the horns pink or poisoning them, but these tactics have not had much success against poachers.
When they hunt, poachers will kill the hornless ones out of spite, and to avoid spending effort tracking these dehorned rhinos again in the future.
Since then, conservation groups have drilled holes into rhino horns to place trackers, and even employed infra-red detection equipment and cameras to monitor and attempt to stop at least some poaching.
Nature intended rhinos to have horns, if not evolution would have long gotten rid of it. It is a shame that the rhinos are being compelled to be dehorned or have their appearance modified just so they can be protected from human greed.
Extended farmlands and logging:
As the human population grows, extended farmland and logging have also severely damaged the rhino habitat and reduced their living space.