Educational Series: Wild, Majestic Rhinos Are Being Driven Toward Extinction

[easy-social-share buttons=”facebook,mail” morebutton=”1″ counters=0 fullwidth=”yes” query=”yes”]By Nick Engelfried
With their huge size and impressive one-to-two horns protruding from their snouts, rhinos are among the most majestic and charismatic creatures in the world. Rhinos are beloved by animal lovers all over the planet, and with good reason: there is simply no other animal like them, and they call to mind prehistoric times when massive Ice Age mammals roamed the globe. In fact, rhinos are an ancient group of animals who have survived many hundreds of thousands of years. But today they are threatened as never before.

In ancient times prehistoric rhinos like the woolly rhinoceros ranged throughout Africa and Eurasia, well into modern-day Europe and Russia. We’ll likely never know for sure what caused the extinction of the woolly rhinoceros, but early humans may have been at least partly to blame. What’s certain is all five of the surviving rhino species are threatened by human activities like hunting and habitat destruction.

Two modern-day rhino species live in Africa: the enormous white rhinoceros and the slightly smaller black rhinoceros. For tens of thousands of years Native peoples throughout Africa lived in harmony with both these species, but things changed with European colonization in the 1800s. Unregulated big game hunting decimated Africa’s rhinos, and the white rhino was eventually believed to have become extinct. Miraculously, a small remnant population of white rhinos was discovered in 1895 and protected, bringing the species back from the brink–at least temporarily. But almost a century later, a new wave of poaching once again caused rhino populations to plummet in the 1970s and ‘80s.

While European hunters were mostly responsible for the decline of African rhinos in the 1800s, recent declines are mainly due to demand for horns in China and other Asian countries where rhino horn is traditionally believed to have medicinal properties (modern medical science shows no basis for these beliefs). By 1997, poaching had brought the black rhino population down to just 2,600 individuals. Conservation efforts helped African rhino numbers increase over the next decade or so, but a new dramatic increase in poaching during the last ten years has once again put all rhinos at imminent risk.

In 2007, 13 rhinos were poached in the nation of South Africa, one of the strongholds for surviving rhinos. By 2014, that number had skyrocketed to 1,215 rhinos killed. Renewed pressure from poachers is due to a combination of factors, including growing international demand for rhino horn and increasingly technologically sophisticated poaching techniques. After years of stabilizing and even increasing populations, rhinos are once again in crisis.

In fact two subspecies of African rhinos–the western black rhino and northern white rhino–have already gone extinct in the wild (three northern white rhinos live in captivity, but without a breeding population the subspecies has no hope of survival). White rhinos as a whole are now considered Near Threatened while black rhinos are classified as Endangered. Almost all remaining wild African rhinos are confined to just four countries: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Kenya. However, as dire as things are for African rhinos, two Asian species are even more imperiled.

Three distinct species of rhinos live in Asia. One of these, the greater one-horned rhino, has seen its numbers increase thanks to successful conservation in countries like Nepal. This species’ status was recently upgraded from Endangered to Vulnerable, a success that shows how resilient rhinos can be if given the protection they deserve.

Both of Asia’s other two rhino species, the Javan rhino and Sumatran rhino, are considered Critically Endangered. Only around 60 individual Javan rhinos remain, all of them in Ujung Kulon National Park on the Indonesian island of Java. As with all rhinos, poaching is a major threat to these animals’ continued existence. However, habitat loss is an equally serious issue for Javan rhinos. Destruction and fragmentation of their rainforest home for logging and agriculture has left these rhinos with little viable habitat, and the existing habitat in Ujung Kulon Park is thought to be near carrying capacity.

Conservation groups like the International Rhino Foundation and Rhino Foundation of Indonesia are working to restore Javan rhino habitat in the area around their last stronghold, and they have slowly expanded their range as a result. However, a single natural or human-caused disaster could easily wipe out the tiny population. For Javan rhinos to survive, continued habitat protection and restoration measures are essential.

The third–and most endangered–Asian rhino species is the Sumatran rhino. This species was once found throughout the islands of Borneo, Sumatra, and much of the Southeast Asian mainland, but today fewer than 80 individuals are confined to just a few last refuges on Sumatra. Their population has declined 70% over the last two decades, mainly due to poaching, and this steep rate of decline makes them the most imperiled of any rhino species. However, habitat loss is also a severe threat. Today the biggest cause of deforestation in Sumatra is the expansion of oil palm plantations, which grow palm oil for sale on the international market. Palm oil is used in everyday items from shampoo and other personal care products, to countless foods like peanut butter and snack foods.

While the immediate source of threats to rhinos comes from local pressures, the ultimate causes lie with international markets. Efforts to stem the tide of rhino poaching recently received a setback when China announced it would weaken its ban on the rhino horn trade. However, efforts to reduce the demand for rhino horn in Asia represent perhaps the best hope for ending the scourge of poaching.

When it comes to saving rhino habitat–especially for Critically Endangered Javan and Sumatran rhinos–consumers around the world have a part to play. While consumers can try to avoid products with palm oil, the ingredient is so ubiquitous that boycotting it altogether is practically impossible. As an alternative, groups like the Rainforest Action Network recommend putting pressure on large companies that use palm oil in their foods and urging them to cut ties with suppliers involved in deforestation. Contacting companies and urging them to get deforestation-causing palm oil out of their supply chains is a key step ordinary people can take to help not only rhinos, but countless other species dependent on Southeast Asia’s rainforests.

Some major food brands are already taking steps to get rid of problematic palm oil. These include Kellogg’s, General Mills, Hershey’s, Mars, Nestlé, Unilever, Smucker’s, Dunkin Brands, and Krispy Kreme. Yet according to the Rainforest Action Network others–including food and beverages giant PepsiCo–still need to do much more to cut ties with the worst palm oil suppliers. Companies like PepsiCo need to hear from consumers that their involvement in rhino extinction will not be tolerated any longer.

Although it may be tempting to blame the countries where rhinos live for allowing their decline to continue, the truth is all of us bear responsibility for ensuring these animals’ survival. From medicine markets in China to snack food aisles in the United States, threats to rhinos are international in scope and span far beyond the African and Southeast Asian nations the world’s remaining rhinos call home. The future is full of danger for rhinos, but with coordinated international action these ancient, majestic animals can still be saved.

Photo credit: Max Pixel

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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