Sunday, April 22, 2012

Rhinos in death throes

Thanks to the Spanish King (who we hope is the last representative of the Spanish monarchy) and his accident while hunting elephants, thousands of people have become aware of the poor prospects for this huge mammal, which is included in the IUCN red list of threatened species. Many organizations try hard to save this species and make their fight visible, but thanks to the Spanish King’s accident, now we know that there are between 470,000 and 690,000 African elephants in the world.
However, elephants are not the only threatened large mammal: most apes and large felines are endangered too and they are likely to become extinct in some decades. At present, there are only 3,000 tigers in the wild and 20,000 in captivity, and only 7,000 Sumatran orangutans (this species lives in the tropical rainforest, which is endangered too). 
Today, we are going to talk about another endangered mammal which will soon die out unless we do something: rhinoceros. They appeared more than 30 million years ago but today there are only five living species: two native to Africa and three to southern Asia.
The white rhino is the second largest land mammal after the elephant. There are 20,160 white rhinos left in the wild and, despite being so few, it is the most abundant subspecies of rhinos in the world. In 1885 there were only 20 white rhinos, so now there is a serious consanguinity problem.
The black rhino has two horns on the skull. It is actually grey, like the white rhino. Then, if both of them are grey, why are they called white and black respectively? Because Dutch settlers gave the former the name "wijde" (meaning wide) because it is larger, but it was mistranslated into English as white. And then the latter was called black to make some difference. There are only 4,880 black rhinos left, so it is critically endangered.
The Indian rhino is a protected species in northern India and Nepal because there are only 2,700 specimens. In the year 1515, some adventurers took a specimen of Indian rhino to Europe as a gift to the Pope, who was planning to arrange a fight between this animal and an elephant (it seems that European aristocratic families have always been fond of killing large mammals). However, after stopping by in Lisbon, the ship carrying the animal gift sank by the Italian shores and the Pope could not have his show. The painter Albrecht Dürer made a well-known woodcut of this animal, based on sketches and descriptions. If you take a closer look at it and you compare it with an actual Indian rhino, you’ll realise that Dürer added a small horn on its back, and you may wonder why he did so. Well, by that time European readers had in mind Pliny’s Natural History, in which the Roman scientist describes a two-horned rhino, and Pliny could not be wrong, so Dürer added a second horn. However, the Roman writer only heard about the African species, which do have two horns… 
The Sumatran rhino has been largely hunted by poachers and there are only about 250 specimens left. It is the most ancient species of living rhino and it is the living image of its ancestors.
The Javan rhino lives in this Indonesian island and only 30 remain. There used to be some in Vietnam too, but poachers killed the last one in 2010. Currently, it is the rarest and most endangered large mammal in the world.
If you add up all the specimens of the five rhino species, the total amount comes to 28,000, which is not a hopeful figure. And it is even less hopeful if we take into account that this animal rarely reproduces in captivity and it is subject to poaching because of its horns, which are sent to China and Vietnam to become an allegedly-miraculous ointment. It all comes from a stupid story of a Vietnamese high-ranking official who used rhino horn to cure his cancer, increasing several times over its demand: in 2011 a ton of rhino horn was imported to Vietnam. Needless to say, rhino horns are not a cure, but having faith in a treatment (especially if it is very expensive and difficult to get) can improve the patient’s condition. And meanwhile, in the South-African Republic, every 18 hours a rhino is killed
And a final figure to better understand the problem of rhino poaching: since 2006, 22 poachers have been shot dead and 200 have been arrested. But poaching is still going on because 3.5 kg of white rhino horn can be sold for 270,000 euros in the black market.

  1. The African elephant (Loxodonta africana) included in the IUCN red list of threatened species:
  2. African elephant population:
  3. The tiger (Panthera tigris):
  4. The Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii):
  5. The white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum):
  6. The black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis):
  7. The Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis):
  8. Dürer’s sketch:
  9. The Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis):
  10. The Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus):
  11. Every 18 hours, another Rhino is killed in South Africa:
  12. You will find extensive information about rhino poaching in the National Geographic issue of May 2012:


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