Rhinos everywhere have lost out to a combination of habitat destruction and poaching.
A century ago some half a million rhinos roamed large swathes of Asia and Africa. Today fewer than a 10th – a mere 29,000 of them – remain. Three out of the planet’s remaining five rhino species are critically endangered. Among the most endangered are the Sumatran rhino, the world’s smallest rhino, which clings on to life in some dense forests of Indonesia but was declared extinct in the wild in Malaysia in 2015.
Rhinos everywhere have lost out to a combination of habitat destruction, illegal poaching and the difficulty of finding a mate for such rare and solitary animals. The main culprit for the Sumatran rhino’s current status is deforestation, a problem faced by many other endangered species too. Other rhino species have hardly fared better. Javan rhinos are even more endangered with only 50 individuals left in Indonesia’s Ujung Kulon National Park and none in the wild.
Poaching for their horns is the greatest threat facing African rhinos. West Black rhinos were declared extinct in 2011. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, the number of Southern white rhinos poached in South Africa has increased by around 9,000% since 2007 as a result of unrelenting demand for their horns (which are simply protrusions of keratin, the same substance that forms your nails and hair) in traditional medicine in places like China and Vietnam.
Legal trophy hunting of rhinos in South Africa, notes WildAid, was infiltrated by Vietnamese organized crime. “Suddenly a large number of rhino horn ‘trophies’ were exported from South Africa to Vietnam and it appears that this was used to develop new markets in Vietnam, which are now being fed by horns from poaching,” the conservationist group explains. “In addition, increased Chinese economic activity in Africa contributed to an increase in the apprehension of Chinese smuggling rhino horn.”
Southern white rhinos, which live mainly in South Africa and are the second largest land animal in the world after elephants, have once been brought back from the brink already. In the 1960s, their number plummeted to a few dozen individuals. Today they number around 20,000, but they continue to be poached relentlessly. A record 1,342 rhinos were poached in Africa in 2016 alone. A year before 1,215 of them were killed for their horns in South Africa, which surpassed the then-record of 1,004 from 2013. Many of the animals are safe from poachers only because they are kept in captivity and guarded with guns on so-called rhino farms.
Among the measures advocated by policymakers are harsher penalties for poachers and traffickers in Mozambique and Vietnam, two of the countries that are most heavily engaged in the rhino poaching crisis. As a major consumer of rhino horns, Vietnam “needs to step up its efforts to discourage the use of horn through targeted consumer behaviour change measures,” TRAFFIC notes.
That is indeed the key: unless people stop buying rhino horns, several subspecies of the animals may die out in the wild entirely within a matter of years, which is an alarming thought.