The Black Rhino is a remainder of a once incredibly diverse family that is now just five extant species, all of them highly endangered. Around 55-60 million years ago, the ancestors of modern day rhinos diverged away from tapirs and radiated out across Africa, Eurasia and North and Central America. They once existed in vast herds, but today modern rhinos have barely survived through a dark history and face an uncertain future.
A rough road: the conservation history of the Black Rhino
Although the rhino was once a very common sight grazing the savannahs of Africa, during the 20th century, the population fell 20 fold from 500,000 at the beginning of the century, to just 70,000 in 1970. Today, these numbers have plummeted even further, leaving just 26,000 rhino in total, of which only 6000 are black rhinos. The movements of huge numbers of European settlers into Africa and intensive hunting led to a staggering 98% fall in rhino numbers by the 1960s. Conservationists, terrified by this population collapse, lobbied hard and through intensive protection, managed to recover the species to 5000 individuals. However, despite the hard labor of conservationists and armed rangers, today the Southern Black Rhino, North-Eastern Black Rhino and Western Black Rhino are all extinct. They once ranged across all of Sub Saharan Africa, but are now limited to just some areas of South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Tanzania.
Sport hunting for these gentle giants started in the 19th century, when wealthy white colonists took up big game hunting as a pastime. Although it started as sport hunting, soon demand for rhino body parts from other areas of the world increased. Studies have identified that 95% of all African Rhino horn is heading straight for Asian markets, where the horns are in high demand for use in traditional Chinese medicine or as a status symbol for the increasing middle class in China and Vietnam. The use of rhino horn is a long held tradition, with documents from as long ago as 1200BC showing the use of horn as an alleged cure for a number of diseases. Illegal poaching is now the single biggest threat facing the rhino and is an incredibly difficult issues to tackle, with most poaching led by dangerous, highly organized criminal gangs, in countries with limited resources to tackle it. For a long time, White Rhinos were at the most risk, with their larger horns, and they were pushed almost to the brink of extinction, with some subspecies, such as the Northern White Rhino, now long gone. In time, white rhino numbers had dropped so low it was nigh on impossible for poachers to find them, and the intensive poaching, which was already affecting the black rhino, turned its full force on them as the next source of horn to feed insatiable Asian markets. It goes without saying that rhino horn is entirely useless as a cure for any disease, as it is made of nothing more than simple keratin, just like our hair and nails. You would get the exact same response if you ground up a hank of human hair and swallowed it as a cure for cancer as you would with a chunk of rhino horn.
Their long difficult history of intensive poaching has led to low genetic diversity across the remaining populations that have survived. Studies have been conducted by extracting DNA from fresh and museum specimens and comparing their genomes, and found that genetic erosion started around 200 years ago when the first European settlers began sport hunting rhinos and has been increasing ever since. In the last 200 years, genetic diversity in the Black Rhino has dropped by 69% and this has some significant health risks for those rhinos left, through the danger of inbreeding.
Inbreeding is not their only health concern; in captive populations, which are vital for securing the future of the species, issues with female fertility are regularly reported, and there is a good chance these same issues are affecting their wild counterparts. Captive rhinos also face issues with iron intake. In the wild, rhinos need to ingest less iron as an evolutionary adaptation to their diet of leaves and twigs, and so in captivity, it is very easy for them to overdose on iron which can build up to fatal levels in their tissues, requiring careful, intensive management from zoo staff.
To compound all of these issues, rhinos often inhabit areas that face severe social upheaval from war and political instability and lack the resources needed to protect the rhino. When conflict breaks out, it is hard for conservationists and local rangers to intervene, and often vital projects can be set back years as it is unsafe to conduct on the ground conservation. In many game reserves, corruption is rife and political will lacking, allowing poaching gangs access into supposedly protected reserves. Many recruited into poaching gangs may have little choice, needing to make money in incredibly impoverished regions, although much of the profits are made overseas in the Asian wildlife markets. In addition, habitat is increasingly lost and fragmented to make way for agricultural and infrastructure developments, often with little strategic thought to how rhinos use their habitat.
A positive future?
Reading the history of the Black Rhino makes for a depressing tale. Despite the huge awareness raised by nature documentaries and conservationists of the plight of the Black Rhino, they are still listed as critically endangered by the IUCN red list today. However, this does not mean the future is entirely bleak, as rhinos are subject to some of the most intensive conservation projects conducted today.
One major project ongoing is the dehorning of rhinos, a painless procedure that saws their horns off to prevent poachers killing them for the one thing they want to sell to wildlife markets. Although this has had some success, some poachers will still kill even de-horned rhinos to prevent them wasting time tracking them in the future. A further problem with this project was highlighted in a study that compared the behavior of horned and de-horned rhinos. It was found that de-horned rhinos decreased their home range by as much as 37% and were less likely to engage in social behavior, which has serious implications for a species that needs to range and breed as much as possible to recover their populations.
Rhinos are subject to some incredibly intensive conservation management, with many being darted and moved between parks in a process called conservation translocations that facilitates the movement of best rhinos between parks to improve breeding success. These are huge endeavors, requiring a lot of resources and logistics from rangers, scientists, vets and government officials.
Charities like the International Rhino Foundation and African Rhino Specialist group monitor and protect rhino populations, sometimes going as far as assigning an armed ranger to every individual rhino. They also work closely with local communities, who are often impoverished and need support to establish sustainable livelihoods, allowing them to live alongside rhinos and other wildlife, without needing to turn to poaching to support themselves and their families. Often, these organizations will employ locals as conservation workers, teaching them to manage the land and work alongside rangers from the National Parks. There is also intense focus on the education and engagement of younger generations, teaching them to have pride and care for the incredible natural resources on their doorstep. Education doesn’t just focus on Africa however; they also educate the younger generations in those countries that demand rhino horn, such as China, teaching them to shirk the damaging traditions of their parents and grandparents. Social media has been an incredible tool to raise awareness and remove some of the social capital surrounding rhino horn in the Asian world, and other technological advancements such as apps are being used to report wildlife crime. The charity TRAFFIC, specialists in wildlife crime, have a lot of resources about how wildlife trafficking is being tackled, and you can learn all about their amazing work at TRAFFIC | Trade in Wild Species, which doesn’t just cover rhinos, but all species commonly traded, including plants too.
The Rhino Orphanage is an amazing charity based in South Africa, set up by Arrie Van Deventer, who in 2012 rescued an orphaned baby rhino whose mother had been shot by poachers. Greatly distressed by the plight of this little calf, Arrie began to research the fate of orphaned rhinos and realized little was being done to save these calves from almost certain death once their mothers were killed. With the help of experts from various fields, Arrie constructed a rhino orphanage, and to this day rescues, rehabilitates and releases orphaned rhinos, even going so far as to track and protect the rhinos once they are back in the wild. A dedicated team of vets, vet nurses, business managers, care assistants, groundskeepers and volunteers keep the place running and the incredible, on the ground conservation work happening. If you are interested in a trip to South Africa to do your own piece of conservation work, they are setting up a wildlife volunteer programme, so keep checking their website at The Rhino Orphanage – The Rhino Orphanage, and learn all about their history and success stories.
Although their plight is dire, no one is forgetting about the rhino. Arguably they are one of the most famous animals in the world, and the sight of a cute rhino calf is enough to tug on anyone’s heartstrings. With the help of charities, volunteers and increasing political awareness, perhaps the future of this gentle giant does not have to be so hopeless.
Duthe, V. Odendaal, K. Van der Westhuizen, R. and Defossez, E. (2023) ‘Reductions in home range size and social interactions among dehorned black rhinoceroses.’ PNAS
Edwards, K.L. Pilgrim, M. Brown, J.L. and Walker, S.L. (2020) ‘Irregular ovarian cyclicity is associated with adrenal activity in female Eastern black rhinoceros.’ General and Comparative Endocrinology
Liu et al (2021) ‘Ancient and modern genomes unravel the evolutionary history of the rhinoceros family.’ Cell
Moodely et al (2017) ‘Extinctions, genetic erosion and conservation options for the black rhinoceros.’ Nature Scientific Reports
Olias, P. Mundhenk, L. Bothe, M. Ochs, A. Gruber, A.D. and Klopfleisch, R. (2012) ‘Iron overload syndrome in the black rhinoceros: microscopical lesions and comparison with other rhinoceros species.’ Disease in Wildlife or Exotic Species
MASSIVE THANK YOU TO RACHAEL DA SILVA FROM THE UK FOR THIS WRITE UP! PLEASE FOLLOW HER ON INSTAGRAM AND HER WILDLIFE ARTWORK AT TILLY_MINT08