Big but Endangered

The Rhinoceros

The rhinoceros belongs to the family Rhinocerotidae. There are now five remaining species. Three come from Asia. These are the Great Indian rhinoceros, the Javan rhinoceros and the Sumatran rhinoceros. The African black rhinoceros and African white rhinoceros both come from (did you guess?) Africa.

'Rhinoceros' comes from the Greek 'rhino' meaning nose and 'ceros' meaning horn.

The rhinoceros may have one or two horns. The Javan and Great Indian rhinos have one horn; the rest have two. The white rhino has a square or wide lip and is sometimes called by these terms. The black rhino has a prehensile lip and may be called the hook-lipped rhinoceros.

Rhino in mudCredit: Wikimedia

The rhinoceros has had a long and celebrated history although today's rhinos look like they may go the way of the dodo. Fifty million years ago, the rhinoceros group was extremely diverse with different types resembling giraffes, horses, hippos, and modern rhinos. Rhinoceros were once found in North America and Europe as well as in Africa and Asia. Their range also extended from the tropics to temperate and even arctic regions.

Extinct rhinos included:

  • Baluchithere – this huge beast reached 15 feet in height and was hornles.
  • Paraceratherium - was the largest land mammal ever, resembling a very big and muscular giraffe.
  • Telecoeras – was a single horned, hippo-like grazer which was common in North America.
  • Woolly Rhino

There are many myths associated with the rhinoceros. In Greek mythology, it was believed rhino horn could purify water. In ancient Persia, the people believed that rhino horn vessels could be used to detect poisoned liquids. In the 18th and 19th centuries, large quantities of horn were shipped to the European market. In 1741 in England rhino horn was registered as a medicine. It is documented that Queen Elizabeth I kept a rhino horn in her bedroom.

From the early 1970s through to the 90s, there was a huge rise in commercial poaching leading to a plunge in rhino numbers in both Africa and Asia. The black rhino was decimated but all of Africa's rhino population was affected. There was easy access to modern weaponry, lack of law enforcement and gross corruption. Poachers met with very little resistance. Even in areas where corruption was less severe and law and order somewhat better, poachers were highly organized and heavily armed. There was wholesale slaughter of rhino populations during this time. The main front in the 'rhino war' was in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Heavily armed gangs from Somalia invaded the parks. Kenya once had the world's largest single population of the species. Tsavo's rhino population has been all but wiped out and the total population in the country is now estimated at slightly over 430 black rhino (2003).

White rhinoCredit: Wikimedia

The horn of the rhinoceros, which evolved for its protection, is now bringing it to the brink of extinction. Whereas most animal horns consist of a bony core covered by a relatively thin layer of keratin, the horn of the rhino is composed entirely of keratin. Diet and geographic location affects the precise chemical composition. This allows 'fingerprinting' of horn samples much as the tiger's coat allows 'finger-printing' of the tiger. These factors may help in apprehending poachers. Keratin is also part of turtle beaks, cockatoo bills and horses' hooves. The structure is similar in all.

While Asian rhinos are also hunted mainly for their horns, most body parts of the rhinoceros are claimed to have medicinal properties. Asian medicine makes use of most of the rhinoceros. The horn is used to help cure (so it's said) fever, gout, rheumatism, blood ailments and even piles. The horn is shaved or ground into a powder then dissolved in boiling water. Skin disorders are treated with rhino urine. Demand for rhinoceros products is still high and likely to remain so. One myth which has persisted in the western world is the idea that Asian people use rhino horn as an aphrodisiac. The media helps keep this misconception alive.

Rhinoceros horn is also used for the handles of curved daggers called 'jambiya' (jambia). In the Middle Eastern country of Yemen, Yemeni boys are presented with a dagger at age 12. Dagger handles of rhinoceros horns are coveted by the Muslim men. A jambiya is considered a sign of manhood and devotion to their religion. The dagger handles may be highly ornate and great value is placed on them. Importation is now banned. As Western attire is adopted more widely the importance of carrying the jambiya is lessening and demand for the handles is subsequently decreasing.

In general, rhinoceroses are grazing mammals. They may have one or more horns on its nose. After the elephant, the white rhino, together with the greater one-horned (Indian) rhino, is the largest species of land mammal. Regardless of the species, all rhinos are three-toed. The skin is loose and thick with little hair and the legs are stumpy and powerful. The rhinoceros can grow to 2 metres high at the shoulder and weigh between 2,300 and 4,000 kg. Most are grazers and browsers. Their eyesight is poor but their senses of hearing and smell are excellent. Although they may look clumsy, the larger species can reach speeds of 56 kph.

One of the success stories in the rhinoceros world is that of the largest species, the Great Indian Rhinoceros, also known as the Greater one-Horned Rhinoceros. From less than 200 earlier in the 20th century, numbers have grown to around 2,500 thanks to strict protection from the Indian and Nepalese wildlife authorities.

The southern white rhino in South Africa is also holding its own at the moment. It is regarded as the least endangered. Its cousin, the northern white rhino has been driven almost to extinction by poaching.

The white rhino is not actually white. The term comes from the Afrikaans word 'weit ' meaning wide and describing its mouth. 'Weit' was misinterpreted as 'wide' by early English settlers. White rhinos are also sometimes called the square- or wide-lipped rhinoceros.

The rhinos are a diverse group and hopefully the demand for rhino horn and strange medicines will fall so these intriguing animals become less likely to disappear forever.