Humans and Rhinos: Steering a species towards extinction

Over the last century rhinoceros numbers have dropped drastically and many of the remaining species alive today are close to extinction. Northern White Rhinos are now likely the most endangered mammals on earth. From a population of around 3000 individuals in 1909 – a bit more than a century ago – only two animals remain today. In March 2018 the last male of this subspecies – Sudan – died of old age.  Technically the species has been extinct for far longer. There are no wild Northern White Rhinos left. Neither of the remaining two captive female Northern White Rhinos are able to carry through a pregnancy. The low number of remaining animals has rendered all attempts at recreating a genetically viable population through traditional conservation efforts and breeding programs impossible. The last existing Northern White Rhinos have to live under 24-hour armed protection to save them from poaching.

Rhinoceros in general are symptomatic of the fate of many species in this new human shaped geological time frame – the so called Anthropocene – which sees biodiversity and species numbers dwindle at a rate far faster than the natural species loss rate. The likely disappearance of many rhinoceros species in the near future is directly linked to human activity. Loss of habitat, alongside civil war, has put an immense stress on them. Rhinoceros are also still actively poached for their horns with an increase in the numbers killed per year in the last two decades. During the 1990s yearly poaching of Rhinoceros never exceeded more than 24 known cases in a single year in southern Africa. Starting in 2000 a rapid increase in poaching has been reported. In 2014 a total of 1215 rhinoceros were killed in South Africa. Numbers have dropped since but remain above 1000 poached animals per year. The massive decline in Northern White Rhinos, likewise, is linked to poaching – between 1970 and 1980 alone the population was reduced from 500 animals to just 15. Since 2011 no Northern White Rhino has been observed in the wild.

The illegal wildlife trade, including trade with rhino horns, is now, next to the drug trade, one of the biggest criminal money streams facilitated and utilised by organised crime and terrorist organisations. It is also – from start to finish – a business of exploitation and deceit. Most buyers of grounded up rhino horn in East Asia are made to believe it is a remedy for a variety of diseases, from general ailments to chronic and serious diseases like, for example, cancer. Rhino horn is, per weight, more valuable than Gold and easy to smuggle. As Asian countries see an upswing in income and wealth criminal activity and poaching increases again. In the end rhinos are poached as fraudsters perpetuate the myth that rhino horn carries special medical properties to swindle money out of the people they deceive.

The story of humans and rhinos is, however, also one illustrating the good humans can do through focused conservation efforts. Southern White Rhinos are exemplary for their recovery as a species following designated efforts to save them. After extensive hunting by European settlers the species was thought to be extinct in the late 1800s. In 1895 a population of less than 100 Southern White Rhinos was discovered. Today, with around 19,600 – 21,000 animals alive they are the most populous of the rhinoceros species remaining, even if poaching recently has started to endanger them again. Northern White Rhinos in 2018 are in an even worse position, as a species, compared to what European hunting did to Southern White Rhinos by the 1890s.