Rhinos are the second largest land mammal on earth. At the beginning of the 20th century, 500,000 roamed Africa and Asia. But today very few survive outside national parks and reserves due to persistent poaching and habitat loss over many decades.
Two species of rhino in Asia—Javan and Sumatran—are critically endangered. A subspecies of the Javan rhino was declared extinct in Vietnam in 2011. A small population of the Javan rhino still clings for survival on the Indonesian island of Java. Successful conservation efforts have helped the third Asian species, the greater one-horned (or Indian) rhino, to increase in number. Their status was changed from Endangered to Vulnerable, and they survive in northern India and southern Nepal. A recent count suggested that the Nepalese population had grown by 21% in four years, but the species is still threatened due to poaching for its horn.
In Africa, southern white rhinos, once thought to be extinct, now thrive in protected sanctuaries and are classified as near threatened. But the western black rhino and northern white rhinos have recently gone extinct in the wild, and there are only two remaining female northern white rhinos which are kept under 24-hour guard in Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Black rhinos have doubled in number over the past two decades from their low point of fewer than 2,500 individuals, but total numbers are still a fraction of the estimated 100,000 that existed in the early part of the 20th century.
Whilst the conservation world frantically delivers on plans to prevent the extinction of the remaining rhino species, and to tackle the rampant slaughter and trade in their horns, the rhino’s themselves try to go about their daily business of being ‘rhino’s’ and life as a 2000kg heavy weight can be rather interesting.
For the most part, rhinoceroses are
solitary animals and like to avoid each other. But some species, particularly the white rhino, may live in small groups, known as a ‘crash’. These crashes are usually made up of a female and her calves, although sometimes adult females can be seen together, too. Males on the other hand, like to be left alone, unless in search of a female to breed with. They’re very territorial, too, and mark out their area of land with their poo. In fact, rhinos often use pongy piles of poos to communicate with each other, since everyone’s dung smells unique.
Whilst rhinos only rarely hang out with each other, they do spend a lot of time with their feathered friends! Rhinos are often seen with Oxpeckers (or ‘tick birds’) perched on their backs. Oxpeckers live off the pesky parasitic insects living in the rhino’s thick skin. This is a mutualistic relationship, with both the rhino and the oxpecker benefitting. The oxpeckers get food and the rhinos get pest control, and the birds’ loud cries also help alert their big buddies of potential danger, too!
During the heat of the day, these magnificent mammals can also be found sleeping in the shade or wallowing in muddy pools to cool off. They
to get mucky, as mud protects their skin from the strong sun (like a natural sunblock) and wards off biting bugs, too. When it is hot, rhinos will wallow in mud for up to three hours.
Rhino’s and their evolutionary relatives may have roamed upon our earth for over 55 million years. In this time, they have braved ice ages, migrated across continents, faced prehistoric hyenas and giant crocodiles – and they were once the largest animals on land.
If rhinos could now simply be left alone to wallow in the mud, smell each other’s poo and ‘hang out’ with their feathery friends, they would once again thrive within their natural environment as they did many hundreds and millions of years ago. The ability for them to do this relies on our ability to end the destruction of their habitat and the rampant poaching for their horns.
Rhinos really are amazing animals
It’s estimated that there are only around 29,000 rhinos left in the wild, compared to 500,000 at the beginning of the 20th century. The main threat to these beautiful animals is illegal hunting, largely because their horns are used in traditional folk medicine, particularly in Asia.
To save the remaining rhinos countries must work together to protect conservation sites and, crucially, to stop the illegal trade in rhino horns. That means stopping the poachers who kill the rhinos, but it also means tackling a vast network of organised crime that ships the horns to China and other Asian countries. It will also be important to end the demand: now, rhino horns are status symbols in China, so people pay lots of money for them.
If this could be achieved, at least some of the rhino species could start to recover and grow their populations. It may well be too late for some of the species and subspecies, whose populations are now so small that they could never recover. But at least the black and Indian rhinos, surely, could be rescued.