Friday, March 1, 2024

The Fading Rhinoceros

[This article was originally published in Passions Vol 5]

“We seem to have no problem spending billions of dollars on developing more effective means of destroying each other, let alone prolonging the lives of the terminally ill. Why not spend the relatively modest amounts needed to help to save the diversity of life on Planet Earth?”

 – Jeffrey A McNeely is the chief scientist at IUCN-The World Conservation Union

The family Rhinocerotidae contains living rhinoceroses. They are represented by five species; two of which live in Africa, south of the Sahara while the other three are found in South-central Asia. They have massive bodies; a large head with one or two horns, broad chests and short stumpy legs. The horns are composed of very solid, compressed, fibrous keratin. The rhinoceros, a pachyderm; belongs to the group of large, thick-skinned, hoofed mammals like the elephant and hippopotamus. Although the rhino is no beauty to look at, its massive proportions give it an air of stately majesty and one can understand that this species produced the largest land mammal that ever lived.

They have been around for more than 50 million years and have had a glorious history. The variety of the species from different ecotypes greatly differed. Some were like giraffes, some like horses, hippos and some like the modern day rhino. They have existed in every continent of the earth.

Rhinos which have become extinct include: Paraceratherium, the largest land mammal that ever lived on this earth. It looked like a very large, muscular giraffe. Telecoeras, a single horned, hippo-like grazer found in North America. Coelodonta antiquitatis, the wooly rhino; and probably the most well-known of the extinct rhinos.

Today, there are 5 species and 11 subspecies that are in existence. Two of these species which are found in Africa are the Black and the White rhinos, while the three species residing in Asia are the Sumatran, Javan and Indian rhinos. The White Rhino as well as the Indian Rhino are the largest land mammals after the elephant. They mainly eat leaves, grass, fruits and stay close to water sources.

The Survivors

The Black Rhino, which is not black at all, probably got its name as a distinction from the White Rhino, and from the dark-coloured local soil covering its skin whilst wallowing. Its colour is in fact, similar to that of the White Rhino. Its most distinguishing feature is its prehensile lip, the upper lip is adapted to feeding from trees and shrubs, and it has a longish snout. It is two-horned, with the front horn being larger and longer (0.5 to 1.3m) than the rear horn (2 to 55cm). The current population of this species is approximately 3,610.

The White Rhinoceros or Square-lipped rhinoceros has a relatively broad mouth with square lips. It weighs 1,800 to 2,700kg, measures 3.8 – 5m in length and stands at 1.5 – 1.8m at the shoulder. It is also two-horned, with the front being larger and longer (94 to 102cm) than the rear horn (55cm). It has two subspecies, the Southern White Rhino, which is the least endangered and the Northern White Rhino which is on the critically endangered list. The Northern White Rhino used to populate East and Central Africa but now numbers a total of 10 in the wild.

Southern White Rhino in South Africa, is a success story of conservation like the Indian Rhino. Conservation efforts have succeeded and its current population stands at around 11,330.

The Indian Rhino is another success story in conservation efforts. With enforced protection from Indian and Nepalese wildlife authorities, the Indian Rhino numbers have recovered from below 200 at the start of the 20th century and now boast a population of 2,400. The threat of poaching however remains high and continued vigilance is needed to ensure the propagation of the species.

It is also known as the Indian/Nepalese rhino, referring to the locality of its habitat, and also as the Asian Greater One-Horned Rhinoceros because of its singular horn, which is 20 – 61cm in length. Its body weighs about the same as the African species, measuring 3.0 – 3.8m in length and stands at 1.75 – 2.0m tall at the shoulder. Its skin is brownish gray and hairless.

The Sumatran Rhino also known as the hairy rhino, is probably one of the most endangered of the rhino species and also one of the most well-known for this very same reason. The amount of coverage given to it in conservation efforts have it made quite famous. Over the last 15 years, its numbers have declined rather drastically by almost 50%, due to poaching. Less than 300 Sumatran Rhino remain in Southeast Asia with Malaysia and Indonesia being the only significant range states.

The rhino population is very small and very fragmented with no indication of any stabilizing signs. Of the Sumatran Rhino subspecies; the Western Sumatran Rhino is found on the island of Sumatra and in peninsula Malaysia with a few in Thailand across the Malaysian border. Their largest numbers are now found on the island of Sumatra. It is the only two-horned rhino in Asia and is called the hairy rhino due to the shaggy hair found on it as compared to the other species which are relatively hairless.

At the start of the 20th century, the Eastern Sumatran Rhinoceros was quite widespread in Borneo, in what is present day Sabah, Sarawak and Kalimantan. Since then poaching and habitat loss have reduced the population to less than 50 in the wild. At present, this rhino is no longer confirmed to exist in Kalimantan or Sarawak or in other words it is feared to be extinct.

The Javan Rhino is the rarest of the rhino species with less than 60 animals remaining in two known locations: Indonesia and Vietnam. Poaching has taken its toll on their scant population in recent years and intensive protection is needed if this species is not to disappear into oblivion. Both the Javan and Sumatran rhino compete for the ‘most endangered of the species’ title. Its smaller size gives the Javan rhino the title of the Asian Lesser One-Horned Rhinoceros in contrast to the Indian Rhino.

It weighs about 900 – 2,300kg, measures 2.0 – 4.0m in length and stands at 1.5 – 1.7 m at the shoulder. The single horn measures about 25cm in length is found in all males while females have a smaller horn or no horn at all.

In the last century, the population of all rhino species reduced drastically. Between 1970 and 1996, there was a 96% decrease in the global rhino population. Out of 65,000 Black Rhinos in 1970, only 2,300 remained by 1993. But since 1990, a concerned group of individuals and institutions established the International Black Rhino Foundation (IBRF). Their serious anti-poaching efforts paid off and now the Black Rhino population is recovering and is slowly increasing with numbers around the 3,600 mark. However, the threat of poaching remains and continued conservation efforts are vital their survival. At present there are only about 17,500 of these animals in the wild and 1,200 in captivity, worldwide.

In 1993, the IBRF evolved into the International Rhino Foundation (IRF). Its mission encompassed all 5 species of rhino. The IRF programs are carried out in the wild as well as in captivity, which the IRF deems crucial to the survival of the rhino.

For its captivity programs, the IRF facilitates management and sponsors research with the ultimate aim of making captive populations became truly viable and so fulfil its integral role in the conservation of rhinos. The IRF assists in regional rhino conservation programs and also works with other organisations for long-term financial support in conservation efforts.

The IRF, through the United Nations Development Programme has initiated the RPU (Rhino Protection Units) programs. There are now a total of 30 RPUs, about 14 in Indonesia and 13 in Malaysia. These units mainly engage in anti-poaching activity and community outreach and education programs for local communities around rhino areas.

Some of these organisations include the United States Fisheries & Wildlife Service, World Wildlife Fund for Nature, Singapore Zoological Gardens, Singapore Foundation SOS Rhino and Singapore Zoo, Wildtrack (an organisation with a mission to develop non-invasive and censusing and monitoring techniques), South Africa, Zoo Outreach (India), Hiroshima Zoo, Kyoto Zoo, Osaka Zoo, Zoo Negara, and Night Safari. This exhaustive list goes on to list innumerable zoos and wildlife conservation organisations.

The rhinoceros species once produced the largest land mammal that walked the earth. It has freely roamed the earth for millions of years and it survives to this day. It would be a shame if such a legacy was allowed to be utterly wiped out to the point of extinction. The continued existence of the rhino is invaluable to the preservation of natural ecosystems which have existed for millennia. The destruction of these creatures purely out of greed has to be stopped. There must be an awareness among people to wake up and preserve what we have, for the the rhinoceros also has its place in the grand scheme of things.

The ultimate passion in life should be the passion for life, and it finally comes down to the human race, which has contributed most to the rhino’s dwindling numbers to come forward to save this magnificent animal. It would be a tragic day for all, when the rhino no longer walks the earth. Let nature take its course; let the rhino live.

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