Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Crash of Rhinos

Along with monkeys and turtles, rhinos have always fascinated me.  I even keep one of Schleich's realistic rhino toys on my desk.  Last week I was reading Deon Meyer's novel TRACKERS, which deals with rhino smuggling in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Meyer's book mentioned a rhino's horn can sell for 60,000 USD, which in that area of the world is a fortune to most people.  The markets that support poaching come from two sources.  The first is in Asia, where the horns are thought to have medicinal value.  This is completely false, since a rhino's horn is simply a growth of thick hair with no medical properties.  The other market is the Middle East, where the horn is used to make the handles of daggers.  This is unnecessary since renewable materials like wood could easily be substituted.

Due to their size and strength, rhinos have no enemies in nature except humans, and both the causes used to justify rhino poaching have no scientific validity.

The terms 'white rhino' and 'black rhino' have always confused me because every African rhino I've seen was gray.  The name may come from the Boers' Dutch words 'widje' or 'weit,' which mean wide.  The white rhino has a wide, square mouth adapted for grazing on grass, while the smaller black rhino has a narrow mouth better for pulling leaves off plants.

These two, the black and white, constitute all the African rhinos.  However, Asia has three types:  the Javan, the Sumatran, and the Greater One-Horned rhinoceros.  While the African rhinos grow very large, with the White weighing up to 5,000 pounds/2,300 kilograms and 6 feet tall/1.8 meters at the shoulder, the Asian animals are smaller, with the little Sumatran at 1,765 pounds/800 kilograms and 4.8 feet/145 centimeters at the shoulder.

Rhinos can live 35 to 45 years.  Their hearing and sense of smell are good, but their vision is poor, which leads them to charge when startled.  If you did alarm a rhino, you would not be able to outrun it since they can sprint at 30 to 40 miles per hour.  And despite their size, they are agile when turning.  Often charges are the result of people disturbing a mother and her calf.

Due to loss of habitat and poaching, rhinos are in trouble.  In Africa, the White is endangered and the Black is at critical risk.  While in Asia, the Javan and Sumatran are in critical status, and the Greater One Horn is endangered.   

While zoos are trying to save the rhinos with captive breeding programs, the results have been mixed.  Rhinos only birth one calf at a time, so the process is slow, and breeding of Sumatran rhinos has not seen much success.  However, one White rhino in the San Diego Zoo has sired 50 calves.  Greater One-Horned rhino populations in Nepal and northern India have seen some recovery, but poaching continues in both Africa and Asia, with some 230 animals killed for their horns in 2010.

The rhino may be an intimidating creature in appearance, but really they are mostly solitary creatures who simply need a certain amount of room to wander while they eat plants.  Bringing the rhino back from the brink of extinction requires education to eliminate the market for their horns, along with protection of the animals, preservation of their habitat, and continuing efforts at captive breeding.  It is a large task, but a worthwhile and possible one.

(Here is a site from the San Diego Zoo with lots of interesting rhino facts.  And an informative article from the AfricanWildlife Foundation.  The YouTube video is from a zoo in New Zealand.)


  1. That was a fun video. Proves that, no matter the critter, kids just want to have fun.

  2. I was amazed at the little rhino's speed--it can really gallop. In the wild, a calf will stay with its mother 2 to 4 years before venturing out.

    Thanks for commenting, Vickie!

  3. I assumed the horn was a bone. When visiting Busch Gardens There was this big rhino repeatedly charging a 50 gallon metal drum that was filled with sand. At fifty feet away we could feel each hit as the ground shook. Powerful and intimidating!
    The plight of big mammals in general is a troublesome one. As you point out $60,000 is an incredible amount of money for most people even in wealthy countries. However, the more we learn, the more we educate, the better the chances are for these creatures.

  4. Good story, Olaf. Rhinos are amazing when viewed from the safety of the Monorail, and downright scary from the ground. As for their future, I think large plant eaters like rhinos and elephants have a better chance than creatures like the tiger or lion that need a fairly large hunting area as well as other animals to feed on.