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The ‘living unicorn’ facing extinction and slaughter in Africa

·5-min read

Among the critically endangered animals, people in Southeast Asia may be less familiar with the black rhino (Black Rhinoceros), which is native to the African continent. However, the reason it is endangered is closely linked with Asia.

Why is this "living unicorn" facing extinction?

Photo by: KGC-375/STAR MAX/IPx Undated picture released by Kensington Palace of Prince Harry who is the new Patron of Rhino Conservation Botswana, following his visit to the country in September last year when he joined an RCB operation to fit electronic tracking devices to critically endangered black rhinos, which had been translocated to the Okavango Delta. As the sedative takes effect, a large female black rhino wedges herself into a sickle bush. It's important to protect the rhino's eyes during an immobilisation, so applying a soft blindfold is the first priority. Prince Harry is in charge of this delicate procedure. He has to move carefully as rhinos may take a swipe at any movement near their heads.
The population of black rhinos has dropped dramatically and they now face extinction. (Photo: KGC-375/STAR MAX/IPx)

About African black rhinos

The black rhino is the smaller of two species of African rhinos, with the other being the white rhinoceros.

The most notable difference between the white and black rhinos is that the black rhinos have hooked upper lips, while the white ones have square upper lips.

Rhinos once dominated the African savannah, with hundreds of thousands of them roaming the lands in their prime. However, from the 19th century onwards, the European settlers began to hunt these rhinos, considering them prized trophies.

By the end of the 19th century, white rhinos in southern Africa already faced extinction. While numbers of the southern white rhinos have been recovering, the northern white rhino sub-species is down to its last two individuals as of 2020.

As the trade in rhino horns peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, a large quantity of rhino horns flowed into the markets of the Middle East and Asia for profit. Although there isn’t much scientific evidence, the horn of a rhinoceros is still a prized item in traditional Asian medicine, where it is commonly ground up as a powder and believed to treat a variety of ailments.

Between 1960 and 1995, black rhino numbers dropped by a sobering 98 per cent to less than 2,500. However, thanks to persistent conservation efforts across Africa, the species has bounced back from the brink of extinction. While the current black rhino number is around 5,600, it is still classified as a critically endangered animal.

Yahoo is utilizing AR (augmented reality) technology to get you closer to these animals. Click on the button below to experience it in 3D. The AR experience can be viewed on both desktop and mobile.

Fun rhino facts

Rhinos are herbivores:

The ferocious-looking rhinos are actually vegetarian! They mainly eat plants and fruits. Their pointed lips help them pick leaves, branches, buds, shrubs and fruits. Research has shown that they eat more than 220 kinds of plants.

Mud bath devotees:

Rhinos look strong and have thick skin, but they are actually very flexible and fun-loving! They are like kids, and enjoy standing on their hind legs or lying on the ground to sleep. What they like most is to play in the mud or sand, which is the origin of mud baths!

KENYA - 2018/08/19: An endangered black rhinoceros or hook-lipped rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) female and baby at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Black rhinos mainly eat plants and fruits. (Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Expert survivors:

Rhinos were once lords of the savannah. They can easily adapt to the local climate, and can survive without water for five days during the dry season.

Heavyweights:

The rhino is one of the heaviest animals (after the elephant and hippo) on land. A mature rhino measures 3 to 3.75m in length and stands at 1.4 - 1.8m high at the shoulder, and weighs around 400-700 kg.

The largest among them can weigh as much as 1,400 kg, which is 45 times that of an adult male human. How astonishing!

Purpose of the rhino horn:

The savannah is a world of wild animals. Horns are not ornaments for rhinos. When they are guarding their young in territorial fights, rhinos without horns have lowered fighting capacities and can get hurt easily.

Rhino horn myths:

For hundreds of years, Asians, especially in traditional Chinese medicine, overvalued the rhino horn, regarding it as a precious medicinal ingredient. Li Shizhen mentioned rhino horns in his Compendium of Materia Medica, claiming that it has medicinal values including bringing down a fever, boosting the "yang" element, preventing a hangover and curing cancer.

Although scientific proof is lacking for these claims, rhinos are still being slaughtered for their horns because of this belief.

Photo by: KGC-375/STAR MAX/IPx Undated picture released by Kensington Palace of Prince Harry who is the new Patron of Rhino Conservation Botswana, following his visit to the country in September last year when he joined an RCB operation to fit electronic tracking devices to critically endangered black rhinos, which had been translocated to the Okavango Delta. As the sedative takes effect, a large female black rhino wedges herself into a sickle bush. It's important to protect the rhino's eyes during an immobilisation, so applying a soft blindfold is the first priority. Prince Harry is in charge of this delicate procedure. He has to move carefully as rhinos may take a swipe at any movement near their heads.
Conservation staff installing tracking devices on black rhinos to track their whereabouts. (KGC-375/STAR MAX/IPx)

Black rhino crisis

As mentioned earlier, horns play a vital role for the rhinoceros in the wild, but it seems like these horns have become a curse when the rhinos encountered humans.

What drove rhinos to the brink of extinction?

Excessive poaching:

The medicinal value and decorative function of rhino horns have led local hunters to kill rhinos. Rhino horns may be banned from legal trade but prices are still rising in the black markets.

It's said that 1kg of rhino horns - referred to as "platinum" - is worth US$30,000. The high prices drive poachers to ignore international regulations.

Middle Eastern cultures also regard rhino horns as a symbol of social status. In Yemen and Oman, rhino horns are made into dagger handles for ceremonies to represent one's high standing in society.

At the same time, Asian markets are extolling the medicinal value of rhino horns, and even their thick skins and meat, putting rhinos in a more precarious situation.

Ironically, since conservation staff are unable to stop the majority of these poachers, many conservation districts have resorted to putting up large "rhinos dehorned" signs, hoping that poachers will spare the lives of these hornless rhinos.

Some districts have even come up with new ideas, such as dyeing the horns pink or poisoning them, but these tactics have not had much success against poachers.

When they hunt, poachers will kill the hornless ones out of spite, and to avoid spending effort tracking these dehorned rhinos again in the future.

Since then, conservation groups have drilled holes into rhino horns to place trackers, and even employed infra-red detection equipment and cameras to monitor and attempt to stop at least some poaching.

Nature intended rhinos to have horns, if not evolution would have long gotten rid of it. It is a shame that the rhinos are being compelled to be dehorned or have their appearance modified just so they can be protected from human greed.

Extended farmlands and logging:

As the human population grows, extended farmland and logging have also severely damaged the rhino habitat and reduced their living space.

Kenya Wildlife Service officials display two black rhino horns which were part of a cargo that included 16 elephant tusks weighing 280 kg. which were impounded Tuesday July 14, 2009 in a cargo plane heading to Bangkok, Thailand when it stopped over at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in the Kenyan capital city, Nairobi. The cargo  from Mozambique was destined for Laos . Wildlife officials complained that there is rise in poaching since the ban on the world trade in ivory was lifted two years ago to allow Southern African countries sell stock piles of Ivory accrued from culling and natural deaths of elephants.(AP Photo/Khalil Senosi)
Conservation staff in Kenya showcasing some captured rhino horns. The criminals hunting these rhinos had planned to ship the horns to Asia for profit. (AP Photo/Khalil Senosi)
American conservation student Alana Russell feeds a  four-month-old black baby rhino at the Entabeni Safari Conservancy, Limpopo, 300 kms north east of Johannesburg on July 30, 2012. Entabeni is one of the world's only dedicated orphanages for rhino calves whose parents were poached for their horns.The conservancy specially designed and built four high-care rooms and one intensive care chamber where sick calves can receive 24-hour attention. These include an incubator, drips and surveillance cameras.  Almost 300 rhinos have been poached in South Africa since the start of the year, and in 2011, 448 were killed. The country's seen a huge rise in poaching in the last few years, as black market demand for rhino horn soars.  AFP PHOTO / STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN        (Photo credit should read STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/GettyImages)
Rhinos' lives are under threat. A baby rhino that has lost its parents is being taken care of by conservation staff. (STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/GettyImages)