Saving the rhinos

PROFESSOR COLIN GROVES shares his history of the majestic rhinoceros and its fight against survival. 

Rhinos have been part of my life throughout my career, even though most of my teaching and research is about primates and human evolution.

In fact, my first published paper was about the Sumatran Rhinoceros.

I have measured rhino skulls, teeth, limb bones. I have revised their taxonomy. I traced their evolution, finding that the Asian one-horned, Sumatran and African rhinos separated from one species nearly 20 million years ago.

I have seen all six species alive, wild or in zoos, touched them, and even helped to weigh them in one zoo.   

And, like all rhino enthusiasts, I am very, very concerned for their survival.

For hundreds of years, rhinos have been hunted in Asia for their horns, which are reputed to have medicinal properties.

By the mid-20th century, all three Asian species had been reduced to tiny remnants.

There are only 50 remaining Javan one-horned rhinos, in a national park in western Java (another small population was discovered in Vietnam in about 1990, and in less than 20 years they too were wiped out).

At most 200 Sumatran rhinos survive in tiny pockets of Sumatra and Borneo.

From 90,000 black rhinos in 1970, 20 years of poaching has left only 2,500. This species is now strictly protected; numbers are slowly increasing again, but they are still targeted by poachers. 

Now the African species are being exterminated.

In 2010, I co-published a paper which showed that the Nile Rhinoceros, in Uganda, Sudan, northern Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad, was a species of its own, not just a subspecies of white rhino.

This was just as poachers exterminated the last wild population, leaving only seven in two zoos.