How man killed all the rhinos

    18 Oct 2021

    Let’s get acquainted with the abstracts from the book “The Future of the Earth” by the famous American sociobiologist Edward Wilson.

    The whole text is a distress signal, a passionate appeal, and, at the same time, a concrete plan of action. Showing the continuous process of extinction of various species of animals, plants, invertebrates, and microorganisms, the author warns: gradually, one after another, we “saw off branches from the tree of life.”

    Having become the planet’s ruler in an instant, by geological standards, our species managed to affect the entire natural world catastrophically. The consequences of this influence for the biosphere, for the entire ecosystem of the Earth and humans are in the long term disastrous. Yet Wilson sees a way out and proposes an attainable goal. This is what the book is about.


    There are 27,000 rhinos left in the world. Even 100 years ago, millions of these animals thundered across the plains of Africa and silently crept among the trees in the tropical forests of Asia. Five species represent them, and all five are endangered. The vast majority of the surviving animals are of the southern subspecies of white rhinos, found mainly in South Africa, where armed guards protect them well.

    On October 17, 2014, Suni, one of the last northern white rhinos, died at Ol Pageta Nature Reserve in Kenya. After his death, only six northern white rhinos remained on the planet: three at Ol Pageta, one at the Dvur Králové zoo in the Czech Republic, and two at the Safari Park zoo in San Diego. These animals age without leaving behind offspring. Now that the last individuals are scattered around the world – and rhinos practically do not breed in captivity – the extinction of the northern white rhinos can be considered a fait accompli. Given the natural lifespan of this species, its last representative should die before 2040.

    Meanwhile, the western subspecies of black rhinos completely disappeared from the face of the Earth – nowhere, even in captivity, there was not a single individual left. Once upon a time, these majestic animals with long, curved horns were a symbol of the wildlife of the African continent. They were found in abundance in savannas and dry tropical forests from Cameroon to Chad and further south to the Central African Republic, and northeast to Sudan. At first, their numbers declined sharply in the colonial era, when hunting for them turned into a sporting game. Then it was the turn of the poachers who needed their horn: it was used to make the hilts of ceremonial daggers, mainly in Yemen and other countries of the Middle East and North Africa. The last crushing blow to the population came from the frenzied demand for powdered rhino horns in China and Vietnam. It was used as a healing agent in traditional oriental medicine. The demand for it increased sharply under Mao Zedong, who preferred Chinese traditional medicine, not trusting Western doctors. Horn powder is still widely used to treat a wide variety of ailments, including genital disorders and cancer. By 2015, the population of China reached 1.4 billion people. Even if we assume that a tiny percentage of Chinese are interested in rhino horns, this should inevitably have disastrous consequences for these animals.

    The price of a gram of powder equaled the price of a gram of gold. The bitter irony is that horns are no better than human nails from a medical point of view.

    And yet, because of them, rhinos were on the verge of extinction.

    The presence of a sales market has led to the emergence of many poachers and entire criminal communities who are ready to risk their own lives for the chance to hold a horn cut from a dead animal in their hands. Apparently, it is impossible to stop them, which means that all five species of rhinoceros are doomed. The western subspecies of the black rhinoceros declined by 98% between 1960 and 1995. In 1991, only 50 individuals remained in Cameroon, the last resting place of this subspecies. In 1992, there were already 35 of them. A real plague of poaching seized the country, and the government was powerless. As a result, by 1997, there were only 10 rhinos of this subspecies. Unlike white rhinos, which, as a rule, are united in groups of up to 15 individuals (by a strange coincidence in English, rhinos herds are also called the term crash, that is, “collapse”), black rhinos live alone, forming pairs only during the period reproduction. The last individuals of the western subspecies of the black rhino were scattered over a large area in northern Cameroon. Only four of them lived close enough to each other that they had a chance to meet and mate. However, they did not use it, and soon not a single representative of this subspecies was already alive. This marked the end of the evolution of many millions of years.

    The Javan rhinoceros is today the rarest large land mammal on the planet. Preferring dense thickets of rain forests, this species was initially distributed throughout the territory from Thailand to southern regions of China and further to Indonesia and Bangladesh. Until recently, 10 Javanese rhinos lived in an unprotected forest in the north of Vietnam, which has now become the Cattien National Park, in a deaf forest, far from human eyes. As soon as it became known about them, they were all killed by poachers. The latter was shot dead in April 2010.

    Today, the last surviving population of Javanese rhinos lives in the protected area of ​​Ujung Kulon National Park, on the westernmost tip of Java. Its number does not exceed 50 individuals. (One specialist told me there were 35 of them left.)

    One tsunami or an attack by a determined gang of poachers – and no trace of this species will remain.

    The Sumatran rhinoceros, another inhabitant of the rain forests of Asia, is no less dangerous. This species is just as rare. Once upon a time, Sumatran rhinos, like Javanese, could be found everywhere in Southeast Asia. The reduction in the species range under the pressure of agriculture and the decrease in the population size as a result of the actions of ruthless poachers have led to the fact that today this species is represented by only a few individuals living in captivity, in zoos, and the endangered forests of Sumatra. Perhaps in some remote corner of Borneo, several more individuals are hiding.

    Between 1990 and 2015, the total population of Sumatran rhinos dropped to 300 and then to 100 individuals. Thanks to the heroic efforts of veterinarian Terry Roth and her colleagues at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens, a method was developed that made it possible to apply modern reproductive technologies created for humans to work with rhinos. Their efforts were crowned with success: to date, three generations have already been received, making it possible to start work on the phased return of the first numbered several animals into their natural habitat in the National Parks in Sumatra. This process requires a lot of time, effort, and money, and success is not at all guaranteed. There is no escape from tireless poachers. Each of them is ready to risk his life for just one horn and the fortune that he can get for it and which will be enough for him for the rest of his life.

    Suppose the employees and guards of Indonesian nature parks do not cope with their task and the Sumatran rhino disappears from the face of the Earth. In that case, this will mean the end of a beautiful species of magnificent animals that have managed to survive, gradually evolving, over tens of millions of years.

    Its closest relative, the woolly rhinoceros, which lived in the arctic part of the Northern Hemisphere, disappeared during the last ice age. It is possible that he became a victim of hunters, who (at least in Europe) captured him on the walls of caves, delighting with drawings of their relatives, and now also us.

    In the last days of September 1991, I visited the Cincinnati Zoo. Its director, Ed Marusca, invited me to observe a pair of Sumatran rhinos, which were caught and removed from Sumatra the day before through the mediation of the Los Angeles Zoo. One was named Amy. It was a female. The second rhinoceros was a male named Ipu. Both were young and healthy. But not for long: Sumatran rhinos live about the same as domestic dogs.

    Late in the evening, I was taken to an empty warehouse adjacent to the zoo. Its walls were buzzing with loud and seemingly completely inappropriate rock music. Marusca explained that the music created a background noise to protect the rhinos. The fact is that there was a Cincinnati airport nearby, and airplanes periodically flew over this place at a low altitude, the noise of which could be joined at any moment by the sirens of police and fire engines from the adjacent streets. A sudden noise in the middle of the night could scare the rhinos, triggering an attack of panic, an attempt to escape, and injury. Better annoyance from rock music than a violent reaction to harsh sounds resembling the sound of a falling tree, the rustle of the paws of a creeping tiger – signals of a severe threat in their natural habitat – or the sound of hunters’ footsteps, especially when you consider that people are first ancient hunters, and now poachers have hunted Sumatran rhinos for over 60,000 years.

    Amy and Ipu stood motionless like statues in their huge cages. They must have been asleep, but it was impossible to say for sure. Coming closer, I asked Marusca for permission to touch them. He nodded his head in approval, and I did so – quickly and barely perceptibly touching each of them once with my fingertips. A deep, intense feeling came over me at that moment, which lived in me for a long time after that. It is impossible to express it in words. I cannot describe it to you or even to myself.


    The “sixth global extinction” has already begun, and its cause is humanity. Let’s read our author’s column about Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.”

    Also, you may read here how our ancestors managed to extinct entire species.

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