The end of the rhino

by Greg Mayer

The five living species of rhino, along with the several species of tapir and horse (which include the zebras and asses), are members of the great mammalian order of odd-toed ungulates, or Perissodactyla. Perissodactyls were formerly much more species rich; today, most ungulates (hoofed mammals) are even-toed, members of the Artiodactyla, which includes cattle, deer, antelope, sheep, goats, pigs, etc.– the dominant large land herbivores of our world. Of those perissodactyls still with us, the rhinos have suffered the most at the hand of man, and all five species have been or are critically endangered.

The most endangered of rhinos is the northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) of central Africa, a subspecies of the white rhino, and its condition became extremely precarious last Sunday when the San Diego Zoo’s male northern white rhino, Angalifu, died at the age of 44 from old-age related ailments. There is now only one male northern white rhino left alive, along with 4 females (singleton females at San Diego and in the Czech Republic, all the rest, including the male, in Kenya).

Angalifu*, a male northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) at the SanDiego Zoo (photo by San Diego Zoo).

Angalifu*, a male northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) at the San Diego Zoo (photo by San Diego Zoo).

Rhino horns are prized for their use in Eastern “medicine”, and their value has led to remorseless hunting that has driven many species nearly to extinction.

The trade in rhino horns, from National Geographic.

The trade in rhino horns, from National Geographic.

When I first began following such things about 1970, the other African rhino, the black rhinoceros, Diceros bicornis, was in relatively good shape, while the white rhino, both the northern subspecies in central Africa, and the southern subspecies (C. s. simum) in southern Africa, was critically endangered.

Distribution of the white rhino, from the San Diego Zoo.

Distribution of the white rhino, from the San Diego Zoo. In pre- to early historic times, white rhinos were much more widespread, being found up into Egypt and northwestern Africa. Their total numbers are now about 20,000.

The news since then has been good, bad, and bad. The good news first. Thanks to strong conservation efforts, including captive/ranch breeding, the southern white rhino has bounced back, and there are over 20,000 of them now. The first bad news is that black rhinos have declined tremendously: although up a bit lately, they are down to about 5,000, a loss of over 90% since 1970. And the worst news of all is that the northern white rhino has declined to now just 5. In addition to the death of Angalifu, another male died earlier this fall. It seems to me that the only way to preserve any living representation of the northern subspecies at all now would be through crossing with the southern subspecies. Although captive/ranch breeding has not worked well for northern whites, it has for southern whites. I would assume that blood and tissue sample have been taken to assure that the genomic information at least could be saved, even if the living species cannot be. The loss would be compounded by the fact that some consider the northern white to be a separate species, so that its extinction would not merely be the loss of a local population, but of a more genetically distinct form.

Further info on rhinos can be found at the International Rhino Foundation and Save the Rhino, two conservation organizations, and at the Rhino Resource Center, a wonderful site which contains a wealth of information, including a huge database of the primary literature on rhinoceroses (many with full text) and many rhino images. The site was created by Kees Rookmaaker, an historian of biology, who is also one of the chief contributors to Darwin and Wallace Online, two of our favorite websites, edited by our old friend John van Wyhe.

In the following video, made by the San Diego Zoo earlier this fall, one of their curators discusses the causes of the rhinos endangerment. Ironically, he is expressing hope that the San Diego pair might breed, in light of the death of one of the two males in Kenya.

* News reports have been inconsistent in their identification of which of the San Diego Zoo’s two northern white rhinos, Anaglaifu the male and Nola the female, are depicted in photos and videos. Identification of the individual(s) in pictures has been hampered by the fact that rhinos can be easily sexed only when seen from behind, and that the Zoo has trimmed their horns on various occasions. I believe the animal in the photo at top is Angalifu, while the animal with the concave-downward horn featured in most of the video is Nola. The San Diego Zoo surely knows, but they have not published side by side photos.


  1. GBJames
    Posted December 20, 2014 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Humanity’s shame.

  2. Sean
    Posted December 20, 2014 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Well done homosapiens.

  3. R. R. Besch
    Posted December 20, 2014 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    An example of the Anthropogenic 6th Extinction at work and humans trying to counter act it with mixed results. Always easier to destroy than to build.

  4. Posted December 20, 2014 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    We can be such a mean-spirited and selfish species. Shame on us.

    • Jimbo
      Posted December 20, 2014 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

      Not “us,” China. This is another victim of faith–faith in Chinese traditional medicine is resulting in the global extinction of our rare and beautiful large mammals. Except rhino horn is bought for fictional sexual purposes. Look up bear gall bladder, they poach so many of them here in the US. Gorilla hands, tiger paws. It makes me want to vomit.

      The Chinese government should just make Viagra and give it out for free. I fear this cannot be stopped. It takes years for large mammals to reproduce and very low numbers probably means they’re doomed due to lack of genetic diversity.

      • rickflick
        Posted December 20, 2014 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

        Ya, how about inventing a rhino horn substitute laced with Viagra? Flood the Chinese market and after users find it is much more efficacious, there would be little pressure on the real thing. Well, I can dream.

        • Jimbo
          Posted December 21, 2014 at 3:16 am | Permalink

          Exactly. Time to go into business. I’m going to get some cow hooves, a belt sander, and some Viagra and start making some “rhino horns”. They get a good product, rhinos get saved, I get rich. Win-win-win.

      • microraptor
        Posted December 20, 2014 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

        Actually, rhino horn is a fever remedy, not an aphrodisiac. It doesn’t really matter since it’s just keratin and has no more medicinal value than toenail clippings or hair.

        • microraptor
          Posted December 20, 2014 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

          Also, sub

      • Sean
        Posted December 21, 2014 at 8:29 am | Permalink

        ISA is 2nd biggest market of illegal ivory in the world. We are not without guilt.

        • Sean
          Posted December 21, 2014 at 8:30 am | Permalink

          ISA meant to be USA

      • Posted December 22, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        There are just too many avenues where we’ve fucked it royally for other living things. The list is too long and the countries too numerous.

  5. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted December 20, 2014 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    The sickening point of all this is the traditional uses of rhino horns in Asia, where numerous people ‘just don’t get it’. Among them are the consumers who believe in woo and are blind to simple facts, and then the chain of unscrupulous dealers. The poachers themselves are at the bottom of the chain of blame.
    Similar urgent problems are in the trade of tiger bones, bear gall bladder, sharkfins, the pangolin, and quite a few other problems.

  6. Scientifik
    Posted December 20, 2014 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    Mountain gorillas and
    elephants may soon share their fate…

  7. quiscalus
    Posted December 20, 2014 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    My understanding of rhino breeding being limited, might I ask why the captive breeding program did not succeed? What could possibly be the difference between the two subspecies that prevents one from thriving while the other did? And why save blood and tissue, why not semen? Are there issues around in-vitro, as there are with elephants? And furthermore, why is it that zoos are so reluctant to bring the whole of this small, sad population together for one last chance go at breeding? Surely at this point, we’ve got little left to lose, (except for zoo’s money from visitors, perhaps, or I may be being cynical) Guess I’ll have to read up on that via the links provided.

    And, I must note that it is not only the charismatic megafauna that is falling before our guns, bulldozers, and pollution, but thousands of lesser-known and unknown plants, insect, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and small mammals are going gentle into that not-so-goodnight. John R Platt’s Scientific American bl*g Extinction Countdown is always a cheerful read in that regard.

    But, on a less gloomy note, while we may be the cause of almost all the extinctions currently underway, we are, at least as far aw we can tell, the only species to be able to recognize the fact and try to do something about it. I guess that’s something, right?

    • Posted December 20, 2014 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

      I’m not sure why captive breeding hasn’t worked with northern white rhinos; if you watch the video, the narrator gives figures showing impressive success with other rhinos. One problem may be the age of the surviving rhinos (including the two recently deceased males)– they may be too old.

      The tissue/blood samples are not for saving the species, but for saving a record of the species.

      Some or all of the rhinos in Kenya were sent there by the Czech zoo, so in fact zoos have pooled their resources. In general, you don’t want all the individuals of a species in a single place/population, because then the species becomes vulnerable to a single catastrophic event (storm, disease, etc.). My most notable conservation action was helping to establish a second population (by translocation) of a species at the time found as a single population; some further populations have since been founded.


  8. Randy Schenck
    Posted December 20, 2014 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Well, great for us, we can kill them and recognize it at the same time. Damn well said.

  9. Posted December 20, 2014 at 8:05 pm | Permalink


  10. Posted December 20, 2014 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    The Asian rhino’s (indian, Sumatran and javanese) are not mentioned, but are also closet extinction, particularly the Sumatran one, if I’m not mistaken.

  11. Posted December 20, 2014 at 9:16 pm | Permalink


  12. Kevin
    Posted December 20, 2014 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    Shame. Shame. Utter shame. Miserable species of mine.

    • Scientifik
      Posted December 21, 2014 at 3:28 am | Permalink

      “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything” – Albert Einstein

  13. peepuk
    Posted December 21, 2014 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    On the good side demand for rhino horn has been reduced in Japan, South-Korea and Japan.

    The bad thing is an increasing demand in Vietnam.

    I hope it will not be too late.

  14. Mark R.
    Posted December 21, 2014 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Earth has lost half of its wildlife in the last 40 years. We don’t seem to care. For all the successes of human kind, I sense that in the end we will be a failed species. There is a lot of evidence pointing that way. So let’s just go shopping.

  15. onemoregeneration
    Posted December 22, 2014 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    Great article… sad but well written. These two kids are also fighting to save rhinos:

  16. Dominic
    Posted December 23, 2014 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    So depressing…

  17. Posted January 5, 2015 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mic Smith Geographic.

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