Rhinos are some of the planet's most iconic animals, thanks largely to their hulking physiques and distinctive horns. Yet fame has done little to protect rhinos lately, as a poaching crisis has rapidly shrunk many populations of the ancient mammals.
In hopes of drawing more attention to rhinos and their recent troubles — and in honor of World Rhino Day, celebrated annually on September 22 — here are a few interesting facts about these misunderstood megafauna:
1. Rhinos have been on Earth for around 50 million years. In that time, rhino species have roamed across not only Africa and Asia but also Europe and North America. Only five species exist today: white and black rhinos of Africa, greater one-horned rhinos of the Indian subcontinent, and Javan and Sumatran rhinos. The rhino family tree used to be far more diverse, and even included a species called the giant unicorn, which grew up to 20 feet (6 meters) in length and had a horn up to 7 feet (2 meters) long!
2. Some 500,000 rhinos existed across Asia and Africa just 100 years ago. But since the beginning of the 20th century, their numbers have fallen precipitously. There were just 70,000 by 1970 and a mere 29,000 in the wild today.
3. The price for rhino horn is extremely high — so high, in fact, that Save the Rhino asks journalists not to publicize it. Although the price is widely reported anyway, many conservationists worry this publicity can encourage more criminals to enter the rhino-horn trade and stimulate more consumer demand. And regardless of the specific price for a kilogram of rhino horn, it's worth noting that all this fuss is about keratin — a product that's the exact same material as horse hooves, cockatoo beaks, and even our hair and fingernails. Yes, you can get the basically the same thing for free every time you trim your nails or get a haircut.
Why the high price? Primarily rhino horn is used in traditional Chinese medicine, although there's no scientific evidence that rhino horn has any medicinal value. According to PBS:
"Overall there isn’t much evidence to support the plethora of claims about the healing properties of the horns. In 1990, researchers at Chinese University in Hong Kong found that large doses of rhino horn extract could slightly lower fever in rats (as could extracts from Saiga antelope and water buffalo horn), but the concentration of horn given by a traditional Chinese medicine specialist are many, many times lower than used in those experiments. In short, says Amin, you’d do just as well chewing on your fingernails."
4. Wild rhinos could disappear within a few decades if poachers continue killing hundreds of rhinos every year. This would be not only a devastating blow to the world as a whole, but also to many national economies, which could continue to make money from rhinos through eco-tourism and photo safaris. Rhinos, like so many big fauna, are worth far more alive than dead over the course of their long lifetimes, both through the ecological benefits they provide to their habitats as well as through the thousands upon thousands of dollars tourists are willing to pay to see a rhino grazing peacefully in the wild.
5. A recent drop in rhino poaching isn't necessarily cause for celebration. South Africa is home to nearly 80% of the continent's remaining rhino population, yet more than 1,000 rhinos were poached every year there between 2013 and 2017. The country has been the hub of a broader African poaching crisis since 2008, which saw a growing number of rhinos killed every year until 2015, when the numbers finally seemed to peak. A total of 1,349 rhinos were poached across Africa in 2015, according to Save the Rhino, followed by 1,167 in 2016, 1,124 in 2017 and 892 in 2018. That's encouraging, although the crisis is hardly over, Save the Rhino points out. The 2018 total is still well above the 62 rhinos poached across Africa in 2007, for example, and an average of 2.5 African rhinos are still being killed by poachers every day.
"The decline in the number of poached rhinos may demonstrate that the anti-poaching work taking place is having an effect, or it may also demonstrate that with significantly fewer rhinos surviving in the wild, it is getting harder for poachers to locate their prey," Save the Rhino explains. "More action is needed to stop the illegal trade and ensure rhinos have a positive future."
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in September 2015.