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How the Western Black Rhino Went Extinct

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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western black rhino m brunelOh what a difference a century makes. At the beginning of the 20th century, an estimated one million black rhinoceroses from four different subspecies roamed the savannas of Africa. By 2001 that number had dropped to about 2,300 black rhinos and just three subspecies. This is the tale of how we lost one of those subspecies, the western black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis longipes). It is a story of greed, indifference, hope and despair.

Historically, the western black rhino had a fairly large range across central and western Africa, with populations in modern-day Cameroon, Chad, the Central African Republic, Sudan and South Sudan, making it the northernmost African rhino subspecies. Although it had lived in these countries for centuries, the western black—like most rhinos—found itself to be incompatible with the 20th century. Widespread sports hunting in the first decades of the century quickly decimated rhino populations. Industrial agriculture came next, clearing many historic rhino habitats for fields and settlements. Farmers and ranchers at the time viewed large herbivores such as rhinos as pests and dangers to their crops. The slaughter continued.

The final nail in the rhinos’ coffin began in the early 1950s, when Mao Zedong promoted so-called traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as a tool for unifying the country he had recently come to lead. Even though Chairman Mao himself did not believe in TCM, he called for its use over Western medicine. Among the many “cures” touted by China’s “New Medicine” was powdered rhino horn, which was said to cure everything from fevers to cancer. (This last claim is a fairly recent development.)

That’s when poachers descended on Africa. Between 1960 and 1995 an astonishing 98 percent of black rhinos were killed by poachers, either to feed the new and voracious demand for TCM or, to a lesser extent, for horns to be used as ceremonial knife handles in the Middle East. All rhinos suffered; the western black rhino, already weakened by decades of overhunting, was the hardest hit.

By 1980 the western black rhino’s range had shrunk to just two countries: Cameroon, which held 110 of the animals, and Chad, where just 25 remained. Chad’s western blacks were wiped out within 10 years. Cameroon’s held on a bit longer. The country held an estimated 50 western black rhinos in 1991, a number that dropped to 35 just a year later. By 1997 the population had fallen to an estimated 10 final rhinos.

Even that count doesn’t fully convey the precarious nature of the subspecies at that point. The 10 last western black rhinos were scattered across 25,000 square kilometers of northern Cameroon. Four of them lived in fairly close proximity to one another. The remaining six lived in isolation, with an average of 60 kilometers between each animal and little, if any, hope to find one another and start breeding.

western black rhino skullIn 1999 the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) published a report called “African Rhino: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan.” The authors wrote of the almost insurmountable challenge in preserving these final 10 western black rhinos. “Demographically and genetically the western black rhino seems doomed unless the discrete populations are captured and concentrated in one area of its range. Under current conditions, however, this would probably make the remaining animals more vulnerable to poaching.” The act of locating, catching and collecting these rhinos in one place would also be expensive and logistically next to impossible, as Cameroon at the time was plagued by corruption, civil unrest, currency devaluation and mistrust of the West. Even if that feat had been accomplished, the land in northern Cameroon was poorly suited for rhinos and provided very little food. Providing safe habitat for just 20 rhinos would require a fenced-in sanctuary 400 square kilometers in size. The authors wrote that the “lack of local conservation capacity and government commitment” would make consolidating the last rhinos difficult and concluded that the future of the subspecies was bleak.

They were right. Another WWF survey in 2001 found just five surviving western black rhinos, with the possibility of three additional, unconfirmed animals. That was the last time scientists or conservationists ever saw a western black rhino.

Even though things were grim at that point, a brief blip of hope occurred in 2004. That year, the nongovernmental organization Symbiose found evidence that as many as 31 western black rhinos still lived in Cameroon. That evidence, though, was quickly discredited. It turned out that trackers had faked rhino footprints in order to save their jobs.

Symbiose returned to Cameroon in 2006, conducing 46 field surveys over the course of six months. WWF and the Cameroon Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife also conducted a survey at the same time. The work wasn’t easy. Roads were poorly maintained or nonexistent. Access to vehicles was expensive and unreliable. Armed gangs attacked travelers on many roads. Wherever the researchers traveled they saw evidence of illegal hunting for a wide range of species. Snares were present everywhere, waterholes had been poisoned and the teams frequently found wounded or trapped animals. Even though the area was classified as a national park, they found that poaching pressure in the region was 2.22 times higher than in official trophy-hunting zones.

Tragically, although the research team heard several anecdotes about lone rhinos living in the area, none of the surveys found any evidence that the western black rhino actually still existed. A paper published in Pachyderm that year concluded that the last members of the subspecies had been poached in or around 2003 and that the western black rhino was probably extinct.

People kept looking, but no rhinos were ever found. In 2011, with no sightings in a decade, the International Union for Conservation of Nature formally declared that the western black rhino had gone extinct.

Unfortunately, the western black rhino will not be the last rhino species or subspecies that we lose. The Javan rhino subspecies in Vietnam was also declared extinct in 2011. The northern white rhino is down to its last seven, non-breeding, aged adults. The main Javan rhino species is down to fewer than 50 individuals and the Sumatran rhino has fewer than 200. The remaining three black rhino subspecies as a whole are considered critically endangered (one subspecies is listed as “vulnerable to extinction,” although its population is still quite low). The Indian one-horned rhino and the southern white rhino both enjoy healthier populations, but with poaching levels seemingly increasing almost every day, even they may not last long.

Will we learn from the lessons of the western black rhino’s extinction? I think it’s possible. Although the species disappeared a decade ago, many people are still just learning that it is gone. In the past week alone dozens, if not hundreds, of media outlets have run articles proclaiming that the western black rhino has gone extinct. Almost all of them mistakenly reported that the extinction happened just this past week—a burst of coverage set off by CNN republishing its two-year-old story with an “updated” date of November 6, 2013. This unleashed a veritable tsunami of sadness for the western black rhino on social media. In some ways it’s good to see so many people express horror that the western black rhino has gone extinct. Maybe, just maybe, that will also lead to people caring about the rhino species that remain, and to take action before they, too, are gone.

Photos: A western black rhino photographed by M. Brunel in 1977 in Bouba Ndjida National Park, Cameroon, from Pachyderm: The Journal of the African Elephant, African Rhino and Asian Rhino Specialist Groups. Used under Creative Commons license. A western black rhino skull from an animal shot by a sportsman in 1911. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Earth Touch 3:56 am 11/14/2013

    Great article providing a bit of clarity on the situation. Thanks, John! Although, if I were the nitpicky type, I might point out that only two of the remaining species of black rhino are critically endangered (Diceros bicornis bicornis is listed as Vulnerable according to the IUCN). We put together a little graphic to try and make the tricky taxonomy a little clearer:

    Link to this
  2. 2. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:39 am 11/14/2013

    In 2001 rhinos could still be saved by transferring them to zoos, because black rhinos at that time already bred well in captivity (unlike the different sumatran rhino).

    Unfortunately, in Third World countries it seems that one can freely hunt and poach animals, destroy their habitat and steal funds, but once somebody suggests a zoo, there is an outcry.

    Link to this
  3. 3. temujinkan 8:22 am 11/14/2013

    Are you telling me this corrupt psuedo-goverment would not even take a large amount of money in return for those rhinos? Seriously, did we even try hard enough to work with Cameroon? Did we harvest any sperm or eggs from these rhinos for surrogacy?

    Link to this
  4. 4. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 8:46 am 11/14/2013

    Earth Touch, thanks. The three remaining black rhino subspecies are collectively considered to be critically endangered. D. bicornis bicornis is listed as vulnerable to extinction; although it doesn’t have the highest population of the three subspecies, it is actually increasing at the fastest rate. I tweaked my line about the subspecies above.

    Link to this
  5. 5. scientific earthling 7:37 pm 11/14/2013

    Get used to it, as long as man survives as a species and keeps breeding like a fly, we shall keep loosing species. We usurp all the resources of this planet for our exclusive existence with total disregard of all other species and any rights they could morally (an artificial absurd human idea) claim to these resources.

    A virus or bacteria that lowers fertility might save us from extinction.

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  6. 6. ASmith76 10:06 pm 11/14/2013

    scientific earthling, if you want to look at morality as an absurd human construct, then there is nothing immoral about wiping out species. We are simply behaving with our animal instinct and dominating all other species. I certainly don’t believe that, but I don’t believe morality comes from mankind, either.

    You should place your blame on Chinese culture, as it was the reason for the extinction.

    Your knowledge is very old. Worldwide fecundity is plummeting, especially in the Third World. It should stabilize at 11 billion, but I believe it will then begin to fall, perhaps even rapidly.

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  7. 7. jonathanseer 3:06 pm 11/15/2013

    As long as the idiot logic of NOT creating a value to keeping these animals alive the people who live where they live, their survival will be at risk.

    Rhinos are all too happy to reproduce in domestic settings, and I don’t mean a zoo, but a farm or ranch setting.

    They could be extremely valuable if their horns were allowed to be harvested legally and it is possible to harvest the horn without killing the animal, because it’s just a form of hair.

    But the Western Idiots er I mean ecologists who specialize in saving wild animals insist they should be allowed to enjoy their freedom in the wild places.

    The problem is animals don’t care for the freedom of the wild any more than we did. It’s just freedom to die from starvation or disease or from pouching. That’s why animals large and small love to live near us provided we don’t shoot them dead.

    Freedom is a human concept the animals if they understood that concept would declare an utterly worthless concept to them, because there are NO MORE places where they can enjoy that freedom.

    Maybe one day before all the big game animals are extinct, the 3rd world nations that are home to these creatures will realize the sheer idiocy of upholding Western values and beliefs that are resulting in wholesale failure when it comes to these animals.

    Faced with extinction, simply allowing the remaining rhinos to live as livestock and have their horns harvested would mean that we’d have too many rhinos of all kinds now, and we’d have so much the excess could be eaten or escape to live off the ranch.

    If they had been farmed, they would have value to the people in those nations, and they would have ensured they survived, just like they have no problem ensuring their domestic animals survive and thrive.

    That they should strive to keep these beasts alive in order to maintain them for Western viewing pleasure without deriving any significant value from them taking up space in their nations is unjustified Western insanity and selfishness that needs to end.

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  8. 8. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 3:36 pm 11/15/2013

    I strongly disagree with the free-market ideology that only animals which have an economic value can be saved. The idea that rhinos can and should be saved by simply making them livestock fails on most levels. Turning rhino horn into a commercial product supports the sale of something that has no medicinal value. You’re basically selling snake oil and stealing consumers’ money. Some people who think the rhino horn will cure them of their ills will stay sick. Now that it’s being touted as a cancer cure, some people will probably die when normal medical treatment could have saved them.

    Beyond that, rhinos need a lot of space. Some subspecies prefer to live by themselves, meaning even more space. Not many places can offer that amount of space.

    Beyond *that*, rhinos evolved to have horns for multiple reasons. They use them for defense, to dig for food, and even to head-butt prospective mates. Removing the horn removes an essential part of their behavior.

    And the removal process itself is fraught with danger. Animals must be sedated; when a beast as heavy as a rhino falls after being tranquilized, it can suffer injuries to its legs. Some rhinos never wake up from sedation. (Case in point, we know at least one rhino passed away during the process to inject its horn with toxins that would prevent it from being poached.)

    As for cultural values, it’s interesting that you say Western values are being imposed (which I don’t completely disagree with), but isn’t that what you’re doing by putting economics into the discussion? And what about the cultural and historic values of rhinos and other species to the people who live in areas where those creatures live? You’re missing part of the equation.

    Ranches have obviously done a great job — a hugely important job — in keeping rhinos safe and alive in some areas, and some ranchers want to restart the legal rhino trade. I just can’t see the market bearing a product that is essentially worthless.

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  9. 9. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:53 am 11/18/2013

    The idea of farming rhinos for horns was already considered and debunked years ago. Rhinos grow too slow and it is too easy to pass horns from poached rhinos as “legal”.

    Free market will not save rhinos – it will drive them to extinction, after which the missing resource would be supplanted by another bogus medicine.

    Perhaps significantly, no rhino farms opened in China or Vietnam, where other animals are farmed and supposed “wrong conservation mindset” is not operating.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Jerzy v. 3.0. 8:02 am 11/18/2013

    Just one more: a hypothetical owner of a rhino farm would need a small army to defend his stock. Otherwise closing rhinos in a farm would be just making it easier for armed gangs to find the horns.

    Link to this
  11. 11. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 8:09 am 11/18/2013

    Interestingly enough, Jerzy, China apparently *has* imported rhinos and there are concerns the country intends to start farming them:

    Link to this
  12. 12. 3:31 pm 11/18/2013

    With mankind growing by another two billion by mid century this is a story that is going to happen with more and more frequency. Go Anthropocene!!!

    Link to this
  13. 13. bucketofsquid 5:13 pm 11/21/2013

    At the rate third world countries are industrializing and thus polluting themselves, there should be a significant slow down in population growth. It is no secret that modern industry uses substances that cause sterility. Between that and the recently arisen anti-biotic resistant diseases, we should see a nice impact as more people die off.

    Link to this
  14. 14. asa.. 4:37 am 12/16/2013

    Unless the world community stops them, the Chinese will continue to eat their way though what is left of the endangered species on this planet, all the while adding others to the list. It’s pathetic that, as a society, they are still so thoroughly in the grip of medieval superstition, wanton vanity and boundless greed.

    Link to this
  15. 15. jstrong196 10:50 am 04/28/2014

    This looks and sounded like it was a beautiful animal. It always breaks my heart to hear that certain animals are on the endangered species list, and are almost extinct. Hopefully we can get to a point where we prevent this from happening, and preserve these beautiful creatures for future generations to enjoy.

    Link to this
  16. 16. manomao 5:26 pm 02/26/2015

    there are about 5,050 black rhinos in Kenya and Cameroon, so this article invalid, if you go to other sites you can see that black rhinos are endangered but not extinct

    Link to this
  17. 17. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 11:05 am 02/27/2015

    Those are different subspecies, so I’m afraid it’s your comment that is invalid.

    Link to this

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