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Mysteries of the diceratheriine rhinos

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


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This amazing fossil represents the diceratheriine rhino Subhyracodon occidentalis from the Late Eocene and Early and Middle Oligocene of the USA. Subhyracodon seems to have been ancestral to the better known Diceratherium*, a very long-lived diceratheriine that appeared in the Early Oligocene and persisted into the Middle Miocene. Diceratherium is well known for being one of the first rhinos to exhibit sexual dimorphism in horn and tooth form, so it may have had a complex social life (or, a more complex social life than earlier kinds of rhino, anyway). These were the first big-bodied North American mammals to be ecologically important and abundant following the extinction of the brontotheres. They were also the first rhinos to have horns, though their horns are low, paired bony knobs only present in males, not tall keratinous spikes present in members of both sexes.

* Not to be confused with Diaceratherium, an Oligocene teleoceratine rhino from Europe.

Skeleton of Subhyracodon occidentalis. Image in public domain.

Like so many fossil rhinos, Subhyracodon has a confusing nomenclatural history and often went by the name Caenopus in the older rhino literature. Dental variation previously led to an over-splitting of Subhyracodon; Prothero (1998) argued that these could mostly be regarded as populational variants.

The fossil specimen shown at the very top was discovered in the Brule Formation in Wyoming (this is a cast, photographed at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, UK). It’s a baby, reportedly not recovered from the body of a mother, but found on its own. Its total length is 76 cm. This might represent a bit of a mystery: how did a baby in a foetal position get outside its mother’s body? Was it dragged out of a corpse by a predator? Or is it not an embryo at all, but a newborn that curled up into a foetal position to sleep? I don’t know and wonder if anybody does. As an adult, Subhyracodon was a big, reaching 4 m in total length.

Rhino phylogeny is vast and sprawling: there are competing phylogenetic hypotheses, of course, but diceratheriines appear to be the sister-group to the major clade that includes aceratheriines, teleoceratines and rhinocerotines (Cerdeño 1995, Prothero 1998). It is an aim of mine that I will one day get to comprehensively discuss rhino diversity. Until then, here’s a highly simplified cladogram to whet your appetite.

Artwork by Ely Kish (Paraceratherium, representing Indricotheriidae) and Zdenek Burian (Hyracodontidae and Amynodontidae).

And, finally…

This graphic shows the number of rhinos killed in South Africa >alone< during 2012.

If you’re interested in, or like, rhinos, you’re surely aware that 2012 was a horrific year as goes rhino conservation and welfare. An unbelievable 455 African rhinos had been killed by October 2012, surpassing the total for 2011 (448) and 2010 (333). Annual kills were previously on the order of 12-14 animals, so you can appreciate how things have spiraled into total crisis. The demand for horn is apparently being driven by wealthy socialites in Vietnam who believe that spicing drinks with rhino horn powder will increase their sexual performance.

We need to act hard and decisively to stamp this out. I wish there was a way of poisoning exported rhino horn, but that would involve interacting with the black market. What about flooding the market with a fake alternative? What about educating the morons who fuel the trade? Things are so bad that I also wonder whether the best thing might be to capture all surviving wild rhinos and relocate them on another continent (North America or Australia). This would require a huge amount of funding – ‘all’ you need to do is divert some of the more than 1000 BILLION DOLLARS the world spends annually on military funding (seriously: human insecurity has made the world a screwed-up place). Anyway, things aren’t all bad as goes rhino conservation – there have been successes in India and elsewhere. Check out, or consider supporting, bodies like the International Rhino Foundation. Remember also to check out and use the excellent Rhino Resource Center.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on rhinos, see…

And seeing as brontotheres were mentioned here as well, check out…

Refs – -

Cerdeño, E. 1995. Cladistic analysis of the family Rhinocerotidae (Perissodactyla). American Museum Novitates 3143, 1-25.

Prothero, D. 1998. Rhinocerotidae. In Janis, C. M., Scott, K. M. & Jacobs, L. L. (eds) Evolution of Tertiary Mammals of North America. Volume 1: Terrestrial Carnivores, Ungulates, and Ungulatelike Mammals. Cambridge University Press, pp. 595-605.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at darrennaish.wordpress.com. He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at tetzoo.com! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

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





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  1. 1. Heteromeles 11:06 am 01/2/2013

    I’m thinking rhino stem cells and a crash program to generate rhino horn in the lab. Then you can flood the market with “cultured rhino horn, guaranteed free of parasites, bacteria, and viruses.”

    The other thing is to figure out a bunch of real cheap fakes that look (and test, hopefully) like powdered horn (ground up horse hooves?), and then flood the market with cheap stuff.

    I doubt either would work entirely, since part of the efficacy (gag) of such a drug is the wild source (aka sympathetic magic). Still, it’s worth a try.

    Any one want to speak up for consumerism as a lifestyle to aspire to?

    Link to this
  2. 2. BrianL 11:20 am 01/2/2013

    Educating the masses seems like the best option, alas it’s probably also the most expensive, most long term and least effective option.

    I’m rather surprised that the Chinese haven’t started breeding rhinos, as far as I know. Do you need the entire horn to make the powder anyway? One would think that it might otherwise be possible to ‘harvest’ the horn of captive rhinos and let them regrow. Undoubtedly this would decrease the market prize of the powder though.

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  3. 3. SRPlant 11:35 am 01/2/2013

    I wonder why Viagra and its allies didn’t reduce the demand for rhino horn? I presume the powdered horn has some kind of effect, maybe it acts as a urethral irritant like Spanish Fly… ? Either way its effect couldn’t match the dramatic ‘upshot’ of Viagra consumption (Yes, I’ve tried it, it’s all it’s cracked up to be, including the red face and headaches).

    A French TV programme said that a lot of the demand came from the new rich in China wanting drinking goblets made from rhino horn, more status symbol than priapic aid.

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  4. 4. naishd 11:37 am 01/2/2013

    All good points. Rhinos ordinarily regrow their horns pretty quickly meaning that, theoretically, ethical ‘harvesting’ might be possible. The rhino horn trade also results in huge numbers of horn flakes and fragments – I’ve been to talks where buckets of these keratin shards are shown. I don’t know what happens to them. Obviously they contain the same stuff as a pristine, shapely horn, but they be less marketable since they’re so ugly.

    Darren

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  5. 5. Heteromeles 11:58 am 01/2/2013

    The problem, as alluded to above, is consumerism. People can now afford to have rhino horn, like the rich used to, and you know, they will if they can. Just like beaver hats and buffalo hides for Americans a bit ago. Or feathers in hats.

    Rhino ranches might work, except that they’re probably not cost effective. You’ve got to breed them, contain them, and most importantly, keep a gang from coming in and stealing all your horns and killing your stock. And make a profit doing so.

    I’d get to work making presentable fakes and artificial horns. The ultimate is if you can grow a horn in a lab for a small fraction of what it would cost to harvest one in the wild.

    So far as education goes, unless you get some celebrity spokesmen (PSY comes to mind, as do the Mythbusters) and convince people it’s not only ineffective, it’s uncool, simple education isn’t going to work. You’re going up against a placebo effect, after all, and that can be tricky to disprove. That’s why I’m suggesting flooding the market with cheap fakes, or better yet, cheap real stuff grown in a lab.

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  6. 6. Heteromeles 1:14 pm 01/2/2013

    To get to the skeleton pictured, I’ll reveal my ignorance by asking if those bones aren’t well formed for a fetus. Shouldn’t they have more cartilage and less well developed ends?

    Link to this
  7. 7. Hai~Ren 1:32 pm 01/2/2013

    In response to some of the earlier comments (I hope this doesn’t get flagged as spam for multiple links)…

    1) China is supposedly planning to breed rhinos for their horns (Revealed: Location of China’s Rhino Farm and ‘Horn Harvesting’ Experiments http://bit.ly/cwVzCh ) (In Plain Sight: China’s ‘Rhino Horn Scheme’ http://bit.ly/yXl92P )

    2) If I’m not wrong, rhino horn was never supposed to be used as an aphrodisiac in traditional Chinese (or East Asian) medicine; it was traditionally considered an ingredient that would help cool the body and deal with ailments such as fever. In recent years, however, the Vietnamese are now supposedly a far more larger market for the rhino horn trade, fuelled by rumours that rhino horn has anti-cancer properties (and also serves as a panacea for other conditions), or simply as an expensive miracle tonic to be flaunted and consumed as a status symbol among the wealthy (possibly like the stereotypical socialite parties where they snort cocaine?) (To understand why rhino horn is such a big deal in Vietnam now, I highly recommend The Saigon Horn parts 1 http://bit.ly/W2mUBc & 2 http://bit.ly/A25kye , and the follow-up, The Tao of Saigon Horn parts 1 http://bit.ly/10J9amv & 2 http://bit.ly/Wl3wjs )

    3) Some South African game farm owners have called for a legal (and strictly regulated) trade in rhino horn; whether this will lead to the same fiasco that has plagued the ‘legal’ elephant ivory trade is still unknown (John Hume – private rhino owner and breeder, pro trade advocate http://bit.ly/VuASgE ) (Wildlife Experts Debate Possible Legalization of Rhino Horn Trade http://bit.ly/W2oCCA ) (To legalise or not to legalise? http://bit.ly/VB8IQq ) (How to Save the Rhino http://huff.to/VuBh2B )

    4) A company named Rhinoceros Horn LLC is currently looking to market ‘a new ethically sourced keratin protein product’ that is ‘that is biologically identical to the keratin from rhino horn’. (Saving Rhinos: ethical alternative to rhino horn introduced by Rhinoceros Horn LLC on Wildlife Conservation Day http://yhoo.it/VCOuFm )

    The company also currently has an Indiegogo campaign, seeking funds to produce and ship this keratin product ( http://bit.ly/WeEWjX )

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  8. 8. Hai~Ren 1:49 pm 01/2/2013

    Back to diceratheriines, there’s also so much confusion between Menoceras and Diceratherium; it seems that many reconstructions and museum mounts of “Diceratherium cooki” are actually mislabelled Menoceras arikarense. Also, it appears that dspite both forms having paired nasal horns, Menoceras is apparently not closely related to Diceratherium; horn arrangement evolved convergently, with Menoceras likely to be an immigrant more closely related to Eurasian forms such as Pleuroceros.

    By the way, the Blue Lake Rhino Cave (apparently a natural mould made when lava covered the carcass of a Diceratherium) is such an amazing find, it’s such a shame it’s not mentioned more often.

    And yes, I wish I actually had my own copy of Donald Prothero’s The Evolution of North American Rhinoceroses, instead of relying on the snippets available for preview on Google Books.

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  9. 9. naishd 4:48 pm 01/2/2013

    I have a lot of literature on fossil rhinos, but am still after a copy of Don’s book too…

    Darren

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  10. 10. Heteromeles 4:49 pm 01/2/2013

    I’m shocked, shocked that Dr. Prothero hasn’t come along to post about that box of unsold copies sitting in his basement (grin)…

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  11. 11. Heteromeles 4:58 pm 01/2/2013

    Since I know nothing about the book, I should point out that I was just stunned to find it’s available for only US$107 from Alibris.com. One copy, that is. Act fast.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Mythusmage 9:20 pm 01/2/2013

    Were you aware that Scientific American is trying to get people to subscribe to the magazine just to have a look at your blog?

    Link to this
  13. 13. Jerzy v. 3.0. 3:59 am 01/3/2013

    I think domestic buffalo horn was found to have the same “fever reducing” properties as rhino horn. I guess it calls for some in-depth study of preferences and attitudes in Chinese customers.

    Actually, well-meaning flooding the China with fake rhino horn products is interesting idea. Turning distrust in real medicine and love for cheap imitation against them :->

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  14. 14. Jerzy v. 3.0. 4:02 am 01/3/2013

    @12
    I hope this will make Darren migrate to a better platform – blogspot for example? :)

    Link to this
  15. 15. Pristichampsus 4:54 am 01/3/2013

    I was aware of the chinese rhino-farming endeavor, I have also been told that they have patented an humane device for harvesting the horn in portions whiilst the rhino is still alive, I assume they simply shave large flakes off, and leave the horn to regrow. If only living rhinos were hyracodontids or subhyracodon, they would have no horns, and simply be like rather ugly cows and horses.

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  16. 16. naishd 5:37 am 01/3/2013

    Mythusmage (comment 12) says…

    “Were you aware that Scientific American is trying to get people to subscribe to the magazine just to have a look at your blog?”

    Well, I know that popup banners sometimes appear across half of the page. But don’t they have a ‘click here to continue to page’ option? Without leaving SciAm, there is unfortunately nothing I can do about this sort of thing. As for blogspot being a “better platform” (comment 14) … ha ha. Jerzy, you _do_ realise that Tet Zoo _started_ its life at blogspot, right?

    Darren

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  17. 17. David Marjanović 10:51 am 01/3/2013

    I wish there was a way of poisoning exported rhino horn, but that would involve interacting with the black market. What about flooding the market with a fake alternative? What about educating the morons who fuel the trade? Things are so bad that I also wonder whether the best thing might be to capture all surviving wild rhinos and relocate them on another continent (North America or Australia).

    ALL OF THE ABOVE!

    Moving rhinos to Australia started years ago. I remember seeing a documentation about that on TV.

    a better platform – blogspot for example

    Blogspot can’t deal with <blockquote> any more than SciAm can. WordPress can, though.

    I guess SciAm pays?

    popup banners sometimes appear across half of the page

    Firefox with Adblock Plus. Without that, my 6-year-old laptop would freeze once or twice a day.

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  18. 18. Gigantala 6:23 pm 01/3/2013

    I seriously think relocating Sumatran Rhinos to New Zealand is a sound strategy. New Zealand has far more expansive forests, has vegetation that is softer to digest and is very similar to that of cloud forests anyways, and rhinos would occupy the ecological niche left by the moas.

    It’s so simple that, if people are bothering to introduce tigers in Africa, why not introduce sumatran rhinos to Aoteroa?

    Furthermore, maybe you can provide tranquilisers to hunters and teach them that you don’t need to kill rhinos to have their horns.

    Link to this
  19. 19. Heteromeles 7:09 pm 01/3/2013

    Um, anyone who’s thinking about introducing rhinoceri anywhere really should read Carl Hiassen’s Sick Puppy first.

    Link to this
  20. 20. Dartian 3:11 am 01/4/2013

    Gigantala:
    maybe you can provide tranquilisers to hunters and teach them that you don’t need to kill rhinos to have their horns

    Tranquilisers* by themselves won’t be enough. If you want the rhino to survive the stressful and risky de-horning operation, there should always be a qualified veterinarian taking part in it.

    * Who is going to pay for them? Sedatives for rhinos are expensive – certainly far more expensive than bullets.

    Regarding the idea of translocating all(?) remaining rhinos to North America/Australia/New Zealand: Objectively, it might be a sound decision. But in order to do such a thing, you would necessarily need the consent of the respective governments of the various African and Asian nations where rhinos live naturally. How are you going to sell to them the idea of indefinitely ‘giving away’ their charismatic wildlife? More to the point, you may think that you are saying “This is for the rhinos’ own good” but they might instead be hearing that “You dark-skinned people aren’t capable of protecting your own wildlife – only we, white people, can do that”.

    What I’m saying is that these matters can be extremely sensitive. If we are seriously considering large-scale intercontinental species relocation schemes as conservation strategies, we will need the full support of the countries where these species are native; without that support, such schemes might backfire badly.

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  21. 21. Jerzy v. 3.0. 3:49 am 01/4/2013

    @20
    Unfortunately many tropical countries (and even provinces e.g. Assam) treat wildlife as their exclusive possession. They prohibit export – but still cannot control poaching and habitat destruction.

    Northern white rhino became extinct in the wild precisely because Congolese government turned away offer to export last few animals from Garamba national park in Congo to a well protected reserve in Kenya. A year later they were all killed by poachers.

    Even more bizarre story was with western black rhino. It was extinct for about 5 years until somebody realized that African rangers fake rhino footprints using stuffed rhino foot, solely to keep the Western subsidies flowing to the national park.

    As for me, there is no point in pretending that a countries with corrupt and disorganized nature protection are good and well run. But African and Asian bureaucrats prefer otherwise.

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  22. 22. Dartian 5:10 am 01/4/2013

    Jerzy:
    As for me, there is no point in pretending that a countries with corrupt and disorganized nature protection are good and well run. But African and Asian bureaucrats prefer otherwise.

    I have no illusions about just how bad things can be regarding the conservation of biodiversity in certain parts of the world. It’s just that the fact remains that ultimately it’s their decision what they do – or don’t do – to protect the wildlife residing within their national borders. Outsiders can co-operate with these governments (on their terms) and provide various incentives for them to preserve their wildlife, but outsiders can’t really force them to do anything they don’t want to. If you, a well-meaning conservation biologist, suggest to the head-of-state of African nation X that the remaining rhinos in his country would be better protected from poachers in Australia, and he replies that due to reasons of national pride no rhino may ever be exported from his country, just what are you going to do about that?

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  23. 23. Mythusmage 9:52 pm 01/4/2013

    With all this talk about farming, and breeding, the southern white rhino I have to wonder; how long will it be until science admits we’ve domesticated the animals, much as we appear to have domesticated the giant panda?

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  24. 24. Allen Hazen 9:57 pm 01/4/2013

    I took the opportunity to look at some of your old Perrissodactyl articles, and (in the “Thunder Beasts in Pictures” one) I note that two, successively less inclusive, clades within (the “subfamily”) Brontotheriinae are named Brontotheriina and Brontotheriita.

    Are these endings (-ina, ita) standard for clades of (what in traditional ranked terminology) less inclusive than subfamilies and more inclusive than genera? Have ranks been named for them?

    One sub-subfamily/super-genus rank that has sometimes been used is the “tribe” (ending: -ini). Are -ina, -ita, and -ini all used together, and is there a convention about how they should be ordered in tens of inclusiveness?

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  25. 25. naishd 9:42 am 01/5/2013

    Dartian (comment 20 and 22): you’re dead right. In throwing out the idea concerned (that all African rhinos be collected and kept in a ‘safe’ country), I was only thinking in terms of the advantages to the rhinos; I was not thinking _at all_ about the countries where the rhinos come from and the many issues concerned. So, literally no consideration from me of the fact that the suggestion might be seen as jingoistic (which, as you note, it would). Given that white people have been involved in rhino death as much as anyone else (you’ve heard of the South African farmers who bought rhinos at auction, only to kill and bury them on their own ranches?), there should be no intimations of racism here, however.

    Darren

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  26. 26. Jerzy v. 3.0. 12:32 pm 01/5/2013

    I think exporting “all” the rhinos is impossible, more likely will be exporting a small founder population, and Asian and African countries would realize they couldn’t keep their wild populations alive.

    We are touching a big topic, and one which interests me. In the today world, biological needs of wildlife becomes easier to care for than human and economic dimension of wildlife conservation.

    There are many faces of this problem. One is – and rhino conservation regularily falls into this trap – that national parks need to be protected from poachers all the time, for years and decades to come. They are very vulnerable to funding cuts and political disorders. This cost extinction of nortern white rhino and Vietnamese Javan rhino.

    90 years ago, the same happened in Europe where wild Wisents were wiped out during turmoil following 1st World War and October revolution. Unfortunately, rhino conservationists were either ignorant about the past or too attached to the ideology of “free nature”.

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  27. 27. Heteromeles 3:07 pm 01/5/2013

    @Jerzy, you’re right, but it’s not just wildlife conservation. Global warming is another one of the same problems.

    I post a lot on other blogs where we’ve talked about everything from global warming to starship design. In many cases, the technical challenges aren’t nearly as challenging as the political problems, in the broad sense of politics being the art of getting disparate people to work together and agree to do things they normally don’t want to do. I’d go so far as to say that all of the critical problems we face as a species now hinge more on political hangups than on technological difficulties (and yes, getting stupid/greedy/lazy people to do the right thing is a political problem).

    This flies in the face of scientific tradition, where physicists (to name the extreme offenders) like to parse physically possible as equivalent to simple problem, with the politics being the silly bits from stupid people that just make it take longer. This view is a comforting myth, but it isn’t true any more, if it ever was. In truth, it’s the other way around. If it can’t be solved politically right now (again, in the big sense of politics), it can’t be done, whether or not it’s technologically feasible or even desirable.

    Right now, we most desperately need political innovation, not technological innovation. FDR and Keynes would recognize all of the major financial problems we have now, and I suspect both of them would be extremely disgusted with how little progress has been made in solving them. While I don’t think scientists all need to become politicians, I DO think that scientists need to realize that the so-called Big Problems aren’t really in the sciences anymore. The fun problems might be there, but politics will destroy civilization long before a lab accident or mad scientist ever does.

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  28. 28. David Marjanović 5:52 pm 01/5/2013

    Are these endings (-ina, ita) standard for clades of (what in traditional ranked terminology) less inclusive than subfamilies and more inclusive than genera? Have ranks been named for them?

    -ina is standard for subtribes; that’s prescribed by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. -ita isn’t standard.

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  29. 29. Allen Hazen 8:06 pm 01/5/2013

    David–
    Thank you for answering (#28) my question (#24). And for momentarily suppressing you dislike for traditional ranks enough to respond to a question about them (I ***did*** put scare quotes around loaded words!).

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  30. 30. Andreas Johansson 3:03 am 01/6/2013

    @Allen Hazen: -ita has been used for “infratribe”, frex in Mihlbachler’s brontothere taxonomy.

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  31. 31. David Marjanović 8:22 am 01/6/2013

    And for momentarily suppressing you dislike for traditional ranks enough to respond to a question about them

    :-) That’s not connected. I’ve often had to burrow through the ICZN, or chosen to do so out of nerdy attention to details and rules.

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  32. 32. farandfew 10:54 am 01/7/2013

    Hi. Coming to this late and aware there’s a lot of recent news on the rhino trade in Vietnam which I haven’t yet been through but, as far as I can see (and I’ve been discussing this for years now with fellow conservationists and academics) the following are not worth spending much money or time on:

    1) Creating fake rhino horn
    2) Awareness campaigns in Vietnam and China focusing on the fact that Rhino horn doesn’t work
    3) Cultured horn from a lab.

    re number 1. You have a product which everyone in China knows is highly valuable. You want to flood the market with fakes? In China? At least 10 million people are probably ahead of you there already. Let them continue to do it; they’re good at it. It obviously isn’t enough however.

    re number 2. This is a traditional medicine. It is also tied up, to an extent, with issues of national pride and paranoia against the west. I’m sure everyone knows how tenacious far more outlandish beliefs can be in our own culture. And, as people who believe in homeopathy tell me: “why not take it, it’s not like it will do you any harm?” It is true that people do not only take rhino horn for sexual prowess. People believe it can cure a wide range of ailments, including cancer. People with cancer are desperate and will take any chance. Even if they don’t believe in it themselves, someone in their family will buy it for them and insist they take it.
    Then, to the extent that it is taken to increase virility, it is often a case of consipicuous consumption: the rich and powerful sprinking it into drinks at events they’re hosting in order to show off. The fact that rhino horn is now worth more than its weight in gold when ‘it doesn’t do anything at all’ seems amazing to us westerners but we are used to the fact that gold doesn’t do anything either.
    And if we convinced 90% of the people who currently believe it works not to use it, the remaining demand would still be quite enough to wipe out the world’s rhinos.

    re 3) as has been said already: this is a traditional natural remedy so a lab-produced version is very unlikely to be as popular.

    Poisioning horn I’m not sure was a serious suggestion. You’d have to poison the horn of living rhinos without poisioning the rhino which I imagine would be hard to do. If you could do it, it might very well work.

    As far as exporting rhinos to other countries goes, there are a lot in zoos already. You can’t *demand* rhinos from the range states but you can sometimes *buy* them. They don’t come cheap though, so if you are going to export them to another country, perhaps it should be those countries which have the economic incentive to keep them alive, as long as they are allowed to use the horn.

    Alternatively you can do what they do in Assam, which I understand to be pretty effective: namely shooting human beings on sight in rhino habitat. That is horrifyingly easy to say. Shooting human beings on sight in rhino habitat. A lot of people I’ve met are enthusiastic advocates.

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  33. 33. vdinets 4:25 pm 01/7/2013

    Translocation might work with some species (AFAIK, S white rhinos do great in Texas), but probably not with Sumatran rhinos. They virtually never breed in captivity except for large enclosures located in the rainforest, so it looks like they have complex dietary requirements.

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  34. 34. vdinets 4:30 pm 01/7/2013

    farandfew: In some places (South Africa in particular), rhino poaching is typically committed not by some dirt-poor natives trying to feed their starving children, but by well-off white or Arab professionals either using submachine guns, or firing tranquilizer darts and then chain-sawing off the horn with part of the skull, while the animal is paralysed but feels everything. I have to admit I am another enthusiastic advocate of shooting on sight.

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  35. 35. David Marjanović 6:01 pm 01/7/2013

    Then, to the extent that it is taken to increase virility, it is often a case of consipicuous consumption: the rich and powerful sprinking it into drinks at events they’re hosting in order to show off.

    See also: shark fin soup. “Look at me! I can afford a cook who knows how to spice and boil cartilage for so long that it almost becomes edible!!!”

    the horn with part of the skull

    Seriously?

    while the animal is paralysed but feels everything

    ARGH!

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  36. 36. vdinets 8:50 pm 01/7/2013

    David: I’d rather not post any links because they are all extremely graphic.

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  37. 37. Dartian 5:44 am 01/8/2013

    Vladimir:
    Sumatran rhinos [...] virtually never breed in captivity except for large enclosures located in the rainforest

    It’s true that they breed in captivity only extremely rarely, but those few times that has happened it has actually more often been in ‘normal’ zoos. AFAIK, Sumatran rhinos have successfully reproduced in captivity five times: in 1889 in Calcutta Zoo, India; three times in 2001-2008 in Cincinnati Zoo, USA; and in 2012 in the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas National Park, Indonesia (the father of the calf born in Indonesia was one of the three born in captivity in Cincinnati).

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  38. 38. David Marjanović 9:43 am 01/8/2013

    Why do they saw through the skull? To make sure they don’t leave any horn behind?

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  39. 39. vdinets 7:19 pm 01/8/2013

    Dartian: the breeding program in Way Kambas has only started recently, so even one birth is a success.

    David: I guess so.

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  40. 40. farandfew 10:38 am 01/9/2013

    Vladimir. Before I sound too partisan I’d make it clear that I’m really not sure what I believe is the best strategy. It does disturb me how quickly and easily people get to the point where they advocate shooting other people. If the people you are shooting at have submachine guns then perhaps that reduces the ethical concerns – that’s one for a moral philosopher – but it raises some very important practical concerns. Or rather it raises ethical concerns about employing people who are going to *get* shot.
    It’s quite true that in many (though very definitely not all) situations impoverished locals aren’t the ones doing the hunting. But then you have to ask why not, as they are presumably cheaper and, from the traders’ perspective, more expendable than heavily armed – and presumably contracted – professionals.
    The whole thing is looking increasingly like a war and in that case we need to question whether it is a war we stand a chance of winning.

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  41. 41. vdinets 6:39 pm 01/9/2013

    farandfew: I don’t think there is a universal strategy that would work everywhere, and I’m sure that in some places no strategy would work at all. But we have to look at the track record of various anti-poaching techniques, and, as far as I know (which is not particularly far), heavily armed patrols that shoot on sight are the best deterrent.

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  42. 42. Dartian 4:24 am 01/10/2013

    Farandfew:
    It does disturb me how quickly and easily people get to the point where they advocate shooting other people.

    It disturbs me too. I fully realise that rhino poaching is a very emotional issue and that it makes feelings run high; however, let’s drop the calls (even hyperbolic ones) for the deliberate killing of human beings, shall we? Such sentiments don’t really belong on this blog.

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  43. 43. Indarctos 4:50 am 01/10/2013

    repost from fb @ Dr. Naish’s request.

    “hmm, your suggestion of working with “black market forces” is waaaaay past it’s due date. Had conservationists back in the 80s talked with Pablo Escobar and other status-seeking “black-market entrepreneurs” we could’ve spun off valid, well-protected “Pleistocene Megafauna Parks” with sustainable harvesting on a scale to put Ted turner, Sergei Zimov and Frans Vera to shame. These trafficking lords would’ve LOVED to buy enormous tracts of ecosystems to manage and pass on to their children.”

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  44. 44. Heteromeles 2:31 pm 01/10/2013

    Sort of the way that Pablo Escobar protected those hippos on his estate? Unfortunately, I don’t know of any “Robin Hood” activities by drug lords on this scale. Yes, dictators can be pro-conservation (see the Dominican Republic), but they can also give themselves carte blanche to have a head of every animal on their trophy wall. Who’s going to stop them?

    As with the drug wars, there’s always a tendency to go after the suppliers and ignore the consumers who are driving the prices up. How do we deal with consumers, either by turning them off the product, or by introducing acceptable, environmentally safe, and cheap substitutes and flooding the market (as with aspirin, which we haven’t wild-sourced in over a century)?

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  45. 45. farandfew 6:21 am 01/14/2013

    Dartian, I’m not sure it helps much to take that line. It is impossible to talk seriously about rhino conservation without talking about strategies that involve loss of human life; rangers or poachers. I think Vladimir is right that these are the most successful currently operating strategies.
    But, even if you do not consider any new strategies, the fact that something is the ‘best strategy available’ may not be enough reason to advocate it. Not if (where?) even that strategy is doomed to fail. Then you are wasting lives – of rangers as well as poachers – for nothing.

    Heteromeles Yes, dictators can be pro-conservation (see the Dominican Republic), but they can also give themselves carte blanche to have a head of every animal on their trophy wall.
    Or, indeed, both.
    It is very true that we should look carefully at the demand and consumption, but doing so does not lead to any optimism. I’m afraid comparison with aspirin is not appropriate. We haven’t sourced it from the wild because we can synthesise the active ingredient. Rhino horn doesn’t have an active ingredient and, even if it did (as bear bile, in fact, does) it would make little dent in the demand. Really you might as well suggest you could stop overfishing with synthesised protein and ‘omega 3′ oils. Do you know anyone who is a devotee of any kind of traditional medicine? Try talking them out of it. Even when you broadly share a culture.

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  46. 46. Dartian 2:41 am 01/15/2013

    Farandfew:
    I’m not sure it helps much to take that line

    What line? I know that rhino conservation has resulted in (and, unfortunately, most likely will continue to result in) human deaths. I’m just saying that we shouldn’t be so casually advocating lethal violence here, on Darren’s blog, as a solution to this particular problem (or any problem, really). Admittedly I’m guessing here, but I suspect that none of us who are taking part in this discussion is in such a real-world position as to actually implement such a decision or directly have to live with its consequences (e.g., dealing with the relatives of the slain poachers and/or game wardens). To be suggesting that rhino poachers should be shot dead when the one who is making that suggestion isn’t the one who will be actually facing the risks by doing the dirty work just seems terribly… flippant (to put it mildly).

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  47. 47. farandfew 3:06 am 01/15/2013

    I mean the line that one shouldn’t, on this blog, advocate killing people in the name of rhino conservation. I think if you’re going to say that, you basically have to not talk about rhino conservation. If, on the other hand, you meant that, if you are going to advocate it, you shouldn’t do it too casually, then I agree wholeheartedly.

    I think that to say ‘only decision-makers’ can talk about it puts the decision-makers in a very isolated position. People who are working on the frontlines of rhino conservation – and all the other lines too – need support, moral as well as financial. Moral support comes from the community of people who care about the survival of rhinos and I think those people do have a responsibility to see if they can honestly give that support.

    In any case the decision-making process is complex. Personally, while I don’t work on rhinos at present, I can definitely see a future situation in which my own actions might affect how many poachers and rangers, as well as rhinos, are getting shot – and that does scare me. So my own interest in the question is not academic or flippant, I think.

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  48. 48. Dartian 3:53 am 01/15/2013

    Farandfew:
    If, on the other hand, you meant that, if you are going to advocate it, you shouldn’t do it too casually, then I agree wholeheartedly.

    Yes, that’s what I meant. At the risk of repeating myself: Killing people in the name of rhino conservation is not some idle thought exercise; it’s something that can and does happen for real, and it has very real consequences too (of various kinds). The situation is, unfortunately, virtually never as simple as just shooting the Bad Guys (or, even more conveniently, the Foreign Bad Guys).

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  49. 49. farandfew 9:17 am 01/15/2013

    No, for a start they shoot back.
    Well then I’m not sure we’re arguing about anything.
    When I say that many people I know are enthusiastic advocates of shooting in the name of rhino conservation, I mean people who work in rhino conservation or related fields, or have done so in the past, or might do so in the future, or who have tried to do so.
    I would also note that, based on my extremely limited and biased sample, there is a positive correlation between one’s likelihood to advocate shooting others and one’s risk of being shot oneself.

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  50. 50. Pristichampsus 5:12 am 01/21/2013

    To bring sanity back to this extinct rhino post, Darren, are there any ideas on what sort of horns that Diceratherines had? They have bumps indicative of horn rugosities, does this mean they had actual horns growing from them?

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