18 min read

The Truth About Rhinos

<p>“Family” by Sarah Soward © 2014, www.Facebook.com/rhinotopia</p>


Rhinos. What do most people know about one of Africa's "Big Five?" Here's a short quiz to test your rhino-savvy and maybe make you a bit of an expert in the process.

Ready? True or False?

Rhinos have horns.

False! We call them horns and they look sort of like horns, but really they aren't. A true horn is bone covered with a sheath of keratin. Rhino "horns" have no boney core and are only made of keratin which is basically dead protein cells like those that make up your callouses, nails and hair.

Here's a photo of some buffalo horns- true horns. The boney interiors have been removed so the keratin sheath stands alone:

Source: ‪Nativecrafts

Compare this cross-section of a poached rhino "horn" with the true horn above. As you can see, there's no bone inside; it is keratin all the way through.

Source: David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

Rhino Horns Have Magical or Healing Properties.

False! There are no magical properties in keratin! If you want keratin, you can just go to any hair salon and sweep the floor. Yet, rhino horns are more valuable than gold in Vietnam, the largest market today for poached rhino horns.

In China, drinking from a rhino-horn cup is thought to bring long life and enhanced virility. It's sad that even today people believe something that looks phallic will solve impotency.

Source: Vanessa Smeets

All Rhinos have at least two horns.

False! All African and Sumatran rhinos have at least two horns but Indian and Javan rhinos have only one. Males and females are both horn-endowed, which is another reason it's ridiculous to think rhino horns improve virility.

You call a group of rhinos a...

a) Crash

b) Herd

c) Both

d) Neither

The answer is C. You can call them a crash or a herd. Technically, though, rhinos are not herd animals.

One rhinoceros, two _______? Rhinoceroses or rhinos! Unless you are a hunter or poacher, in which case you think of animals as a thing rather than a group of individuals and call a bunch of them rhino, lion, elephant, etc. Along the same lines, hunters call safaris "game hunts or game drives." So do photographers and tourists, but animals are not game and this term should be dropped by them.

Rhinos are fierce carnivores.

False! Rhinos are peace-loving vegetarians. They mostly eat leaves, but can eat bark and branches if that's what's available.

"All United Against Poaching and Illegal Wildlife Trade" Wall art in Berlin by Knorke Leaf, 2013.

Unlike elephants, rhinos aren't crucial to their ecosystem.

False! Researchers have proven that without rhinos all other animals that depend on grazing the plains suffer. With rhinos, the number and types of plants multiply. They give back nearly as much as they take, too, as the fiber in their food goes straight through and ends up as fertilizer.

Rhinos and elephants contend for "largest land animal" title.

False! Rhinos are the second largest land animal. The largest get to about 6600 pounds, less than half the weight of the largest African Elephants.

Here a young elephant makes friends with a rhino:

Source: Fightforrhinos.com

Rhinos are nearsighted.

True! With their poor eyesight and relatively solitary behavior, rhinos have to rely on a keen sense of smell and great hearing to find each other. They create huge dung piles, mark their territories with urine and rub their scent glands on trees and rocks. All this wards off competitors and attracts the opposite sex.

Source: www.savingrhinos.org

Rhinos have built-in armor.

True! One of their defenses against heat, predators and each other is extremely thick skin, ranging from about ¾" to 2" thick and it is hard to penetrate because of the lattice structure of its cells. Of course, that's no match for bullets.

Like elephants, rhinos enjoy a good mudbath which keeps them cool. The mud wards off sunburn and insects.

Rhinos have hoofs.

True! They fall into the category of "odd-toed ungulates" (ungulate means hoofed) along with horses, zebras and tapirs-their closest living relatives.

Like all hoofed animals, the rhino is actually standing on its tiptoes and what we can see is just extra padding and keratin nails around the individual bones.

Source: Oklahoma City Community College.

It's interesting: Hoofed animals usually don't look like they have toes because the toe bones are covered with a keratin "shoe" like this zebra's:

Source: Horsesamurai.com

...and rhinos don't look like they have hoofs. But that's just because they are missing that outer "shoe."

Rhinos are highly social animals.

True...and false! Female rhinos are very protective of their calves for the first three years and then the kids are on their own. Girls stay close to their native territory while the boys depart. This naturally prevents inbreeding.

Here a newborn black rhino stays in touch with her exhausted mom.

Source: Itsnature.org

Male rhinos live in territories defended by a dominant bull and satellite males. They approach females only to mate. Females might hang out with other females when they're between calves, and everyone might get together at the same watering hole.

Source: Cape2009 Panomario

White and Black rhinos look about the same.

True! White rhinos are grey and Black ones are whiter and we just have to live with that.

White rhinos
Of the two species of white rhinos, the Northern White rhino is nearly extinct as there were only four in the wild in 2008.

Photo credit: Ikiwaner.

The Southern White rhino is the most plentiful of all rhino species but one is being killed every nine hours and the extinction clock is running out on them, too.

Black rhinos
Black in name only, these rhinos are smaller than the white rhinos and have at least two horns, sometimes three. Their upper lips are prehensile, like our thumbs, for grabbing branches and leaves. There are fewer than 5000 left out of the 65,000 we had back in the 1970s.

Photo credit: Yathin S Krishnappa.

Rhinos are nearly bald.

True...and false! Most rhinos only have hair on their eyelids, tails and ears. But Sumatran rhinos, the smallest of all rhinos, have shaggy hair. That's probably because they live in the colder hills of Borneo and Sumatra.

Source: Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary

There are less than 100 Sumatran rhinos scattered across Southeast Asia, living in fragmented populations because of habitat destruction. The chances of two of them bumping into each other becomes less and less likely.

That's why captive breeding has become a key strategy to save this species and years of effort are producing fruit: Meet Andatu, the first Sumatran rhino to be born in captivity:

Source: Rhinos.org

Rhinos have few predators other than man.

True! Because of their size, tough hide and fierce defenses, adults are largely left alone. Just as for baby elephants, though, crocodiles, tigers and hyenas are a danger to little rhinos.

Rhinos are fast.

True! Don't be deceived by their big bodies and short legs: Rhinos can zip by you at 25-30 mph, but that's not much of a defense if a hunter sneaks up with a rifle.

Today, commercial poachers use helicopters to spot rhinos and then high-powered rifles and tranquilizer darts to bring them down. The killers land, run in with chainsaws to quickly hack off the horns, and then fly away, leaving the animals to die a slow, painful death from hemorrhage, infection and scavenging.

This process takes poachers less than 10 minutes, so you can imagine how many rhinos can be killed in a single day. Rhino poaching is increasing every year and in 2014 more than 1200 rhinos will lose their lives for their horns. In 10 years there will be no more rhinos if poaching isn't stopped now.

Rhinos might be the most endangered animal on earth.

True! Since 1980, 95% of the world's rhinos have been killed by poachers.The remaining Javan, Sumatran and Northern white rhinos are so few and so scattered, that only sanctuaries, captive breeding and a complete halt to poaching will save them.

The profits from rhino horns benefit poor Africans.

False! Other than the pittance paid to local poachers hired by cartels, the only money that stays in Africa are the bribes given customs officials, dirty rangers and politicians. The rest goes out of the country in the form of poached horns that are sold to distributors who then sell the horns all over Asia.

The money returns to Africa in the form of corruption, guns, drugs and loss of national heritage-which further impoverishes people struggling to survive.

If anyone needs a reason to save rhinos other than for the sake of themselves and our planet, they simply have to look at the results of poaching: wars, terrorism and drug addiction are devastating much of Africa. It's a vicious cycle- poaching kills local economies making people more desperate people for work, which results in an endless army of poachers. Catch 10 and 20 more will take their place.

That's why successful conservation projects educate the local people about the value of living wild animals to their economy and also give them an alternative way to make money-animals to raise for meat, eggs and milk, and local products they can make for sale outside of Africa.

Organizations like Big Life hire former poachers and then train and arm them to catch new poachers in outposts in Kenya and Tanzania.

Rhinos are being relocated by air to safer areas of Africa.

True! Rangers in places like Krueger Park in South Africa are launching plans to pick up black rhinos and move them. Even though this puts the animals at risk of harm during darting, capture and transport that's how desperate conservationists have become. Of course, this is a stop-gap measure as poachers will soon be on their heels, but at this point no alternative seems too drastic.

Photograph courtesy Green Renaissance/WWF.

Snap Quiz

Are these African or Asian rhinos?

Photo credit Dex Kotze

If you answered African, congratulations! You know that only African rhinos have two or more horns and no body hair. Now you can go out and do something to save them. Here are five ideas:

If you live in Africa or Southeast Asia, help educate others about the dangers of poaching to society and the economy.

If you live in Asia, teach others that rhino horns have no power except when they are on the heads of living rhinos.

Use your influence to get action taken and laws changed. Tweet this article, share it, and don't be afraid to talk about the problem.

Join the global March for Elephants and Rhinos in a city near you on October 4, 2014.

Sign petitions and lobby politicians to ban import/export and sale of rhino horns anywhere in the world.

So... the truth about rhinos? It is scientific fact: Rhino horn powder doesn‘t minimize the effects of alcohol or otherwise detoxify the human body. It won't improve sexual prowess. It can't cure any illness. It is just dust.

Horns don't confer power or status: The only status of a person buying rhino horns, goods or powder is criminal. The blood of rhinos is on their hands.

Above: Otto by Sarah Soward; cover painting: Family by Sarah Soward © 2014.