Why Saving the World’s Rhinos Matters

These misunderstood mammals are in trouble almost everywhere in the wild. Why should we care?

Rhinocerous (Rhinocerotidae), from the Greek word for nose—rhino—and horn—ceros—are large ungulates (hoofed mammals) that can grow to as heavy as 5,000 pounds. There are five species as LiveScience reports: white and black rhinos are native to eastern and southern Africa; greater one-horned rhinos populate northern India and southern Nepal; while Sumatran and Javan rhinos “are found only in small areas of Malaysian and Indonesian swamps and rain forests.” Black, Sumatran, and Javan rhinos are all listed as critically endangered, with 5,055, less than 100, and perhaps 44 of each species left, respectively. Greater one-horned rhinos are “vulnerable” and number around 3,300. And white rhinos are “near-threatened,” although the northern white rhino is considered functionally extinct, and only two females remain, in captivity. This is how many rhinos are left in the world.

Why rhinos are in trouble

Like most animals that are struggling in the wild, rhinos are victims of human encroachment, losing habitat to agriculture and development, which also makes their food and water sources scarce. Still, the single greatest threat to rhinos is poaching. Their horns—two each for white, black, and Sumatran rhinos, and one each for the others—rank as the world’s most “valuable appendage[s] in an exotic marketplace,” according to National Geographic; they are in high demand mostly in Vietnam and China as “treatment for everything from cancer to sea snake bites and hangovers…and as an aphrodisiac.” And although the sale of rhino horns is illegal in some countries, in others, like South Africa, you can get a license to cut a horn off (it grows back), which has led to horrific scenes of carnage and suffering. Sumatran rhinos are one of the 30 rarest animals on earth.

Misunderstood

There are many reasons to care about the continued existence and good health of any species in the wild. But getting some people to care about rhinos has sometimes been a hard sell. Rhodesian children’s author Lauren St John writes in The Guardian, this is because they’re often considered ornery, “piggy-eyed, and extremely dangerous.” In truth, says St John, they are “sensitive, smart, playful, and deeply loyal to their loved ones,” behave similarly to horses, and have “intricate social systems.” Find out 15 other things you never knew about rhinos.

Umbrella species

If that isn’t enough to convince the world that rhinoceros deserve our care and attention, they also play a critical role in ecosystems. Along with grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, and a species of pine, rhinos are considered umbrella species, defined by the UN’s Environment Programme as those “that have either large habitat needs or other requirements whose conservation results in many other species being conserved at the ecosystem or landscape level.” They’re also considered a keystone species, eating the tips of shrubs and low trees, which helps other species that use these plants for shelter and food, according to Smithsonian Magazine. By helping to protect the grasslands where some rhino roam, we keep an enormous amount of carbon trapped below-ground, which is a good thing.

The case for preserving ancient species

Rhinos have been roaming the earth for about 50 million years, and while it may be difficult to understand why that matters, as “godfather of biodiversity” Thomas E. Lovejoy told Scientific American, “species have value…that may become apparent only when they are studied closely.” And while we’re egotistically accustomed to defining “value” as it applies to humans, biologist Kerry Bruce Clark explains that “we simply do not know enough about the biology of a rare species to predict the effects of its extinction. But once the species is lost, we can never provide a perfect substitute.”

Effects on humans

Yes, keeping rhinos around has major implications for humans, too. “Each species…represents a unique genetic library,” Bruce Clark writes in Scientific American. Our genetic technology is only beginning to tap the vast potential benefits of these libraries, and…[they] represent potential resources that we should preserve for our future needs.” But even more immediately, rhinos bring many tourists into the regions where they live, flooding often-impoverished surrounding communities with resources. And conservation efforts that include employing local communities as wildlife rangers and protectors of not just rhinos but the surrounding ecology, begin to lift people out of poverty—helping to break the cyclical nature of rhino poaching that appeals because it can bring vast amounts of money to those who have none. Want to help? Start by refusing to purchase anything made with rhino or any other horn. These 33 stunning photos of rhinos in the wild will help convince you these beautiful beasts are worth saving.

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Lela Nargi
Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering science, sustainability, climate, and agriculture for Readers Digest, Washington Post, Sierra, NPR, The Counter, JSTOR Daily, and many other outlets. She also writes about science for kids. You can follow her on Twitter @LelaNargi.