The Rhinocerous

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The Rhinoceros- A prehistoric relic

 Visualize meeting an animal, 6m at the shoulder and 7m long rumbling across the barren plains of Mongolia. The fact that this animal is totally herbivorous is of small consolation when faced by an animal of this magnitude brandishing a set of gigantic tusks. Indricotherium, the title set upon this huge hornless rhino by paleontologists represented the pinnacle of rhino evolution, when they were not only successful as a family in the Old World, but also the New.

The rhino’s evolutionary peak was about 40 million years ago, when relatives of the rhino like the Indricotherium and Paraceratherium roamed the plains of our prehistoric world. Opinions differ over the real reason for their decline. Probably the most viable suggestion was the climatic change that took place and the subsequent vegetation transformation. Low crowned molars, suggest that they were more adept at browsing than grazing, and when the forest zone covering most of Eurasia from the British Isles to India began to transform from forest to savannah, their principle food source began to give way to grass which would have put them at a severe disadvantage. The Sumatran rhino could be considered as the only true descendant of the old browsing rhino, who along with others have either evolved or have become extinct.

A creature of habit that is also slow and ponderous, with poor eyesight and a placid demeanor, has made them ideal and easy targets for traditional hunters and poachers. Stone- age hunters depicted the woolly rhino, which they hunted, in rock paintings in caves like Font-de-Gaume and numerous other sites across France. African hunters also took advantage of the rhino and hunted them with sharpened stakes placed in pits that were dug in the animal’s habitual trails. Despite all this attention, in the second half of the nineteen-century, both African species of rhino, black and white, where still fairly numerous, with no sign that they were under pressure from the local hunters.

The most severe impact on rhino numbers  probably came more from the transformation of their natural habitat than from hunting. In 1947 and 48 the British hunter, John A. Hunter dispatched some 800 rhino in a state sponsored clearance program in East Africa in preparation of land for agricultural resettlement after the Second World War. Habitat clearing in India for tea plantations has had a similar impact on the future of the great Indian one-horned rhino as has the clearing for rubber plantations in Malaysia had on the Sumatran rhino. This habitat change brought about by the clearing of woodland and scrub would have the same impact on modern rhino as did the vegetation modification brought about by the climatic changes during the Oligocene which caused the decline of the large browsing species of the time.

In the mid 1930’s Southern Africa’s white rhino population was on the brink of extinction. The entire population numbered a mere 50 individual’s protected in the park’s of Zululand in South Africa. Enlightened management by parks’ officials resulted in the species being removed from the Endangered Species List and game reserves all over Southern Africa have had white rhino reintroduced into their custody.

At the end of the twentieth century, there were only two thousand black rhino roaming the earth.  One quarter of these could be found in Namibia, of which a third inhabited the wild and rugged expanses of communal lands in north-western Namibia, which receives less than 2 inches of rain per annum. With ranges far greater than their bushveld cousins and a digestive system that has adapted to a diet of the toxic Euphorbia damarana, it is genetically distinct enough to be classified as a separate subspecies Diceros bicornis bicornis.

But by the early 1980s, poaching by the South African Defence Force and local residents had decimated the population in the Kunene region of Namibia to only forty animals.  The lack of cover, temperatures around 40 degrees C, and remoteness, not to mention the lack of any reliable rainfall, have benefited the species by making predators almost unknown, except humans that is.  These harsh conditions are also the major factor limiting the proliferation of the species. Through an intensive conservation program involving government, the local population and independent conservation bodies, this figure has more than doubled over the last 20 years.  
Perhaps the most unlikely success story in the recent history of this unfortunate species...

Modern humans cannot prevent the eventual extinction of the last remaining species of rhino. It is inevitable in a geological sense and has been played out for many million years. The perissodactyls or ‘odd-toed ungulates’ are an outdated group, incapable of competing on equal terms with the artiodactyls (even-toed ungulates) who’s members include deer, gazelles and antelopes. What we as humans can do is ensure that we reduce the pressure on them from our own species, so that they can become extinct, not in the geological second represented by our brief appearance as a destructive force, but in the natural course of events, many thousands of years from now.

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