Zimbabwe, Zambia

Kariba & Middle Zambezi

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The rhino’s path through history

The rhino’s path through history

The rhino’s path through history

A brief summary of the successes and failures of rhino conservation in southern Africa

At least twenty-six species of rhino - ranging in size from that of a small pig to a shorter-necked giraffe - have become extinct over time, the latest being the woolly rhino, which survived until just last week in geological time, having succumbed just 15 000 years ago to the latest ice-age.

Now only five species survive, and three of these – the Javan, Sumatran and the black rhino - are on their way out forever, in our own short lifetimes, unless we stop poaching them.

Africa boasts - though in a very small voice it must be said – two of those five species that have thus far avoided extinction, although both are teetering on the abyss.

These are the black rhino, which are not black at all, but grey, and the white rhino, which are not even vaguely white but… much the same grey really. The terms came from a simple mix-up of the Dutch word “wyd” (meaning wide and referring to the broad mouth of the grazer), which someone with a hearing impediment heard as ‘white’ - and the other species was named by a complete twit who saw the world in opposites, and so called it ‘black.’ Following an onslaught against rhinos to rival the slaughter of bison on the Great American Plains, by the late 1800s white rhinos were considered extinct in Southern Africa.

However, with the kind of good fortune that white rhinos desperately needed, a small group of less than a dozen animals was found hiding in Zululand by people who cared enough to save them and not turn their horns into a hairy form of Viagra. I must admit that I was disappointed to learn the truth that the Chinese traditional doctors do not use the keratin-rich powder as an aphrodisiac, as much as prescribe it for fevers and convulsions. If we are going to exterminate an entire family of animals, I would have hoped that it should be for the higher cause of glorious orgasms rather than for the occasional relief of a few twitching muscles or sweaty brows.

This tiny group of white rhinos, once given the chance to breed, had grown to about 4000 in number by the late 1980s. Interestingly they are considered to be the largest pure grazers ever to amble about on this earth, which seems a strange claim as there were numerous dinosaurs that were much larger than these relatively puny beasts.

The thing is that while many dinosaurs were strictly vegetarian, not one of them ever ate a single blade of grass. How do we know that? Well, grass along with other flowering plants, only evolved after the demise of the big lizards. The black rhino, on the other hand, had taken another route. Their population by the late 1980s was a quarter of what it had been in the 70s, and they were charging headlong towards extinction outside of places like London Zoo, where they bred happily. London was bizarrely destined to have a larger black rhino population than Botswana.

The problem for the 6000 or so that have made it so far is that they are split into seven subspecies - five of which have populations of under five hundred, and all of which are scattered over the southern, eastern and possibly central parts of the African continent, in isolated islands of dubious safety.

With the recent increase in poaching, caused in large part by the sudden emergence of a huge wealthy class in China, rhinos around the globe are facing the final curtain.

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 07, Dec 2011)