10 Things You Should Know About Rhinos

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Rhinos are amazing and massive animals that easily capture the imagination of their admirers both at zoos and in the wild. Unfortunately, they’re facing serious threats and their numbers are dwindling lower all the time. In honor of Endangered Species Day today, here’s a deeper look at the armored tank of animals.

Black rhino image courtesy of Alison Sanfacon's Flickr stream.

1. Like many English words, "rhinoceros" comes from words of another language--in this case, Greek. Rhinoceros is made from the words rhino (nose) and keras (horn). So next time you use the shortened version of their name, just realize that you’re saying nothing more than “nose.”

2. A group of rhinos is properly referred to as a “crash.”

3. Don’t expect them to put out your fires. While there are tons of legends from Malaysia, India and Burma stating that rhinos instinctively charge at campfires and stamp them out, there have been no recorded instances of the animals actually doing this. While rhinos do have a highly evolved sense of smell, and the scent of smoke really irritates them, it still seems unlikely that a rhino would charge directly at a fire no matter what you may have seen in The Gods Must Be Crazy.

White rhino image courtesy of gmacfadyen's Flickr steam.

4. Despite their names, white and black rhinos are pretty much the same color. That’s because the names don’t actually have much to do with the animals' skin tone at all. The white rhino was originally called “whyde” by Dutch settlers, referring to the creature’s wide square mouth. The name was eventually anglicized to white and, surprisingly enough, the black rhino was only so named in an effort to distinguish it from the white rhino.

While they may look similar, there are differences between the species: the black rhino has two more chromosomes than the white rhino; the white rhinos have broad lips for grazing on grass and the black rhinos have long lips for eating foliage off of plants; and black rhinos weigh about half as much as their white counterparts. Even with their differences though, the two species can still interbreed and produce fertile offspring.

Indian rhino image courtesy of Wikipedia user Krish Dulal.

5. It’s not just a black & white issue. While black rhinos and white rhinos are the most common and the most well-known, they aren’t the only rhinos around. The Indian rhinoceros can now be found only in Nepal and northeastern India near the foothills of the Himalayas, although they once roamed over an area stretching all the way from Pakistan to China. These rhinos are easily recognizable since they only have one horn (hence their other name, the greater one-horned rhinoceros) and have odd wart-like bumps around their upper legs and shoulders.

The lesser one-horned rhino (a.k.a. the Javan rhinoceros) is also pretty easy to recognize, as the females rarely have a horn larger than a nub and the males have much smaller horns than other rhino species. The Javan variety are also much smaller and a little smoother than their Indian cousins, although you’re unlikely to see a Javan rhino any time soon. This is the rarest of all rhino species and one of the rarest large mammals in the world with, unfortunately, only around 40 alive today. While their name might lead you to believe they are native to Java, they were actually widespread throughout Asia until they were hunted to extinction in practically every country except the Indonesian islands.

Perhaps the most visually striking rhino, though, is the Sumatran rhinoceros, which is the furriest and smallest of all living rhino species. As you might imagine, their reddish brown fur was an evolutionary adaptation to help the rhino better deal with the cold environment in its high altitude range in Borneo and Sumatra. The Sumatran rhino is the most archaic of all species, evolving into its current form over 15 million years ago, and is more closely related to the woolly rhinoceros of the ice age than any of the other living species.

6. Rhinos' feet are surprisingly sensitive. As they walk, rhinos put most of their weight on their toenails. In the wild, they walk around in grasslands, marshes and wetlands, which don’t wear down their toenails all that much.

Unfortunately, when the creatures are brought to zoos and held in concrete or asphalt enclosures, the nails wear down and the rhinos have to walk on their foot pads. As a result, they often get swollen, sore and cracked feet that can quickly become infected. In fact, one zoo helped correct the problem by gluing modified horseshoes onto their rhino’s toes, allowing him to better deal with the asphalt ground. If you want to read more about the procedure (and other animal zoo stories), I highly recommend The Rhino With Glue-On Shoes.

Javan rhino image by Lawrence Anson Wong's Flickr.

7. Rhinos need our help. With only 60 40 remaining Javan rhinos left in the world, it’s obvious the variety is in peril, but they’re not the only ones. All rhinos are in danger at this point. In fact, there are only about 275 Sumatran rhinos, 17,500 white rhinos and 2,675 Indian rhinos alive today. Furthermore, while white rhinos are doing alright as a whole, the Northern white rhino subspecies is down to only around 10 individuals. Equally shocking, the black rhino’s numbers have dropped sharply, from 70,000 in the late sixties to 2,450 today. To help, you can always donate to The International Rhino Foundation.

8. While loss of habitat has been a problem for the beasts, their biggest threat is poaching and, unfortunately, this problem is only getting worse. In 2010, a record number of rhinos, 333 to be exact, were killed in South African National Parks, and in 2011 the number increased to 448. Some officials estimate that only 3% of poachers are actually being caught. To stop the killing, reserves have tried a variety of tactics, including removing the horns altogether (the rhinos rarely need to use them to defend themselves), using a fluorescent pesticide on the horns to protect the rhino from bugs, catching poachers at the airports, and applying poison to deter buyers of the horn. In some case, mercenaries even kill suspected poachers on site.

No matter what officials do to try to stop the killers though, the lure of massive amounts of money, especially during the global recession, is just too powerful. So how much are rhino horns worth? Well, one average size horn can easily bring in a quarter of a million dollars.

Sumatran rhino image courtesy of Wikipedia user Ltshears.

9. One of the saddest things about the murder of these magnificent beasts is the fact that their horns, despite some Eastern medicinal practitioners' claims, are essentially useless as a medical treatment. That’s because rhino horns aren’t made from any special material; they contain nothing but keratin, the same proteins as human hair and fingernails.

10. There is hope though. Remember that there are up to 17,500 white rhinos? Well, most of them are of the Southern white rhino subspecies. While there are now around 16,250 in the wild, at the turn of the twentieth century that number was closer to 100. Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of organizations like the San Diego Zoo, the numbers skyrocketed in the latter half of the century. With any luck, the Northern white rhino and the Javan rhino populations can rebound as well.

Happy Endangered Species Day everyone, and remember, if you want to help a variety of endangered critters, including rhinos, the World Wildlife Fund is a always a great place to donate.

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May 18, 2012 - 12:19pm
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