Endangered Baby: Northern White Rhino

In Vietnam, if you have a rhino horn, you’re (supposedly) a big deal. They’re worth up to $60,000 per kilo on the black market—more valuable than diamonds or cocaine. Sometimes they’re even ground up and snorted as a party drug. And some proponents of Asian medicine actually believe they can cure hangovers … and cancer. So, what magical organic material gives rhino horns such potent powers?

Keratin. Yeah. They’re made of the same stuff as our hair and nails. So, no, it’ll never cure cancer or anything else.

Illegal poaching of their horns is the No. 1 threat to rhinos. In South Africa alone, rhino poaching has increased by about 9,000 percent since 2007, according to the World Wildlife Fund. This is like a drug trafficking trade—and the poachers are ruthless, shooting to kill rhinos with AK-47s.

“A shot mother will cry in pain, sometimes inadvertently causing her frightened baby to return to her. Poachers will sever a baby’s spine with a machete to save a bullet, then take its horn too.” —Bryan Christy, National Geographic

Three of the five rhino species are critically endangered: Javan, Sumatran, and African black rhinos. But I’m highlighting the white rhino because their story is pretty cool (bittersweet, really).

Southern white rhinos were once on the brink of extinction, but their population has rebounded to over 20,000 thanks to intensive conservation efforts. Unfortunately, their genetically-distinct subspecies cousins, northern white rhinos, seem fated to go extinct. There are only three left on the whole planet: one male named Sudan and two females named Fatu and Najin. All three live on the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya but can’t breed because they’re directly related to one another. And besides, it turns out both females are infertile and 42-year-old Sudan’s sperm count is very low.

The only hope for northern white rhinos now is artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and stem cell technology. Scientists are working on developing these solutions, with hopes of using southern white rhinos as surrogates. These experiments are being run by conservancies like Ol Pejeta in collaboration with zoo organizations. To be honest, I’m always reluctant to patronize the latter because I can’t personally vet their ethics and their handling of animals. (At this point, I don’t condemn zoos because I know some actually do important conservation work, but I can’t help but feel like they might be a part of the problem.) So today, on World Rhino Day, I don’t have an easy answer for you about who you should donate to, or whose conservation efforts you should support.

All I can say is that I think one of our huge problems is our human tendency to treat animals and their body parts as objects for our own pleasure, beauty, wealth, or status. I’m not just talking about Vietnamese socialites and their rhino horn habit—wearing fur and other animal skins, and even displaying taxidermy are all examples of ways we unconsciously exploit other creatures. Even just thinking twice about purchasing a product derived from animals can make a ripple in shifting the consciousness about how humans treat wildlife—rhinos and all.

Photo credit: Valentina Storti via Flickr

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