The sad tale of the preposterous rhinoceros

Rhinos have a beauty all their own. Soon the world is going to be one species fewer and, as usual, we are doing too little, too late.

Rhinos make up a group of five extant species of odd-toed ungulates (mammals with hooves that feature an odd number of toes on their rear feet). Two of these species are native to Africa and three to South Asia. Odd-toed ungulates probably evolved from tapir-like animals in what is now Asia around the Paleocene-Eocene boundary (56 million years ago).

The word rhinoceros is derived via Latin from the Ancient Greek for “horn-nosed”. The collective noun is a crash or herd. The five living species of rhinoceros fall into three categories: in Africa the white rhinoceros and the black rhinoceros; in Asia the Indian rhinoceros and the Javan rhinoceros; plus a hybrid white rhino bred in 1977 at the Dvur Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic.

Northern-white-rhinoTwo subspecies of the African white rhino exist: the southern white rhinoceros and the northern white rhinoceros. It is the latter that will soon be extinct. In December 2014 a northern white rhinoceros died at the San Diego Zoo in California, leaving only five in the entire world. The rhinos have been pitilessly hunted for their valuable horns.

One of the critically endangered species remains at the zoo in California and another in the Czech Republic. Three remain in a Kenyan reserve. In vitro fertilisation efforts are being undertaken to keep the species from extinction, but success is thought to be unlikely. This year will be critical for the survival of the northern white rhino.

The last of their kind are: Angalifu – male (aged 44) died at San Diego Zoo on 14 December 2014. Nola – female (40) lives at the San Diego Zoo. Nabire – female (31) housed at Dvur Králové Zoo. Sudan – male (43) resides in a semi-wild state at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya. Najin – female (25) lives at Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Fatu – female (14) is Najin’s daughter.

Rhino-DurerIn 1515 the German painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer drew a pen and ink portrait of a rhinoceros. It was based on a written description and a rough sketch by an unknown artist of an Indian rhino that had arrived in Lisbon earlier that year. Dürer never saw the animal, which was sent as a gift by the King of Portugal to Pope Leo X. Unfortunately, it died in a shipwreck off the coast of Italy in early 1516.

In 2014 Elizabeth Kolbert published her acclaimed book The Sixth Extinction, explaining the Earth’s past five mass extinctions and bemoaning the negative impact of human actions on the world’s flora and fauna. People have caused the demise of the northern white rhinoceros and few will ever see it again. Sadly, Ogden Nash’s fond reminiscence has become reality:

“The rhino is a homely beast,
For human eyes he’s not a feast.
Farwell, farewell, you old rhinoceros,
I’ll stare at something less prepoceros.”


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