Western black rhino – extinct subspecies of the black rhinoceros
The modern age history of rhinoceroses has been like a rollercoaster, and odds are that’s not going to change in the near future. During the 19-20th centuries all five extant rhino species were hunted to the brink of extinction: the black rhino population reached a record low of 2400 in 1995, the four other species all had at some point of their story only a few dozen living specimens. Two of them – the Javan and the Sumatran rhino – have each only one population today with estimated 50-80 individuals; both species are critically endangered. Thanks to conservation efforts, by the end of the 20th century the white rhino and the greater one-horned rhino were able to recover to populations of a few thousand – only to face the danger of extirpation again because of the current surge in poaching to satisfy the increasing demand for rhino horns.
All five rhino species have been hunted historically for their horns – Indian greater one-horned rhino hunting
Rhino horn has been highly prized and sought after by several cultures for many reasons for over a thousand years, and Asia has been considered the leading consumer for decades, but this recent surge of demand is clearly connected to one country: Vietnam. In the first decade of the 21th century wealthy classes of Vietnam started to regard buying, consuming and gifting rhino horn as a status symbol. This is supported by an underlying belief in health benefits: rhino horn has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years – even nowadays, neglecting all scientific evidence of their complete ineffectiveness – but the notion that it is the cure for everything from hangover to cancer is recent, and the latter one is spread by some well-respected Vietnamese doctors.
And as if the dire situation in Vietnam wasn’t enough, in November last year (2018) China announced that they will allow the regulated trade of rhino horn, tiger bones and animal parts of other endangered species used in traditional Chinese medicine again. Currently the implementation of lifting the ban that has been standing since 1993 is postponed because of the international outcry aroused by the announcement – maybe the time should be spent on convincing people willing to give thousands of dollars for a few ounces of rhino horn to choose the much more economical equivalent and chew on their fingernails instead…
Sadly, it is quite certain that four subspecies will not have a future at all: the Indian Javan rhino is thought to be gone extinct before 1925, and after decades of being hunted by poachers three more subspecies eventually went extinct in the first years of the 21th century. Sudan, the last male Northern white rhino, had to be euthanized in March 2018 leaving only 2 females of his subspecies alive in the world; the last known individual of another Javan rhinoceros subspecies (Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus) was shot and killed in April 2010 in Vietnam – this subspecies was already thought to be extinct for a while when a tiny population was rediscovered in 1988; and the first victim of the century was the Western black rhino, wiped out completely sometimes in the first decade.
The last Western black rhinos resided in Cameroon
©Copyright Save The Rhino
Date of extinction: The date and the circumstances of the death of the last Western black rhino are unknown – even the time of the last legit sighting is hard to tell –, but there’s no doubt it was killed by poachers for its horn. A WWF survey in 2001 found five live specimens in Cameroon and reported the possibility of three more unconfirmed individuals. In 2004, a nongovernmental organization (Symbiose) reported that they found evidence of over 30 western black rhinos still living in Cameroon – that quickly turned out to be a lie: the trackers faked rhino footprints to keep their jobs. In 2006, parallel surveys of the WWF, the Cameroon Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, and a renewed 6 month long field survey of Symbiose conducted on the species’ common roaming ground in Cameroon’s Northern Province failed to find any traces of living specimens. After the usual 5 years waiting period the IUCN eventually changed the status of the Western black rhino from critically endangered to extinct in 2011.
Range: The Western black rhino once used to roam large areas of central and western Africa from south-eastern Niger to South Sudan. The last population lived in Cameroon.
Habitat: Western black rhinos used to inhabit the savanna areas of sub-Saharan Africa; they preferred areas with thick scrub and bushland, gallery woodlands and marshes over the vast grassland.
Black rhinos roam the vast savannas of sub-Saharan Africa
©Copyright Gerry Zambonini /
Description: The Western black rhino (Diceros bicornis longipes) was one of the four subspecies – according to the taxonomical scheme adopted by the IUCN – of the black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis). With an average of 140-180 cm height at the shoulder, 3-3.75 m body length and 800-1.400 kg weight it was considerably smaller than the other African rhino, the white rhinoceros. The names of both species are misleading as the white rhino is actually grey and the black rhino’s skin varies from brown to grey – they are not truly distinguishable by color.
African rhinos share a common ancestor and are generally quite similar in their appearances – thick skin, massive body with a broad chest, short neck, large head with two horns on the snout, and ears with a relatively wide rotation angle – but besides their size there are minor but very important differences, developed as adaptations to their differing diet and feeding habits. White rhinos are grazers: they eat grass, preferring the shortest grains of the open savanna grasslands; they have a distinctive flat broad mouth, a ‘square’ lip. Black rhinos adapted to browsing: they eat foliage and all leafy parts, branches, shoots and fruits of bushes and smaller trees; they’ve developed a strong, prehensile ‘hooked’ upper lip to grasp the leaves and twigs. The black rhino’s head is also smaller and held higher while white rhinos have a prominent muscular hump to support their larger head.
The clippers and the lawn-mower: black rhinos have prehensile lips adapted to browsing on leafy plants, white rhinos have square lips adapted to grazing on grass
©Copyright Bernard Dupont /
Besides their range, Western black rhinos had some less conspicuous features to distinguish them from the other three black rhino subspecies: they had a square based horn, some distinctive chewing apparatus characteristics, and their scientific name – longipes – refers to their longer distal limb segment.
All black rhinos usually spend their time browsing for food in the morning and evening hours and rest during the hot midday period, preferably wallowing in a mud pool to cool down and as a protection against parasites. They regularly visit water holes using the same trails that elephants use – they can live up to 5 days without drinking in drought periods.
Adult black rhinos generally live in solitary, except the mother-calf relation and while mating; young adults frequently form loose associations. Thanks to their deadly horn, thick skin and imposing size rhinos don’t really have any natural predators, except some rare cases of lion or crocodile attack. Black rhinos also have a reputation of being very aggressive, attacking at everything perceived as a threat – even at each other, often causing serious injuries resulting in death. Recent research shows that – in contrary to widespread belief – rhino’s eyesight isn’t particularly poor; although they rely more on their keen ears and excellent sense of smell.
Black rhinos have no mating season. Females have a single calf after a 15 month gestation period; the youngsters stay with their mother for about 2-3 years. Life expectancy in natural conditions is 35-50 years.
Eastern black rhino baby, a critically endangered black rhino subspecies
©Copyright Tambako the Jaguar /
Cause of extinction: At the beginning of the 20th century around one million black rhinoceroses roamed the savannas of Africa; for most of the century, the population of the Western black rhino was the largest among the subspecies. All black rhino subspecies were heavily hunted in the first decades of the 1900s by ‘sportsmen’ and trophy collectors; with the increasing industrial agriculture farmers and ranchers regarded them as crop pests and decimated their numbers.
Rhino horn has been sought after as a valuable material for special, traditional carved items in the Middle East and Asia; it is still frequently used to prepare the handle of a ceremonial knife called janbiya in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In the early 1950s, Mao Zedong started to promote so called ‘traditional Chinese medicine’ to counter Western influences: as rhino horn was – absolutely falsely – believed to be able to ‘cure’ several ailments, poaching rapidly increased, and with the dwindling population of rhinos all over Africa and Asia the market value of 1 kg horn reached 50 000 USD. Between 1960 and 1995 98 percent of all black rhino populations were wiped out.
By the 1980s there were only two countries left in Africa with Western black rhinos: Cameroon had around 110 and Chad around 25 individuals living in their territory, with no known specimens in any zoos. The Chad population was eliminated within the next decade; and by the end of the century Cameroon had only 10 Western black rhinos, partly living in isolation without any hope to find each other and start breeding.
The WWF was the only organization coming up with a preservation plan to save the Western black rhino (1999), but unfortunately in lack of local conservation capacity and government commitment the program has never had a chance to be carried out, and the Western black rhinoceros was wiped out from the planet.
With the recent surge in poaching all rhino species are in danger
©Copyright Dolf Botha /
The Western black rhino poster at the top of this post is available in my store on Redbubble, with design variations more suitable for apparel and other products. My whole profit goes to the Sea Shepherd to support their fight to protect our oceans and marine wildlife.