The western black rhinoceros, a subspecies of African black rhinoceros, has officially been declared extinct by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) this month.
The announcement marked a sad day in history for anyone concerned with conservation or the wellbeing of our natural world.
Despite the news sending media shockwaves around the world, the first proclamation of extinction was actually given in 2011 by non-profit organization ‘Save The Rhino’, however, this was not considered official, so some conservationists still held on to hope. Sadly, as of 2006, the IUCN had stockpiled enough evidence to declare the western black rhino extinct, but the group usually waits for five years before making an official announcement, just in case a living specimen is spotted or discovered alive.
The last western black rhinos to live in the wild were confined to a small area of Cameroon and were killed between 2003 and 2006 (reports vary as to the exact dates) at the hands of opportunistic poachers.
Poaching was undeniably the main cause of the species’ extinction and is a continuing threat to all remaining rhino species (there are only three subspecies of black rhinos left in the wild, all of which are considered to be endangered by the IUCN).
Rhinos are killed for many reasons, sometimes because their horns, when powdered, are used in Chinese medicine. Sometimes the animals are killed is because sport hunters enjoy shooting them and sometimes, farmers find them to be dangerous pests, so they shoot the rhinos on sight. In the Middle East, rhino horn is used to make ceremonial dagger handles. Even with populations dwindling, there is still a high demand for rhino horns.
Between 1960 and 1995, poachers, no doubt in search of a big payday, killed an estimated 98% of black rhinos in Africa. The western black rhino was the hardest hit of the four species, with numbers steadily dwindling as the poachers refused to stop killing these rare (and increasingly valuable) creatures.
To put the above into perspective, there were an estimated 50 black rhinos left in 1991, but by 1992, there were only 35. In 1997, it was announced that there were only 10 individuals left on the continent
Just 100 years ago, however, approximately a million black rhinos, members of four distinct subspecies, lived on the Savannas of Africa, today, there are only a couple of thousand and now, only three remaining subspecies.
In addition, the Vietnamese Javan rhino subspecies was declared extinct in 2011 and the main Javan species is now considered to comprise of only 50 remaining individuals, the majority of which are at serious risk from poachers.
At the time of writing, there are only seven northern white rhinos (which is possibly a distinct species of rhinoceros, rather than a subspecies) left alive in the world. As a result, there is not a large enough population to ensure species survival. The northern white rhino will almost certainly join its western black cousin on the extinction list fairly soon.
The word ‘tragedy’ simply doesn’t seem adequate.