Rhinos are one of South Africa's biggest draw cards as the country is home to the largest remaining population of these ancient animals.
Rhinos are one of the largest land mammals alive after Elephants. They have existed on Earth for over 50 million years and once roamed through North America and Europe as well as Asia and Africa. Of the three species that remain today, three are critically endangered. The White Rhino is the largest species of Rhino and South Africa is home to over 80% of the Rhino population.
The Rhino is a member of the "Big Five" - what were considered to be the most dangerous animals by colonial hunters, namely Leopard, Elephant, Lion, Buffalo and Rhino. Today however Big Five sightings are what draw many of the tourists to Africa. The rarest of its members is the Rhino which is now confined to protected reserves.
White Rhino are not white but grey, and the name is thought to be a misinterpretation of the Afrikaans word "weit" meaning wide in reference to their square shaped mouth which helps them graze. The Black Rhino is slightly smaller than the White Rhino. It is a browser and has a pointed lip that is specially adapted for pulling leaves off branches.
Rhinos are severely threatened due to poachers. There are around 4000 Black Rhinos alive today down from 16 000 in 1970, while for White Rhinos the reverse is true, in 1970 there were 200 left whereas today there are about 18 000 White Rhinos. The White Rhino's population recovery was due to intensive conservation efforts. However both species are threatened, as they are being ruthlessly hunted by highly skilled and armed poaching syndicates.
Since 2008 there has been a dramatic increase in the incidences of poaching in South Africa and in the first three months of 2012 over 100 Rhino have been poached despite increased anti-poaching efforts.
The Rhino is poached for its horn, a fibrous growth that is mostly made of Keratin, the same stuff that our fingernails are made out of. The horn is mostly sold in Eastern countries such as Japan where they are used in traditional medicine to cure headaches, fever, and food poisoning and even snake bites. A common myth is that it is used as an aphrodisiac, but this is not true.
Another country where Rhino horn is popular is Yemen where Rhino horn is highly prized and used as the handle for a traditional dagger called a "jambiya" which is a symbol of manhood. It is presented to a boy when he is 12 years old.
As mentioned above, there have been success stories in the past. Between the 1890's and the 1960's, White Rhinos were almost hunted to extinction and it was thought that they would die out. Then about 100 Rhino were discovered in the Umfolozi Game Reserve in 1960. Conservationists worked hard to bring the species back from extinction. This was done by capturing and relocating White Rhino to protected areas within the country. The project was helped by people such as Dr Ian Player a famous South African conservationist.
Dr Ian Player was the initiator and leader of an innovative project nicknamed "Operation Rhino" which helped save the White Rhino. He was also the founder anti-poaching units in South Africa. He established a breeding program and sold Rhinos to zoos and safari parks around the world to ensure the survival of the species.
Through lots of hard work and protection White Rhino numbers increased over the next 30 years and there are now around 18 000 White Rhinos. Now it is Black Rhinos that are the most threatened and Umfolozi focuses on saving the Black Rhino and most of the world's surviving population can be found within the reserve.
Despite increased anti-poaching patrols and initiatives Rhino poaching has increased dramatically in recent years and if South Africa continues to lose Rhino at the current rate of over 400 a year, Rhino could be extinct as soon as 2025.
The demand for Rhino horn in Asia is massive with it fetching over $65,000 a kilogram on the black market, making it pricier than diamonds, gold and even cocaine. The reason for this sudden increase is the mistaken belief by Asian traditional healers that Rhino horn is a cure for cancer.
One of the best anti-rhino projects is on the ground anti-poaching and tracking patrols. The Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is one of the last strongholds for Rhino in Africa and they have a strong tradition to draw on as they had the first anti-poaching units in the country.
Recently their efforts have been assisted by the use of a helicopter making daily flights over the reserve and alerting the ground crews to suspicious vehicles and poaching parties. This means that the ground patrols are better able to apprehend the poachers.
As a result, the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park had fewer losses than in other parks in the country. The project also works to educate and empower the local community, teaching them about the value of the Rhino to the eco system and tourism.
One of the things that Rhino need is the space in which to breed successfully and the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project aims to add protected land to their range in the hopes of making them more secure. They also help to secure breeding populations in protected areas elsewhere in the country.
The project also helps monitor and patrol the Rhinos, helping to keep them secure. To date they have founded six new populations and nearly 100 Rhino have been trans-located and more than 30 calves born.
There are many other smaller Rhino anti-poaching projects throughout the country and many Private reserves and national parks need funding to help equip their teams. Due to the value of Rhino horn, the poachers are extremely well funded and equipped, so it is hard for the patrols to fight against those who are better equipped. If when you visit a South African Reserve and see a Rhino enquire about where you can donate money to help protect the animal you saw.