The rhinoceros’ horn fetches a great sum in the international market. The rhino’s survival on this planet is, therefore, threatened.

Have you heard of the Rhinoceros Unicornis? It’s a great bulky creature with a big pointy horn sticking out in front of its nose. The Rhinoceros Unicornis or the greater one-horned rhino is the only land animal with a single horn — much like that of the mythical unicorn — making it a unique creature. Also known as the Indian Rhinoceros, it is found in the marshy grasslands of Assam and the protected Terai region in Nepal. Unfortunately for the Indian rhino, its horn makes it one of the most endangered animals in the world.

Rhino horn is prized for its supposed medicinal properties in Southeast Asia and is used as an ornamental dagger in West Asia. Poachers are known to travel deep into the protected areas of the Kaziranga National Park in Assam to track, shoot and kill rhinos for their horn. Even calves are not spared as rhino horn fetches a sum that is twice the price of gold!

Pre-historic creatures

The Indian rhino belongs to the Rhinocerotidae family. Its siblings include the White and Black rhino from Africa and the Sumatran Rhino found in Sumatra, Borneo and the Malay Peninsula. The Javan rhinoceros is the fifth of the Indian Rhinoceros’ siblings. The Javan rhino, also known as the lesser one-horned rhino, is possibly the rarest mammal on Earth. Less than 40 are believed to exist in the Ujung Kulon National Park at the western tip of Java. The species is critically endangered with none existing in captivity.

A pre-historic creature, this rhinoceros has existed for more than 50 million years. It once roamed the lands of North America and Europe too. But climate change and habitat destruction pushed the rhino to concentrated parts of Asia and Africa. There are close to 3,200 Indian rhinos in the wild, 2,000 of which live in Kaziranga National Park. Over 400 rhinos reside in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park and South Africa is home to 85 per cent of Africa’s estimated 25,000 rhinos.

Rhinos are creatures of habit. They use the same tracks to their watering hole and mark their territory with dung, making it easy for poachers to hunt the animal. They are also solitary creatures. Extended family groups are rare, but the mother and calf are known to share a close bond. It is not unusual to see a calf trotting behind its mother for up to three years!

Rhinos keep to themselves, grazing happily in open grasslands and attack only when startled. In fact, the animal has poor eyesight and will not detect anything that stands 100 feet away if the object remains still. Because of its large size the rhino does not have any natural predators. Its only known predator is man, who has ruthlessly hunted the animal for decades. The horn, which makes the rhino a wanted animal, is actually thickly matted hair that grows without any skeletal support. It is made up of keratin, the same protein that is found in human hair and nails.

In the 1970s and 1980s, poaching had pushed rhinos to the brink of extinction in Africa. Great conservation work is credited with the survival of the rhino into this century, with White and Black rhino population restricted to South Africa and Kenya.

In India, there were only 200 rhinos left in the 1950s. The alarming number prompted the Assam government to pass the Assam (Rhinoceros) Bill to protect the animal. The Indian Army was also roped in to patrol the boundaries of Kaziranga. These steps have helped the rhino, but the fact remains that rhino deaths continue to rise. Last year, 30 rhinos drowned in torrential floods while 21 were lost to poaching.

But hope remains in the form of the Indian Rhino Vision 2020. Launched in 2005, the vision aims to increase rhino population to 3,000 by 2020, by means of wild-to-wild translocation of rhinos within national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in Northeast India.

Did you know?

The rhino has a small brain, a great sense of smell and hearing and three big toes.

The Black and White rhino are both grey. The White rhino gets its name from the Afrikaans word ‘weit’ meaning wide that describes its mouth. Early English colonists misinterpreted the word for white.

The White rhino is the largest land mammal after the elephant.

Rhinos are faster than they look. They can run up to 48 kms per hour, enough to outrun the world’s fastest human being in a matter of seconds.

The White, Black and Sumatran rhinos have two horns.

Thick skin

The rhino looks like it’s wearing a coat of armour. Do you know how the rhino got its skin? Ask Rudyard Kipling. His story, How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin is an interesting tale about the battle of wits between a Parsee called Pestonjee Bomonjee and a rhino named Strorks on the Uninhabited Island on the Red Sea.