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Where do rhinos live? And eight other rhino facts

WWF's, Nilanga Jayasinghe, answers questions about one of the oldest groups of mammals

“The awe I felt when I touched a tranquilized greater one-horned rhino for the first time during a rhino translocation operation in Nepal was indescribable (translocations are conducted to enable populations to expand). I will always work hard to conserve these wonderful pachyderms.”

Nilanga Jayasinghe
Senior Program Officer for Wildlife Conservation

Rhinos are one of the oldest groups of mammals that once roamed throughout Asia and Africa. With a population of around half a million at the beginning of the 20th century, there are now only an estimated 29,000 left in the wild. Despite the conservation challenges this species has faced, initiatives to recover rhino populations have started to pay off, with three of the five remaining rhino species’ populations growing. WWF will continue to work with governments, communities, and partners to recover and grow rhino populations and to end the illegal trade of rhino horn that’s threatening this critically endangered species.

WWF’s Senior Program Officer for Wildlife Conservation, Nilanga Jayasinghe, has worked tirelessly to save rhinos across Asia by building capacity and developing and executing strategic conservation and technological application plans designed to give these iconic creatures a change in the face of the multiple challenges they face.

Where do rhinos live?

There are five species of rhino found in the world – two in Africa, and three in Asia.

What species of rhinos live in Asia?

There are three species of Asian rhinos – the greater one-horned rhino found in India and Nepal; the Sumatran rhino found on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo; and the Javan rhino that is only found in one protected area on the island of Java, Indonesia. 

What are their population statuses?

The greater one-horned rhino is listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with more than 3,500 individuals left in the wild. Strict protection and management actions from Indian and Nepalese wildlife authorities have brought the species back from the brink of extinction when there were around 200 individuals at the beginning of the 20th century. Javan, Sumatran, and black rhinos are Critically Endangered with only around 68 Javan rhinos left and less than 80 Sumatran rhinos, and between 5,000 and 5,400 black rhinos in the wild. According to the IUCN, white rhinos are Near Threatened, with approximately 18,000 individuals.

What are the differences in appearance among the rhino species?

Among Asian rhinos, the greater one-horned rhino is the largest rhino species and identified by its single black horn and a grey-brown hide with skin folds that give it an armor-plated appearance. The Javan rhino looks similar to the greater one-horned rhino, but with a much smaller head and less apparent skin folds. It is also known as the lesser one-horned rhino. The Sumatran rhino is the smallest of the rhino subspecies, is brown in color, and is the only Asian species of rhino that sports two horns.

Black rhinos are the smaller of the two African rhino species. Both black and white rhinos have two horns but can be differentiated based on the shaped mouth. White rhinos have a square upper lip with almost no hair, while black rhinos have a hooked upper lip.

What are the biggest threats to rhinos?

Habitat loss and degradation and poaching are the main threats facing Asian and African rhinos. Despite a ban on rhino horn since 1977, demand remains high and fuels poaching in both continents. The Sumatran rhino faces an additional threat--isolation. This species – of which less than 80 survive in about a dozen non-viable subpopulations in Indonesia - are simply too scattered to find mates to breed.

    Why are rhinos so important to the environment?

    Rhinos are ecosystem engineers in the places where they live. For instance, grassland habitats with access to water are important for greater one-horned rhinos, and they help maintain the health of these grasslands and the waterholes in which they wallow, which enables optimal conditions for other small herbivores that share the space with them. Asian rhinos also disperse the seeds of plants and fruit they’ve eaten through their dung.

    What are rhino horns used for?

    Rhino horn is often ground up and used in traditional Asian medicines and thought to treat a range of ailments from fevers to cancer. Its use as a status symbol to display success and wealth is also increasingly common. Unfortunately, the illegal trade of rhino horn throughout Asia continues to persist and threaten wild rhinos despite international bans on the trade of rhino horn.

      Can rhino horns grow back?

      Rhino horn is made of keratin, the same substance as human hair and fingernails. Rhinos are born without horns, but within just a couple of months, a tiny stub appears – and their horns continue to grow for the rest of their lives. If a rhino is dehorned to demotivate poachers without cutting into the skull, it can grow back to almost full size after three years. However, if the rhino skull is cut into while being dehorned, it could compromise the re-growth of the horn. Unfortunately, poachers kill rhinos to get their horns.

        What is WWF doing to help rhinos?

        WWF is working to secure and protect rhino populations through joining efforts like establishing new populations through translocations to areas that historically held rhinos, improving rhino habitat, combatting poaching by building the capacity of rangers on the ground and using innovative technology. In order to tackle the illegal trade of—and demand for—rhino horn, WWF educates consumers through demand reduction campaigns and collaborates with international governments to strengthen local and international law enforcement. Through community-based conservation approaches, we are building support for rhino conservation in surrounding communities and helping local people to become custodians of these magnificent animals.