An estimated one million black rhinoceros from four different subspecies roamed the savannas of Africa in 1900. By 2001 that number had dropped to about 2,300 black rhinos and just three subspecies. This is the story of how we exterminated one of those subspecies, the western black rhinoceros. There have been some conservation successes and the black rhino population in Africa is today around 5,200 found in pockets of habitat in Central to South Africa. Poaching for the rhino horn trade continues to plague this species.
Historically, the western black rhinoceros had a range across central and western Africa, with populations in modern-day Cameroon, Chad, the Central African Republic, Sudan and South Sudan. Wholesale sports hunting in the first decades of the nineteenth century quickly decimated the rhino populations. Industrial agriculture followed. Numerous historic rhino habitats were cleared for crops and settlements. Farmers and ranchers at the time viewed large herbivores such as the rhino as a pest and a threat to their crops. The slaughter continued unrestrained.
The events that sealed this beautiful animal’s demise began in the early 1950s. The then Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong popularised traditional Chinese medicine as a political ploy. Although he did not actually believe in it himself, the Chinese political propaganda machine promoted these remedies as a panacea. You name it, traditional Chinese medicine cured it. That was the spin.
Poachers descended on Africa in their hundreds. Between 1960 and 1995 a devastating 98 percent of black rhinos were killed by poachers to feed the new and voracious demand for rhino horns to be used in traditional Chinese medicine, for ceremonial knife handles and other ornaments made from rhino horn. The western black rhino was the hardest hit as it had already been weakened by decades of overhunting.
By 1980 this rhino’s range had shrunk to just Cameroon, which held 110 of the animals, and Chad, where just 25 remained. Chad’s western black rhinoceros were wiped out within 10 years. Cameroon still had an estimated 50 western black rhinos in 1991. This dropped to 35 just a year later. By 1997 the population had fallen to an estimated 10 last rhinos.
The last 10 western black rhinos were scattered across 25,000 square km of northern Cameroon. Four of them lived in fairly close proximity to one another. The remaining six lived in isolation. There was an average of 60 km between each animal. There was hope that they would find one another and start breeding but this was not likely.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) published a report called “African Rhino: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan.” In 1999. The report laid out the insurmountable challenge in preserving these final 10 western black rhinos that seemed demographically and genetically doomed. Cameroon was then plagued by corruption and civil unrest. The provision of a safe habitat for just 20 rhinos would require the fencing of a sanctuary four hundred square km in size. The report concluded that the lack of local conservation capacity and government commitment would make any effort to rescue the last rhinos extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, and that the western black rhinoceros was indeed functionally extinct.
They were right. A WWF survey in 2001 found just five surviving western black rhinos, with the possibility of three additional, unconfirmed individuals. That was the last time scientists or conservationists ever saw a western black rhino.
Hope is always the last to die. More field surveys were conducted in Cameroon in 2006. WWF and the Cameroon Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife also conducted a survey at the same time. Cameroon was a dangerous place and armed gangs attacked travellers everywhere. The researchers saw evidence of widespread illegal hunting for a wide range of species. Snares were present everywhere. Waterholes had been poisoned. The research teams frequently found wounded or trapped animals, even though the area was classified as a national park.
A paper published in Pachyderm that year concluded that the last members of the subspecies had been poached in or around 2003 and that the western black rhino was probably extinct.
People kept looking, but no western black rhinos were ever found. In 2011, with no sightings in a decade, the International Union for Conservation of Nature formally declared that the western black rhino had gone extinct. We once again demonstrated that once humans go into overkill, and we always do, we kill every last individual of a species until they are gone forever. This is who we are. This is what we do.