Black rhino sets out on rocky road to recovery

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With its curved horns, armour-plated body and unpredictable temper, the black rhino has been among the most wonderful sights of the African savannah. Now the species, which seemed destined for extinction a decade ago, appears to have been pulled back from the brink.

Numbers of the black rhino, Diceros bicornis, are recovering for the first time in 100 years, according to a survey published last week. At the start of the 20th century, there were about 400,000 black rhinos, but poaching reduced the population to 65,000 in the 1970s and, as the slaughter reached its height, dropped to just 2,400 in the mid-1990s. But conservation has increased the numbers to 3,600, with an increase of 500 in the past two years, according to a new headcount by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the African Rhino Specialist Group, part of the World Conservation Union.

The white rhino, Ceratotherium simum, has shown the way to recovery, increasing from a population of just 50 rhinos 100 years ago to about 11,000 today. Both species are found in the savannah belt from Namibia and South Africa through Zambia, Kenya and Tanzania.

"This is the end result of a long road we have been travelling for many years," said Callum Rankine, international species officer for WWF. "Rhinos don't do anything very quickly, and that includes breeding."

The species' recovery is being cited as an example of successful co-operation between wildlife organisations, African governments and local people, who have implemented tough anti-poaching measures while also preserving the rhino's habitat and promoting tourism.

The WWF, along with the World Conservation Union and other wildlife groups, has spent more than 20 years restoring the favoured habitat of the rhinos, which thrive on grass, bush and trees. They have also worked closely with communities, particularly those in northern Namibia, to turn poachers into gamekeepers. Conservancy areas were set up where the local people were given grants and the rights to manage their land independently of the national government.

"It was about showing how you could use the rhino habitat for people," Mr Rankine said. "Black rhinos are worth millions of dollars to economies. They are one of the 'Big Five' that people go on safaris for," he said.

"It's an honour to see rhino in the wild - they are fabulous beasts. They are also a flagship species. Where you have rhinos you have other small animals, carnivores and birds."

Despite a worldwide ban on trade in rhino horn, the poaching threat has not evaporated. Rhino horn is still used in Asia, in traditional Chinese medicine, while dagger handles from the horn can still be bought in the souks of the Middle East.

Numbers of rhino sub-species in some parts of Africa have reached the point of no return. The northern white rhino has been reduced to a population of 20 animals in the Democratic Republic of Congo, while the population of western black rhino in Cameroon is even more fragmented.

"There are still people out there for whom the best rhino is a dead rhino because they can make some money out of it," Mr Rankine said. "But if you shoot it, you only get the money once."

IN BLACK & WHITE

* Despite their names, both black and white rhinos are brownish grey. It is thought the black rhino was so named because it looks darker when wallowing in mud.

* The white rhino is thought to be a mistranslation of the Dutch word "wijde", which means "wide" and refers to the rhino's broad, square lips.

* The smaller black rhino is also known as the hook-lipped rhinoceros, as its upper lip sticks out beyond its lower one.

* Rhinos have two horns made from keratin - the same protein that makes up human hair and nails.

* The white rhino, up to 1.8m tall and weighing up to 2,500kg, is the second largest land mammal after the elephant.

* Rhinos have poor eyesight, but their hearing and sense of smell are acute.

* Though most rhino species are shy, the black rhino can react aggressively to unusual smells and charges at speeds of up to 30mph.

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