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Why are West African Black Rhinos Extinct?

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

The West African black rhino is one of the more recent species to go extinct. In this lesson, we will discuss the main causes for their extinction, especially poaching.

Extinction in the Modern Age

Can you list some extinct animals? Extinct means there are no longer any living members of the species. When you thought about them, you probably thought about animals like dinosaurs or saber-toothed tigers. The word 'extinct' often brings to mind ancient animals that died out before modern humans ever evolved. Sadly, there are many species that have gone extinct in the modern age as a direct result of human behavior.

One very recent example is the West African black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis longipes). It is one of four subspecies of black rhino, and it was declared officially extinct in 2011. Species are not declared officially extinct until it has been several years since the last member was sighted. The last West African black rhino was sighted in 2006.

How Did it Happen?

So how did the West African black rhino come to be extinct? Clearly, they were not wiped out in some big event like the last dinosaurs. Actually, there are a few different reasons that combined to cause the extinction of this subspecies.

Habitat Loss

One early issue, before national parks and other protected areas were instated, was habitat loss. As humans moved in to the West African black rhino's home range, they cleared the rhino's native habitat in order to build farms and houses. Habitat destruction killed many rhinos, as did the farmers and settlers themselves. They considered the rhinos to be a nuisance, and didn't want them around to eat crops or wander into settled areas.

Hunting

Another major issue was big game hunting. Before hunting regulations and conservation efforts, people would kill rhinos (and other animals) in large numbers just for sport. Africa was known around the world for its big game hunting, so it was not just locals participating.

Black rhinos were killed in large numbers by big game hunters
Black rhino

The Price of a Horn

Sport hunting and habitat loss were distinct problems, but they were brought somewhat under control by conservation regulations. The main reason the West African black rhino is extinct is because of poachers, or illegal hunters. In traditional Chinese medicine, rhino horns are used to treat basically everything, from impotence to fevers to cancer. In the 1950s the leader of China, Mao Zedong, promoted traditional Chinese medicine, encouraging the Chinese people to use it instead of Western medicine.

What followed was basically a massacre of black rhinos, and the West African black rhino was among the hardest hit. Around 98% of the population of West African black rhinos was killed in less than four decades, between 1960 and 1995. Poachers killed them solely for their horns, both for use in Chinese medicine and for use as decoration in the Middle East. Even rhinos living in national parks were not safe. With this coming at the heels of the previous hunting and habitat loss, the West African black rhino population had very little chance.

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