Top 10 Rhino Rumour Myths
At Save the Rhino we hear lots of unsubstantiated rhino rumours and frequently spot dubious stories circulating the net.
We want to make sure our work is guided by scientific evidence and the practical knowledge that comes from conservationists working day in, day out, with rhinos on the front line of conservation.
In the run up to April Fool’s Day, we thought we’d do some myth-busting!
Test your rhino knowledge below, and find out if you are able to sort the facts from the fiction.
1. All rhinos live in Africa
It’s true that the majority of rhinos live in Africa. But three of the five rhino species are Asian. And, while having the lowest profile of all, two of the Asian species remain the most endangered of all rhinos.
Greater one-horned rhinos live in India and Nepal, and are recognisable by their armour-like folds of skin. A huge conservation success story, Greater one-horned rhinos now number more than 3,000 animals.
Indonesia is home to the Critically Endangered Sumatran rhino. Covered in a layer of reddish brown hair, they are reminiscent of their ancient prehistoric relative, the extinct woolly rhino. Thanks to the efforts of the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary, two new calves have been born in four years.
In Java, a tiny population of Javan rhinos remain in one last pocket of habitat. Javan rhinos have the appearance of a smaller version of the Greater one-horned rhino but, as possibly the rarest mammal on Earth, very few people have ever seen one. To help them, their habitat is being expanded in the hope of creating a “back up” population less vulnerable to disease, inbreeding, or natural disasters.
2. Rhino horns are made from ivory
Let’s get the basics right first. It’s not rhino ivory, ivory horn, or horn ivory. It’s just rhino horn. Rhino horn is made from keratin, the same as your hair and nails. Ivory mainly consists of dentine, and is what many mammals’ tusks are made from - such as those of elephants.
Like hair, rhino horn will grow back. A tusk, like a tooth, is lost forever after being removed. This difference has important implications for trade, as some people believe rhino horn can be harvested and traded sustainably.
Find out more about the on-going debate about legalising the horn trade here
3. White rhinos got their name from the Dutch word “wijd”; meaning wide
Many people are guilty of perpetuating this assumption – even us! Until recently it has been generally accepted that as both black and white rhinos have grey skin, “white” must have come from the Dutch word “wijde”, meaning “wide”, on account of the white rhinos’ square lip, adapted in shape for eating grass. But as rhino expert Kees Rookmaaker pointed out, there is no linguistic evidence of the Dutch “wijde” being used in connection with the white rhino. Other theories are also inconclusive. So, for now, we aren’t any closer to knowing how white rhinos got their name. We do know though, that in South Africa, more white rhinos are poached than any other species and poaching is moving beyond Kruger National Park to places like Hluhluwe-iMfolozi (HiP). Save the Rhino funds rangers in HiP. Read about rangers in HiP.
4. Rhinos stamp out fires
Rhinos have been portrayed as nature’s firefighters in cultural depictions from indigenous Burmese legends to an episode of The Simpsons. To our knowledge, when confronted with a fire rhinos do not instinctively try to extinguish the flames with their feet. If a rhino was troubled by a bushfire, its main asset would be a quick getaway. Clocking up speeds of 34 km per hour, a rhino can run faster than a sprinter. Find out more about rhino behaviour in our species factfiles.
5. Most Asian people use rhino horn
It’s easy to blame a whole country, or continent, for a problem that seems intractable. But it’s not the right thing to do – nor is it based on fact. Buying rhino horn is illegal in China and Vietnam. The number of people who can afford it, let alone are willing to purchase the illicit product, is a small minority. In Vietnam, evidence shows that rhino horn is mostly used by very wealthy, elite businessmen. Many Vietnamese people are campaigning to protect the environment and taking a stand against using rhino horn. Meet the people campaigning in Viet Nam to say no to rhino horn.
6. Rhino horn is used as an aphrodisiac
Rhino horn has never been used as an aphrodisiac in Asia, but that hasn’t prevented the press from erroneously reporting it far and wide – and now there’s some evidence that horn traders have cottoned on to this idea… We’re not sure where this story came from, other than the fact that “horn” has a double meaning! Read more about why people really buy rhino horn here.
7. Rhino horn is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to cure cancer
Traditional Chinese Medicine is thousands of years old. We have only identified “cancer” as a set of illnesses relatively recently. As such, cancer does not exist in TCM books, and neither do any supposed cures.
We can trace this myth back to the Mid-2000s when the press reported that a high-profile Vietnamese politician was using rhino horn in conjunction with chemotherapy. Since then, the story has taken on a life of its own, and some Vietnamese consumers – having read about the case in the press – have started to consume rhino horn whilst being treated with chemotherapy too.
In TCM, rhino horn has been used to cure fever, or as a detoxifier. Read about a TCM practitioner who refuses to use rhino horn here.
8. Trophy hunting is leading rhinos to extinction
Killing animals for sport is a highly emotive issue. Personal ethics aside, does trophy hunting threaten rhinos?
Whilst trophy hunting is fatal for the individual animal, evidence shows that – when properly regulated – hunting has increased the overall number of rhinos in Africa.
In 1900 only 50 Southern white rhinos remained. Trophy hunting helped increase this number to over 20,000, as it provided a financial incentive for people to protect rhinos and their habitat.
The practise does, however, have its risks. Trophy hunting has been exploited by poachers as a way to leak rhino horns into the black market, and unlicensed hunts can and do take place. But, on balance, the number of rhino legally hunted is a fraction of the hundreds illegally poached each year.
Find out more about trophy hunting here.
9. We can’t change the culture in consumer countries
Just like smoking, drink driving and wearing real fur, history shows us that cultures – and fashions – can change.
Four key countries already have shut down their rhino horn markets. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Yemen were all former hotspots for the rhino horn trade. Due to a combination of improved legislation and public campaigning – including strong statements from their governments – their markets all but disappeared by the 1990s.
Find out how we’re changing consumer behaviour in Viet Nam, one of today’s leading rhino horn markets.
10. Dyeing horns pink protects rhinos from poachers
In April 2013 a story started circulating the internet featuring rhinos with bright pink horns, allegedly to deter poachers. The article also claimed that the dye could be picked up by airport scanners. After going viral, we’re still getting excited queries about the initiative.
Rhinos are good at camouflaging themselves already – so why make their horn more noticeable? Research also shows that dye, or poison, doesn’t diffuse throughout the horn. To date, no horns have ever been detected by airport scanners due to injected dye.
The Rhino Dog Squad, on the other hand, has a very good track record at sniffing out any suspected poachers and smuggled rhino horns…