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© Martin Harvey / WWF

Rhinos once roamed throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, and were known to early Europeans who depicted them in cave paintings. Within historical times, they were still widespread across Africa's savannas and Asia's tropical forests.

But today, very few rhinos survive outside protected areas. And all five species are threatened, primarily by poaching.

© / Andy Rouse / WWF

Physical description

Rhinoceroses are universally recognized by their massive bodies, stumpy legs and either one or two dermal horns. In some species, the horns may be short or not obvious.

They are renowned for having poor eyesight, but their senses of smell and hearing are well developed.

The biggest of the five surviving species are Africa's white rhino and Asia's greater one-horned rhinos.

These two species have also seen their numbers increase significantly in recent years due to successful conservation efforts. The white rhino is now classified as near threatened, while the greater one-horned rhino has moved from endangered to vulnerable.

However, they remain at real risk from poaching, which has seen a a dramatic increase since 2008. And this poses a major threat to the survival of all rhino species, particulalry Africa's endangered black rhino and Asia's critically endangered Javan and Sumatran rhinos.

But there is hope. The white and greater one-horned rhinos were saved from extinction, and black rhino numbers have also increased, although they are still just a fraction of their number 50 years ago.


Although international trade in rhino horn has been banned under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora) since 1977, demand remains high, particularly in Vietnam – fueling rhino poaching in both Africa and Asia.

Powdered horn is used in traditional Asian medicine as a supposed cure for a range of illnesses – from hangovers to fevers and even cancer.

There has been a huge surge in poaching since 2008, particulalry in South Africa, which has seen record numbers of rhinos poached in recent years. In 2018 South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs announced official figures showing that the number of rhinos killed in South Africa dropped from 1, 028 in 2017 to 769, however the crisis for rhinos is far from over.

The current crisis has been primarily driven by the demand for horn by upper-middle class citizens in Vietnam. As well as its use in medicine, rhino horn is bought and consumed purely as a symbol of wealth.

Poaching gangs use increasingly sophisticated methods to evade authorities – including helicopters and night vision equipment to track rhinos, and veterinary drugs to knock them out. This means governments and conservationists need to match this level of technology to be able to tackle the problem.

Habitat loss

Habitat loss also threatens rhinos, especially in southeast Asia and India, as human populations rise and forests are degraded or destroyed.

Important core conservation areas are increasingly isolated by logging, agricultural expansion, human settlements, road projects, and dam construction.

Asian rhinos mainly survive in isolated areas – in small populations that are at greater risk from inbreeding, natural disasters and disease.
Javan Rhino in Ujung Kulon National Park in Indonesia

© 2015 Stephen Belcher Photography All Rights Reserved

Greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), Terai Arc Landscape, Nepal.

© Jeff Foott / WWF

African species

  • Black Rhino: 5,000+
    IUCN Red List Classification: Critically Endangered

  • White Rhino: 20,000+ (up from fewer than 100 in 1900)
    IUCN Red List Classification: Near Threatened

Asian species 

  • Greater-one horned: 3,500 (up from around 600 in 1970s)
    IUCN Red List Classification: Vulnerable

  • Javan: 63
    IUCN Red List Classification: Critically Endangered

  • Sumatran: Fewer than 100
    IUCN Red List Classification: Critically Endangered

Select sub-species

  • Javan rhino in Vietnam: Extinct in 2011

  • Northern white rhino: 2 left in captivity, extinct in the wild

  • Western black rhino: Extinct in 2011

White rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum).

© WWF / Martin Harvey

What is WWF doing?

WWF is helping to tackle the major threats by strengthening protected areas in Africa and Asia, preserving rhino habitat, and helping to stamp out the illegal trade in rhino horn. WWF is:

  • Working with TRAFFIC on the Wildlife Crime Initiative to investigate, expose and crack down on poaching and the illegal trade in rhino horn – and reduce demand;

  • Helping to expand protected areas, create new ones, connect isolated rhino habitats and increase security in these areas;

  • Promoting wildlife-based tourism that helps fund conservation efforts and gives local communities an income from living alongside wildlife;

  • Working with communities living around protected areas to help them use their natural resources more sustainably; and

  • Supporting the translocation of rhinos to create new, secure populations.

Javan rhino in Ujung Kulon National park in Indonesia

© 2015 Stephen Belcher Photography All Rights Reserved

How you can help

  • Don't buy rhino horn products. The illegal trade in rhino horn poses the greatest threat to rhinos today.

  • Adopt a Sumatran rhino through WWF-US

  • Adopt a rhino through WWF-UK

  • Use and support sustainable wood, paper and palm oil. By purchasing certified sustainable palm oil and FSC-certified forest products, retailers and manufacturers help protect Sumatran and Javan rhino habitat by limiting illegal logging and forest conversion. Consumers can help by demanding certified products.

  • Donate to WWF to support the our work in Africa and Asia.

Southern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum simum) with rainbow and storm clouds.

© / Mark Carwardine / WWF