Just 150 years ago, Africa’s savannahs teemed with over a million black and white rhinos. But relentless hunting by European settlers saw rhino numbers and distribution quickly decline.
Poaching also escalated during the 1970s and 1980s as demand grew for rhino horn, a prized ingredient in traditional Asian medicines - leaving both species at risk.
Thanks to vigorous conservation and anti-poaching efforts and an international ban on the trade in rhino horn, some African rhino populations are now stable or increasing.
However, most of the continent's remaining rhinos are found in just four countries – South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya. Very few African rhinos now survive outside of protected areas and sanctuaries.
And poaching is again threatening the survival of some populations.
Why rhinos matter
Rhinos have been around for millions of years and play a crucial role in their ecosystem. They’re important grazers, consuming large amounts of vegetation, which helps shape the African landscape. This benefits other animals and keeps a healthy balance within the ecosystem.
Local people also depend on the natural resources within rhino habitat for food, fuel and income. As one of Africa’s ‘big five’, rhinos are a popular sight for tourists. Ecotourism can be an important source of income for local people.
By helping protect rhinos, we’re helping to conserve their habitat for the benefit of people and wildlife, helping support local communities and making sure natural resources are available for generations to come.
The greatest threat facing African rhinos is poaching for the illegal trade in their horns, which has soared in recent years.
The number of rhinos poached in South Africa alone has increased by 9,000% since 2007 - from 13 to a record 1,215 in 2014.
Powdered horn is used in traditional Asian medicine as a supposed cure for a range of illnesses – from hangovers to fevers and even cancer.
But the current surge has been primarily driven by demand for horn 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, including helicopters and night vision equipment to track rhinos, and veterinary drugs to knock them out.
This means countries and conservationists need to match this level of technology to be able to tackle the problem, alongside working to reduce demand.