Last year was, all in all, a pretty good year to be honest. Unless you were a Rhino. 2014 saw a 21% increase in Rhinos illegally killed in South Africa, totalling 1,215 individuals (up from 1,004)1. A shocking figure largely driven by the demand for Rhino horns for use in traditional Asian medicines. To put that in more tangible terms, one Rhino was illegally killed every 7.2 hours. Let me phrase this differently, last year’s illegally killed Rhino numbers equate to around 6% of the total population1. Depending on the rate that poaching increases and how the breeding rate is affected Rhino deaths could overtake births between 2015 and 20212. This means that the population of Rhinos in South Africa would fail to support its numbers and begin to decline. This train of thought puts the Rhino as extinct in the wild by 20262.
Although it seems obvious to me, the Rhino plays a pretty significant role in maintaining the ecosystem in which it is found. Rhinos are megaherbivores (a plant eater that weighs over 2,000 pounds), in fact they are one of the few megaherbivores left on the planet, and face little threat to their existence other than finding enough food in a natural situation. Of course, the situation in South Africa is far from natural (lions don’t carry fire arms last time I checked) but in a natural situation Rhinos are thought to be responsible for the creation of species rich grazing areas. They achieve this by selectively grazing the grasslands leaving room for other grass species (and the fauna they support) to colonise the spaces left by Rhino grazing3. If South Africa’s Rhino population declines it is highly likely that the ecosystems (and many species also living there) will suffer greatly. This is in effect what a keystone species does, much like a keystone in an arch, it holds the whole structure together and this is why I chose to write a brief post about Rhinos today.