The southern white rhino has been officially named a threatened species by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and will now be protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The poaching of the white rhino and four other endangered rhino species – black, Sumatran, Indian and Javan – has been steadily on the rise since 2008, when rhino horns came to be viewed as a status symbol in many Asian countries. The US Fish and Wildlife Service hopes that making the white rhino a protected species will help curb the illegal poaching of all rhinos worldwide.
The southern white rhino is actually the least endangered of its four cousins. Today, there are roughly 20,000 of the animals protected on wild animal reserves in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya. On the other hand, the number of living Javan rhinos has decreased to 35 animals, all of which are protected in a national park in Java, Indonesia.
For years, the omission of the southern white rhino from the Endangered Species Act has created a loophole for poachers and smugglers because, if caught with a horn from one of the four highly endangered species, the criminals could pass it off as a white rhino horn and face significantly decreased penalties.
White rhino horns are physically indistinguishable from other rhino horns, so there is no way to tell what species a horn came from once it is removed from the animal. The new status of the white rhino as an threatened species, however, will make possession of a white rhino horn equally punishable and will discourage trafficking.
The decision to add the southern white rhino to the endangered species list was made in response to a record breaking killing wave that was reported last year. South Africa, home to 80% of the world’s rhinos, recorded 668 white rhino deaths last year alone. Before 2008, the highest poaching toll in a single year remained in the single digits.
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