Human beings are continually impacting wildlife, whether it’s through the encroachment of their habitats or through hunting. Throughout the centuries, we have been directly responsible for the extinction of many species, and others are endangered due to our reckless behavior. Now, scientists are investigating whether poaching might be at the heart of the shrinking size of rhinoceros horns. Would anyone be surprised if it turned out to be true?
If you’re wondering how they came to this conclusion, researcher Oscar Wilson set about measuring the total lengths of horns from 80 pictures taken of rhinos between the years 1862 and 2018. They are housed on The Netherlands’ Rhino Resource Center’s website. The image-based analysis included five different species of rhinos with varied horn lengths. Wilson and his co-authors reported their findings in the scientific journal People and Nature. Overall, the horns of all five species have shrunk in size during the period under investigation.
Poaching for Gain
Although difficult to prove conclusively, the hypothesis is that since poachers prefer larger horns and kill the animals to get them, rather than use tranquilizers (not as cost-effective), smaller-horned rhinos that have escaped attention survive to pass along the shorter-horned trait to their young. The work published in the journal notes that “Online image repositories can offer a freely accessible, information-rich, and cost-effective alternative to museum collections for studying long-term changes in human interactions with nature and ecological and evolutionary change.”
“We were really excited that we could find evidence from photographs that rhino horns have become shorter over time,” Wilson stated. “They’re probably one of the hardest things to work on in natural history because of the security concerns.” Sadly, these latest findings parallel those of other species. Up to 50 percent of female elephants living in the east African country of Mozambique are now tusk free. It’s surmised that this is probably the result of 15 years of civil war when poachers had free rein to operate outside the law. Elephants use them to move large, heavy objects and to protect themselves, so it’s yet to be seen how this will impact them in the long run.
More conservation is obviously needed, but it’s costly and there aren’t always enough people to perform the job. The other issue is that it can take decades to undo the damage done, if it can even be undone. As humans, we need to take the stewardship of our planet and the creatures that inhabit it more seriously. If not, what will be left for future generations to come? Check out GreaterGood’s Project Peril to learn more about ways you can help.