It’s Official: The Western Black Rhinoceros No Longer Walks the Earth

Black Rhinoceros

Story at-a-glance -

  • In November 2011, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) changed their Red List status of the western black rhinoceros from Critically Endangered to Extinct. The last reported sighting of this rhino was over 10 years ago.
  • The western black rhino was thriving until the 20th century. By the 1980s, the population had dwindled to a few hundred, and only 10 individuals were sighted throughout the 2000s. The rhinos’ demise is attributed to poaching and lack of an aggressive conservation plan.
  • The three remaining black rhinoceros subspecies are classified as Critically Endangered. They continue to be slaughtered throughout Africa and Asia for their horns.
  • Two other rhinoceros subspecies in danger of extinction are the northern white rhino (Near Threatened and Possibly Extinct in the Wild) and the Javan rhino (Critically Endangered and thought to be Extinct).
  • With better anti-poaching campaigns, conservationists believe these rhinos can be saved just as the southern white rhino was. That subspecies numbered just a few hundred in the late 19th century, but now has a population of over 20,000 thanks to a successful conservation plan.

By Dr. Becker

A few months ago, I noticed a flurry of news items announcing that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had declared the western black rhinoceros officially extinct. I wanted to pass this sad news on to my readers here at Healthy Pets, but I have since discovered that all those November 2013 news reports I came across were two years behind the times.

It was actually in November 2011 that the IUCN Red List changed the status of the western black rhino from Critically Endangered to Extinct.1 The last reported sightings of the animal were back in 2003 in Cameroon, and a recommendation was made in 2006 to change the status from endangered to extinct. However, the IUCN makes it a practice to wait five years after receiving a recommendation to allow time for any new evidence to come to light. Sadly, there was no further indication that the western black rhino still walked the Earth.

This rhino was a thriving subspecies until the 20th century, and by the 1980s, the population was down to a few hundred. Only 10 individuals were spotted in the 2000s. Conservation experts believe the western black rhino's demise was the result of poachers coupled with an overall lack of conservation efforts.

Other Black Rhinoceros Subspecies Are Critically Endangered

The western black rhino was one of four subspecies of black rhino. The remaining three include the eastern black rhino, found in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa; the southcentral, found in Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Swaziland and South Africa; and the southwestern, native to Namibia and South Africa.

Like the western black rhino, these three subspecies are classified as Critically Endangered, and according to, they are being killed throughout Africa and Asia to meet consumer demand for horns. In Asia and especially Vietnam, rhinoceros horns are thought to help cure cancer and hangovers, and are also considered a symbol of wealth. According to Save the Rhino, if poaching continues at the current pace, both black and white rhino species will go into decline by next year.

The Northern White Rhino and the Javan Rhino Are Also Teetering on the Brink

The northern white rhinoceros is currently classified as Near Threatened and Possibly Extinct in the Wild by the IUCN. The Javan rhino's current Red List status is Critically Endangered, and it is thought to be Extinct.

According to Simon Stuart, chairman of the IUCN species survival commission:

"In the case of the western black rhino and the northern white rhino the situation could have had very different results if the suggested conservation measures had been implemented. These measures must be strengthened now, specifically managing habitats in order to improve performance, preventing other rhinos from fading into extinction."2

With better anti-poaching campaigns, conservationists believe these rhinos could have been saved. This was the case with the southern white rhino, which numbered just a few hundred in the late 19th century, but whose population now tops 20,000 thanks to an effective protection plan.

Sadly, it's too late for the western black rhino, but hopefully the northern white and Javan rhinos can be spared the same fate.

'Human beings are the stewards of the earth.'

"Human beings are stewards of the earth and we are responsible for protecting the species that share our environment," says the IUCN's Stuart.

I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. The Berlin Zoo holds the international "stud books" (captive breeding records) for the black rhinos remaining in captivity. I had the honor of working with this endangered species at this facility, early in my career. It's devastatingly sad that our only option for preserving the last remaining DNA of this species is through a hopefully successful captive breeding program.

western black rhino

If you'd like to learn more about rhinoceros conservations efforts and what you can do to help, visit the Save the Rhino Get Involved page.