3 Rhino Species Are Critically Endangered

These incredible megaherbivores need our help

Black rhino. Kevin Schafer / Getty Images

Out of the five species of rhino that exist today, three of them — the black rhino, the Javan rhinoceros, and the Sumatran rhino — are listed as critically endangered. The white rhino is considered near threatened with decreasing populations, and the greater one-horned rhinoceros (sometimes called the Indian rhino) is designated as vulnerable with increasing populations.

In the case of the white rhino, the majority (over 99%) are present in just five countries: South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. There are an estimated 10,080 mature adult white rhinos alive (as of January 2020). While there are 2,100﹣2,200 greater one-horned rhinos left, populations are increasing thanks to strict conservation efforts and habitat management in India and Nepal.

Greater one-horned rhino
Greater one-horned rhino, also known as Indian rhino.

Rudolf Ernst / Getty Images

Although there are only 3,142 black rhinos left (as of January 2020), the good news is that population numbers are increasing, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The black rhino was the most numerous of the world’s rhino species throughout the majority of the 20th century before an uptick in hunting and land clearance significantly reduced its numbers. Between 1960 and 1995, poaching caused a disastrous 98% reduction in the population.

The Javan rhino and the Sumatran rhino, both critically endangered, face a dire outlook, with only 18 and 30 mature individuals left respectively. Javan rhinos have been listed as endangered since 1986 and critically endangered since 1996. There are an estimated 68 Javan rhinos living in Ujung Kulon National Park on the western tip of Java, but only 33% of them have the ability to reproduce. There are none currently living in captivity.

The total population of Sumatran rhinoceros is estimated to be less than 80, declining by more than 80% over the last 30 years. There are nine of these animals in captivity, eight in Indonesia and one in Malaysia (a female who is, unfortunately, non-reproductive), with two calves born at Way Kambas National Park in 2012 and 2016.

Cincinnatti Zoo - Baby Sumatran Rhino Makes First Public Appearance
Emi, a Sumatran rhinoceros, with her three-week-old female calf at the Cincinnati Zoo in August 2004. The zoo's breeding program has since closed. Mike Simons / Getty Images


All species of rhino are extremely threatened by poaching and habitat loss, with the former primarily driven by illegal wildlife trade in Vietnam and China for horns and other body parts. Rhino parts are considered a high value gift item and certain cultures believe that they have medicinal properties, which has led to extreme overhunting throughout the last few centuries.


Even though the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the international trade of rhino horn in 1977, poaching continues to pose the biggest threat to rhinos. Many horns still find their way into the illegal market, mostly in Vietnam, where weak law enforcement makes it easier for vast criminal networks to grind them up to sell for traditional medicines, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The horn is used for a wide range of applications, including party drugs, health supplements, a hangover cure, and even a cure for cancer. In China, rhino horn can enter the consumer market as high status antiques or as investment purchases, often carved into expensive bowls and bangles. Rhino poaching levels reached record highs in 2015, with at least 1,300 animals slaughtered in Africa; that number decreased to 691 in 2017 and to 508 in 2018.

The IUCN estimates that 95% of black rhino horns sourced for illegal Southeast Asian markets come from poaching in Africa. In addition to traditional Chinese medicine, the horns of black rhinos have also been used to produce carved handles for ceremonial daggers in Yemen and the Middle East in the past. Most recently, the medicinal market has started shaving pieces of horn from old ornamental carvings to supplement the demand as poaching declines.

Habitat Loss

Climate change, logging, and agriculture cause habitat loss and changes in grassland composition. As a result, fragmented populations are often prone to inbreeding, since healthy genetic mixing is more difficult in smaller groups. As human populations grow, the spaces available for rhinos to thrive shrink, while also increasing the likelihood of dangerous human-rhino conflict.

Food Competition

In the case of the critically endangered Javan rhino, studies have shown that existing habitat is limited by both human encroachment and the predominance of an invasive palm species called arenga. Known locally as Langkap, the palm grows uncontrollably throughout the forest canopy, inhibiting the growth of plants that rhinos eat. Ujung Kulon National Park, the only area where Javan rhinos are found, is also home to nearly one thousand wild banteng cattle. When grass is in short supply, banteng compete with foraging rhinos for food, further contributing to the historical decrease in Javan rhino numbers.

Allee Effect

The Allee Effect occurs when a population is confined to one small protected area, leading to a lack of resources and rise in diseases that eventually leads to extinction. This is one of the largest threats facing the critically endangered Sumatran rhino, found only on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo.

What We Can Do

Rhinos have a unique and important place in the ecosystems as one of the few megaherbivores (plant-eating animals who weigh more than 2,000 pounds) left on the planet. They help maintain the grassland and forest habitats that they share with countless other species, and as part of Africa's “Big Five" (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhinoceros, and elephant), contribute immensely to the economic and sustainable growth of the local tourism and safari industries.

Most rhinos are unable to survive outside of national parks and nature preserves due to poaching and habitat loss, so it is imperative that these places remain protected. There’s no doubt that extreme rhino conservation works when executed properly, as is evidenced by the improvement in the status of the greater one-horned rhino, which went from endangered at the turn of the century to vulnerable in 2008 thanks to protection and habitat management in India and Nepal. People all over the world can contribute symbolically adopting a rhino or signing World Wildlife Fund petitions established to stop wildlife crime.

Research and monitoring in rhino conservation areas are providing information to guide breeding and population growth. There are even organizations that employ Rhino Protection Units to fight poaching in places like Sumatra. In Indonesia, where an estimated 60% of Javan rhino territory is covered with invasive arenga palm, leaving little growth for rhino-friendly plants, the Javan Rhino Conservation and Study Area worked to clear 150 hectares from 2010 to 2018. The space is now frequented by 10 rhinos, which is more than half of the total population.

View Article Sources
  1. Talukdar, B., and Ellis, S. (IUCN SSC Asian Rhinoceros Specialist Group). “The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.” IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 28 May 2019.

  2. Ellis, S., and Talukdar, B. (IUCN SSC Asian Rhinoceros Specialist Group). “The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.” IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 29 May 2019.

  3. Courchamp, Franck, et al. Allee Effects in Ecology and Conservation. Oxford Univ. Press, 2009.