The western black rhinoceros has not been seen in the wild since 2006. It is a subspecies of the black rhinoceros, which is endangered and only numbers above 5,000 in the African wild. All types of black rhinos are endangered.
The Abilene Zoo is home to two male black rhinos and administrators may consider a breeding program in the future. Since the rhinos are endangered, zoo staff need more experience with the rhinos before they can get permission from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to acquire a female for a breeding program.
The zoo is already home to other endangered animals, like the maned wolves, ocelots and Attwater’s prairie chickens, that are part of breeding programs.
The endangered animals are all victims of poaching and habitat loss in the wild.
“The main threat that rhinos across the world are facing is a poaching threat,” Joy Harsh, education curator at the Abilene Zoo, said. “They are poached for their horns, which are made of the same material as our fingernails and our hair. It's used in a lot of traditional medicines and that is their main threat.”
Though rhino horns do grow back, most poachers decide to kill them and remove their horns instead of tranquilizing them.
Harsh said habitat loss is “pretty much the number one reason most animals face extinction or endangerment.”
Visitors said they see both sides of the poaching issue.
“There’s so many people right here in Abilene that abuse their animals and why? You know, who knows,” Pat Kelly said. “I’m just a firm believer that all animals in some way or another need to be protected.”
“It's really easy to sit here in a Western country where we have plenty of food and plenty of what we need to say of course they shouldn't poach these animals,” Danielle Lochte said. “But you know, I want them to be around but I don’t live there and I’m not part of that economy and so rhino horns are just – they fetch a really good price and so it is sad and it’s sad for the animal but I don’t know it’s just hard to say one way or another but of course I want [the rhinos] to be around.”
Harsh said featuring animals in a zoo setting helps the public realize why it is important to protect endangered animals.
“It's one thing reading about an animal and seeing it on the internet, but it's another thing when you actually get to see the animal, you know, face-to-face and get to have some sort of interaction with it,” Harsh said. “It makes it much more personal and so that you appreciate that animal and then want to do something to save them and help them.”
If you would like to contribute to the conservation effort, you can learn more about “adopting” an animal at the Abilene Zoo here. If you’d like to donate to the International Rhino Foundation, click here.