There are five species of rhinos worldwide which are generally categorized into two primary groups. The first category is the African rhinos, which include the white rhino and the black rhino. The second category is the Asian rhinos which include the Javan rhino, the Sumatran rhino and the Indian rhino.
The white rhinoceros is divided into two subspecies: the northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) and the southern white rhinoceros (C.s. simum). The northern white rhinoceros is listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), along with the other four species of rhinoceros; the southern white rhinoceros listed as Threatened due to a Similarity of Appearance under the ESA. All five species of rhinoceros were included in Appendix I of Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species in 1976. Subsequently, the South African and Swaziland populations of southern white rhinoceros (C.s. simum) were transferred to Appendix II “for the sole purpose of allowing international trade in hunting trophies and live animals to appropriate and acceptable destinations.”
The white rhino subspecies, the northern and southern, have shared a difficult past. The southern white rhino was actually considered extinct in the wild until 1895, when a small group of 20 were found in Natal, South Africa. Only through intensive conservation measures were southern white rhinos able to increase to the current population. The northern white rhino was not as lucky; there are only four remaining individuals in captivity. During the second half of the twentieth century, international demand for rhino horn led to uncontrolled hunting of rhinos, causing their populations to plummet. Within the past ten years, two subspecies have been hunted to extinction in the wild. The primary factor driving the illegal trade in rhino horn is the significant increase in demand for rhinoceros horn. In Yemen, rhino horn was used for ceremonial dagger handles and, in China, it was believed to have mild fever reduction qualities in traditional medicines. However, in the past few years, the market for rhino horn has shifted to Vietnam, where it is reportedly desired for a medicinal purpose, and the price on the illegal market has skyrocketed to meet this new demand.
Over the last five years, the USFWS Office of Law Enforcement has noted a marked increase in the U.S. demand for rhino horns and their products, involving individuals as well as organized criminal syndicates. Because of the difficulty posed by the similarity of appearance of horns and other products among the five species of rhinoceros, the absence of the southern white rhinoceros from the ESA “List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife” has made it difficult for law enforcement to distinguish between listed rhino species and the unlisted southern white rhino. Therefore, the Service is moving forward with a “similarity of appearance” action listing the southern white rhino under the protection of the U.S. Endangered Species Act that will substantially facilitate law enforcement actions to protect and conserve all rhino species.