Rhino horns have shrunk over the last century due to poaching

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  • A study from the University of Cambridge analyzes the evolution of this trait so characteristic of rhinoceroses

Rhinoceros horns have shrunk during the last century due to poaching

The rhino hornsthey have shrunk (a lot) in the last century. The first photographic portraits of these animals, taken a little over 100 years ago, show that they had much longer horns than we can see today. According to the first historical analysis on the evolution of this trait so characteristic of rhinoceroses, everything points to poaching being responsible for this phenomenon .

The study, led by the University of Cambridge, has analyzed photographs of rhinoceroses captured between the years 1886 and 2018. They also included illustrations and portraits of these animals that are more than 500 years old. From there, the team of researchers that has led this study has calculated the size of the hornsHe has depicted these animals in each image and has traced the evolution of this trait in five species (white, black, Indian, Javanese, and Sumatran). Analysis of historical records suggests that, indeed, “rhinoceros horns have gradually decreased in size over time“. But why?

The scientists responsible for this analysis propose the following hypothesis. Rhinos are one of the main targets of poachers. In large part, because its horns reach astronomical values ​​on the black market (mainly because, in certain cultures, medicinal and even miraculous capacities are falsely attributed to it). The search for these 'trophies', according to experts, could have caused historically hunters to shoot longer horned rhinos more. This would have favored the reproduction of the small-horned rhinos and that, thus, doing, this trait was passed on like this. to future generations.

“Having smaller horns could be detrimental to your survival in the long run”

“Rhinos developed their horns for different reasons: like to catch food or to defend themselves against predators, so we think that having smaller horns, in the long run, could be detrimental to their survival“, highlights Oscar Wilson, author of this analysis and professor at the University of Helsinki, Finland.

The horns of rhinos have shrunk over the last century due to poaching

Two Indian rhinoceroses, in an image captured in 2021 by researcher Oscar Wilson.

Historical perception

The study also investigates the perception of these animals throughout history. The first portraits of rhinoceroses, for example, showed giant, threatening beings that persecute humans. In this sense, the experts suggest that this vision was the one that, at least in the beginning, contributed. to justify the hunting of these wild animals. At the beginning of the last century, the hunting of these animals was so normalized that even President Theodore Roosevelt triumphantly with a black rhinoceros that he had just killed.

From 1950, the portraits of these animals show a change in trend. The photographs of the rhinos were no longer to show off a hunting trophy but, on the contrary, sought to promote their conservation. In this sense, experts suggest that this change coincides with the collapse of European empires. That is, just at the time when African countries achieved their independence and, in turn, European hunters began to have more restrictions on going to Africa to hunt.

” We have seen that we can use images from the last centuries to visualize how human attitudes towards wildlife have changed“, highlights Ed Turner, one of the researchers who has led this analysis and professor in the department of zoology at Cambridge. In recent decades we have seen more interest in rhino conservation. You can see this in today's footage, which either shows these animals in sanctuaries or portrays their plight in the wild,” adds Wilson.

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