This article is originally available at http://www.unep.org/stories/story/rhino-love.

Did you know that the mighty and formidable rhino’s horn is made of keratin, the same substance as a human fingernail?

Iconic “big five” species such as rhinos bring in tourism revenue for the countries where they live and inspire the imagination of children across the globe, encouraging an interest in nature. Large mammals like rhinos and elephants are also architects of ecosystems, balancing forests and grasslands, and in turn enabling many other species to thrive.  

There are five species of rhino: white, black, Indian, Javan and Sumatran. All species are herbivores, meaning that they only eat plants – and most are critically endangered.

One of the main causes of their rapid decline in the past few decades is poaching. Rhinos are illegally killed by humans for their horns, which are bought and sold on the black market for their presumed therapeutic properties, and more recently for hangover cures, despite any scientific basis for the claims. The horns are also crafted into statues and valuable artifacts, with collectors banking on extinction in the hope that the value will skyrocket as rhinos become increasingly rare.

One controversial strategy to beat the poachers is to capture rhinos, sedate them, and remove their horns. But this approach presents its own set of issues; as large stockpiles of a currently illegal substance accumulate, the pressure to open trade in order to sell them also increases.

© AJT Johnsingh, WWF-India and NCF

And poachers are driven by the huge demand for, and profits to be made from, rhino horn, especially in China and Viet Nam, and are often one step ahead of the authorities. Criminal networks are now reportedto be turning rhino horn into jewelry before smuggling it out of Africa, to evade its detection in airports.

About 96 per cent of black rhinos were lost to large-scale poaching between 1970 and 1992, and although numbers have recovered since, today there are now just 4,800 black rhino individuals left in the wild. Rhino populations and sub-species have disappeared entirely from several Asian and African countries in recent years. In 2011, the Western Black Rhino was declared extinct, and there is only a single surviving individual of the Northern white rhino.

All five species of rhinos (two in Africa, three in Asia) are included in CITES  (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species) Appendix I, which means that international trade is strictly prohibited.

Rhinos have been around for millions of years. It is within our power to save them by making sure that our friends and families do not buy rhino horn for any reason.

One of the targets of Sustainable Development Goal 15 is to: “Take urgent action to end poaching and trafficking of protected species of flora and fauna and address both demand and supply of illegal wildlife products.”

World Rhino Day events and activities in many countries aim to raise awareness of the plight of this magnificent beast, reduce the demand for rhino horn, and turn up the heat on poachers. Go Wild for Life – make your pledge to help protect the rhino!

For more on rhinos, try your hand at this quiz http://quizzes.howstuffworks.com/quiz/rhinoceros-quiz or this one: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/how-much-do-you-really-know-about-rhinos-find-out-our-quiz-1582608

For further information: Lisa Rolls Lisa.Rolls[at]unep.org

Media enquiries: unepnewsdesk[at]unep.org