As rhinos grow increasingly threatened—in the wild and in museum halls—they become a symbol of all animals suffering possible extinction. But rhinos have long had such an image. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, those who encountered rhinoceroses, saw them as prehistoric relics, and expressed a sense of inevitability to their extinction. Even as late as 1980, science writer Edward Ricciuti wrote: “The rhino is a zoological museum piece, a holdover from times long past, a loner that is unadaptable and rather stupid.”
People perceived the rhinoceros as unfit to survive in the modern era. “Like men of the old stone age,” wrote naturalist-hunter Herbert Lang in 1920, “with but few implements for defense or attack compared with the multitude of destructive weapons in our times, the rhinoceros seems to lag ages behind in the development of its various senses.” The rhinoceros’ inability to adapt to human technology, Lang wrote, leaves it “hopelessly doomed by modern firearms.” What now seems a tragic irony—hunters shooting an animal they recognized they were implicit in endangering—to them looked not like irony, but the inevitability of a thing called “progress.”
After killing his share of rhinoceroses, President-adventurer Theodore Roosevelt paused to observe one at rest. “Look at him,” reflected his son, Kermit, “standing there in the middle of the African plain, deep in prehistoric thought.” The elder Roosevelt agreed: “Indeed the rhinoceros does seem like a survival from the elder world that has vanished; he was in place in the Pliocene, he would not have been out of place in the Miocene, but nowadays he can only exist at all in regions that have lagged behind, while the rest of the world, for good or for evil, has gone forward.”
This sense of melancholy over a species whose numbers were indeed declining continues to exist today. While some activist groups employ more optimistic rhetoric, insisting endangered species can be saved, others look at species “on the brink” as having an inevitable end.
After the turn of the last century, wildlife biologists and educators at the Wildlife Conservation Society sat to discuss their future projects and funding needs. As they discussed their progress in saving species and habitats, they found themselves forced to admit that despite their best efforts, some species continued to struggle for survival. With tears in their eyes, leading conservationists, whose lifework is to save species, agreed that the Javan rhino population was beyond repair. Viewing its extinction as inevitable, they cut funding for its conservation.
Imagining scientists growing emotional about extinction conjures a strange mixture of humility and ego. They admit humans caused habitat loss or over-hunting, and that subsequent human efforts to undo that damage failed. Along with these contradictions of human agency, goes an essential feeling of loss.
The idea of extinction arouses something fundamental in human nature. We mourn loss. But when it comes to species extinction, what are we mourning? Is it the lives of the individual animals themselves? The suffering of a population? Or, is it an aesthetic of a nature we have always known?
This is part of an ongoing series, Understanding Extinction, with research supported by the Animals & Society Institute Fellowship.
[Portions here excerpted from my book, Rhinoceros (Reaktion 2008).]