Horn to be Wild: unpacking humankind’s history of ‘rhinocerotica’ for species conservation

In today’s blog, Zara Bending offers a preview of and background to her forthcoming article in Environment and History. This will be published via Ingenta FastTrack in January and is currently available in uncopyedited form here.

In an upcoming article in Environment and History, I seek to obtain a fuller understanding of the drivers of the international market for rhinoceros horn by pursuing a broader avenue of cultural inquiry that traces the animal and its most coveted part across a vast history of human interest. The analysis is presented in three parts: (1) a brief synopsis of evolution and ecology; (2) an examination of the cultural significance of the rhinoceros as informed by historical and contemporary sources; and (3) an investigation into the morphology and established uses of rhinoceros horn.

A Woolly Rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis)
depicted on the walls of the Chauvet Cave.

Soon after commencing my research (aided by the extensive archive curated by Dr Kees Rookmaaker of the Rhino Resource Center)[1] I came to appreciate that, as remarkable as all five extant species of rhino are in reality, the anthropocentric allure of the rhino and its horn draws as much from myth and caricature as it does from natural history and biology. The iconographer T.H. Clarke, who chronicled the arrival and reception of the first rhinos in Europe since the menageries of Ancient Rome, once referred to the extent of humankind’s fascination with the rhinoceros as resembling ‘rhinomania’ and ‘rhinocerotica’.[2] Sadly, it is this captivation, one that spans millennia and transcends cultural bounds, that paradoxically drive some to protect, and others to kill. The so-called ‘beast’ is reduced to a trophy on the wall, handle of a dagger, ornament, investment item, or ingredient in the pharmacopoeia. For instance, in following updates from TRAFFIC[3] this year, parallels emerged between the rhinoceros’ historical association with the dominion and ambition of monarchs and empire builders; and the contemporary conspicuous consumption of rhino horn as a status symbol, luxury item and gift for the economic and social elite.

What makes this body of research so fascinating is the revolving door of characters (ungulate and non-ungulate) that appear, in addition to the range of popular claims to contest. Did Traditional Chinese Medicine advocate the use of rhino horn as an aphrodisiac, or was this a myth propagated by the West? Is rhinoceros horn matted hair? Was the White Rhinoceros so named as a corruption of the Afrikaans word ‘wyd/wijd’ meaning ‘wide’ referencing the shape of its lips? For myself, it was the tracing of seemingly ubiquitous representations of rhinos and elephants engaged in mortal combat that hit closest to home.

Rhinoceros horns from Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon’s Planches pour L’Abrege d’Histoire Naturelle, published by Aux Deux-Ponts Chez Sanson et Compagnie in 1790.

Waters’ analysis of classical accounts of ‘the unicorn’ trace versions to the likes of Ctesias of Cnidus, Aristotle, Pliny the Elder and Claudius Aelianus (more commonly known as Aelian).[4] A passage from Book VIII, Chapter XX of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History reads as follows:

[i]n the same Plays of Pompey, and many Times beside was shewed a Rhinoceros, with a single Horn on his Snout.  This is a second begotten Enemy to the Elephant.  He fileth this Horn against hard Stones, and so prepareth himself to fight; and in his Conflict he aimeth principally at the Belly, which he knoweth to be the tenderest Part. He is full as long as his enemy; his Legs much shorter; his Colour a palish Yellow

It was the desire to test this ancient account of pachyderm acrimony that bore the first rhinoceros in Europe since the third century to Lisbon in 1515 aboard a spice ship from Goa. King Manuel I of Portugal scheduled a fight between the ‘ganda’ and an elephant on Trinity Sunday, 3 June 1515. Reports of the day state that the elephant turned tail and sought refuge. Half a year later, the rhinoceros perished in a storm, shackled to the deck of a ship bound for Rome as a gift to Pope Leo X. Even after its untimely death, the rhino’s influence would continue in the form of Albrecht Dürer’s celebrated ink sketches and woodcut. The Dürer Rhino depicts an awe-inspiring animal adorned with impenetrable armoured plates and an extra horn jutting from its shoulder. So influential was his portrayal that many artists would continue to insist on including this anatomically inaccurate extra horn, even after examining a real-life specimen.


‘The Rhinoceros’, Albrecht Dürer, Germany, c.1515. © The Trustees of the British Museum (by permission).

Dürer’s Rhinoceros in Brown Ink has a similar description to the woodcut:

In the Year 1513 (sic) upon the I. Day of May, there was brought to our King at Lisbon such a living Beast from the East-Indies that is called Rhinocerate: Therefore on account of its Wonderfulness I thought myself obliged to send you the Representation of it. It hath the Colour of a Toad and is close covered with thick Scales in Size like an Elephant, but lower, and is the Elephant’s deadly Enemy; it hath on the fore part of its Nose a strong sharp Horn; and, when this Beast comes near the Elephant to fight with him, he always first whets his Horn upon the Stones; and runs at the Elephant with his Head between his fore Legs; then rips up the Elephant where he hath the thinnest Skin, and so gores him: The Elephant is terribly afraid of the Rhinocerate; for he gores him always, where-ever he meets an Elephant; for he is well armed, and is very alert and nimble. This Beast is called Rhinoceros in Greek and Latin; but, in Indian, Gomda.

Representations of rhino-elephant conflict endured including Jan Griffier ‘s 1865 mezzotint entitled A True Representation of the Two Great Masterpieces of Nature… and a background scene of a print depicting the famed rhinoceros Clara who toured Europe for seventeen years on a cart drawn by eight horses, ‘received by royalty and fed beer by commoners.’

Clara, das Nashorn. Mannheim, 1747.

On a personal note, about a year into writing this piece it dawned on me that my childhood revulsion at rhinos as arch nemeses to the elephants I adored (reflected even in the children’s television series based on Jean de Brunhoff’s L’Histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant) had a history extending back to Pliny the Elder. Trivial as it appears, this realisation confirmed in me the necessity to investigate the historical-cultural underpinnings of contemporary attitudes. Environmental history, and the Environmental Humanities more broadly, thus stand as crucial disciplines contributing to Conservation Science as we seek to change human behaviour towards endangered species and the consumption of certain wildlife products.

Extinction causation is complex, and while the particular conditions of endangerment impacting each of the five extant species of rhinoceros vary (even more so when homing in on regional extinctions) each of the IUCN Red List assessments have identified poaching for the coveted horn as a significant driver in population decreases, certainly historically. It beggars belief that so much harm could be wrought for the protuberance of keratin anchored to an animal’s skin. However, it is my hope that readers come away from the piece inspired, whether by the resilience of the species or the charm of individuals like Clara, to help turn the tide against extinction.

The author with With Jabari at Mogo Zoo, Australia

[1] Rookmaaker, Kees (ed)., www.rhinoresourcecenter.com (accessed 2017).

[2] T.H. Clarke, The Rhinoceros from Dürer to Stubbs 1515–1799 (London: Sotheby’s Publications, 1986), pp. 1–219.

[3] TRAFFIC the wildlife trade monitoring network, http://www.traffic.org (accessed 2017).

[4] Elyse Waters, ‘Zoological analysis of the unicorn as described by classical authors’, Archeometrial Műhely X (3) (2013): 231–236.

Rhinos must be in the air just now. We have just found this blog piece which chimes interestingly with Zara’s… 


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