Last of a kind © Brent Stirton

An anti-poaching team guard a rhino in Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, home to both black rhinos and four of the world's remaining northen white rhinos. Last of a kind © Brent Stirton.

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year: The brutal reality of rhino poaching

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning image from 2017 captures the aftermath of an act of brutality: a dead black rhino, killed for its commercially valuable horn.

Museum mammal expert Richard Sabin explains why images like this matter, despite being hard to look at.

The outlook is bleak for black rhinos. They have been critically endangered since 1996, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that the population has declined by an estimated 97.6% since 1960.

The mammals are slaughtered in huge numbers for their horns, which are used in traditional medicine and for decoration, and can be worth more than their weight in gold in illegal international markets.

Global demand for the horns fuels both crude poaching networks in southern African countries (the heartland of the black rhino) and larger organised crime networks.

Photojournalist Brent Stirton is documenting the cruelty and tragedy of the trade in rhino horn. His image, Memorial to a species (pictured below), emerged as the grand title winner of this year's Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, out of almost 50,000 competition entries from 92 countries.

Memorial to a species © Brent Stirton

Memorial to a species © Brent Stirton


The jury awarded Brent's shot the competition's most coveted title because it was the most memorable and striking image of all 16 categories.

The judges also felt it had 'sculptural power' and strong use of light, encapsulating the breakdown of a vulnerable species in one single frame.  

Provoking debate

The photograph also highlights the battle to survive facing many species all over the world.

Caring for Lulah © Brent Stirton

Brent won the Wildlife Photojournalist Award for his image story about the lives of rhinos in South Africa. This orphan is called Lulah. Her mother was killed in Kruger National Park in South Africa. Caring for Lulah © Brent Stirton.


Richard Sabin, the Museum's Principal Curator of Mammals, believes the image is crucial for encouraging dialogue and debate about international conservation issues.

He says, 'The Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition isn't just about beautiful images and technical ability - it is also about provoking and stimulating debate.

'This image is difficult to look at, but what it shows is an inescapable part of the human exploitation of the natural world.

'Wildlife Photographer of the Year showcases the world's best nature photography, so it is a perfect platform to use to discuss uncomfortable realities.'

Saving Hope © Brent Stirton

Members of the conservation organisation Saving the Survivors start the long process of healing the face of a rhino whose horn was hacked off by poachers. Saving Hope © Brent Stirton.


The outlook for black rhinos

Black rhinos once ranged across sub-Saharan Africa, but now they only survive in five countries: South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Tanzania.

Numbers hit rock bottom in 1995, with just 2,410 black rhinos alive in the wild. The population doubled to 4,880 by the end of 2010, but current levels are still 90% lower than three generations ago, mainly due to international trade in rhino horn.

The horns are used in traditional medicine in countries including China and Vietnam, although there is no scientific evidence to suggest rhino horn material has any medicinal qualities. It is made of keratin, the same protein that makes up fingernails and hair. It grows from the skin and is not part of the animal's skeleton.

Horns are also used in several countries to make prized ornaments such as jewellery, drinking vessels and the handles of ceremonial weapons. Recent years have seen a substantial rise in the price of horns, driving a further increase in poaching in some areas.

Richard says, 'Although I do not qualify to criticise the traditional cultural use of animal parts, it is largely greed, irresponsibility and ignorance fueling the rhino horn trade. Better education systems need to be put in place.

'I despair when I see images of animals that are an important part of a major ecosystem being senselessly destroyed. Losing these animals forever would be a tragedy for humankind.'

The rhino-horn farmer © Brent Stirton

Game farmer Dawie Groenewalt pictured in Polokwane in South Africa. The rhino-horn farmer © Brent Stirton.


What’s being done?

Efforts are being made to save the few black rhinos there are left in the wild.

Campaigning organisations work to improve knowledge about trafficking routes and reduce the demand for illegal rhino horn, and all five species of rhino are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

International trade in rhino horn has been banned since 1977, and South Africa banned it domestically in 2009.

Museum collections can help conservation efforts by providing historic data about the range, population structure, diet and distribution of different rhino species.

The Natural History Museum has what is considered to be the most comprehensive rhino research collection in the world, consisting primarily of skeletal material. 

Point of sale © Brent Stirton

A medicine man with rhino horn material in Vietnam. Point of sale © Brent Stirton.


Such specimens, which have temporal and spatial data, can provide vital scientific information that helps protect some of the most vulnerable species on our planet.

In 2017, rhino material held in the Museum's collections informed a landmark study on the genetic structure of historic and modern rhino populations. It is hoped that studies like this will inform future conservation efforts.

Richard says, 'The research paper was published as a result of our outstanding collections. Skeletal material has genetic data locked away within it, which new technologies are helping us to unlock and use to address a range of important conservation issues.

'As a world-leading scientific research centre, we recognise the impact that human activity is having on the natural world, and our responsibility to lead the debate about how we can ensure a sustainable future for our planet.'

The world's wildlife is under threat

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