Pen and ink drawing, Albrecht Dürer, 1515
In early 1514, Afonso de Albuquerque, governor of Portuguese India, sent ambassadors to Sultan Muzafar II, ruler of Cambay, to seek permission to build a fort on the island of Diu. The mission returned without an agreement, but diplomatic gifts were exchanged, including a rhinoceros.
Albuquerque decided to forward the gift, known by its Gujarati name of ganda, and its Indian keeper, to King Manuel I of Portugal.
On the Nossa Senhora da Ajuda, with two companion vessels, all loaded with spices, the animal sailed across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope and north through the Atlantic, stopping briefly in Mozambique, Saint Helena and the Azores.
The rhinoceros was finally unloaded in Portugal, near the site where the Manueline Belém Tower was under construction. The tower was later decorated with gargoyles shaped as rhinoceros heads under its corbels.
A rhinoceros had not been seen in Europe since Roman times: it had become something of a mythical beast, occasionally conflated in bestiaries with the “monoceros” (unicorn), so the arrival of a living example created a sensation.
In the context of the Renaissance, it was a piece of Classical Antiquity which had been rediscovered, like a statue or an inscription.
The animal was examined by scholars and the curious, and letters describing the fantastic creature were sent to correspondents throughout Europe.
The earliest known image of it illustrates a poemetto by Florentine Giovanni Giacomo Penni, published in Rome fewer than eight weeks after its arrival in Lisbon.
It was housed in King Manuel’s menagerie at the Ribeira Palace in Lisbon, separate from his elephants and other large beasts at the Estaus Palace.
Manuel decided to give the rhinoceros as a gift to the Medici Pope Leo X. The King was keen to curry favour with the Pope, to maintain the papal grants of exclusive possession to the new lands that his naval forces had been exploring in the Far East since Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India around Africa in 1498.
The previous year, the Pope had been very pleased with Manuel’s gift of a white elephant, also from India, which the Pope had named Hanno.
Together with other precious gifts of silver plate and spices, the rhinoceros, with its new collar of green velvet decorated with flowers, embarked on December 1515 for the voyage to Rome.
The vessel passed near Marseille in early 1516. King Francis I of France was returning from Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume in Provence, and requested a viewing of the beast. The Portuguese vessel stopped briefly at an island off Marseilles, where the rhinoceros disembarked to be beheld by the King.
After resuming its journey, the ship was wrecked in a sudden storm as it passed through the narrows of Porto Venere, north of La Spezia on the coast of Liguria. The rhinoceros, chained and shackled to the deck to keep it under control, was unable to swim to safety and drowned.
The carcass of the rhinoceros was recovered near Villefranche and its hide was returned to Lisbon, where it was stuffed. Some reports say that the mounted skin was sent to Rome, arriving in February 1516, to be exhibited impagliato (Italian for “stuffed with straw”), although such a feat would have challenged 16th-century methods of taxidermy, which were still primitive. If a stuffed rhinoceros did arrive in Rome, its fate remains unknown: it might have been removed to Florence by the Medici, or destroyed in the 1527 sack of Rome. In any event, there was not the popular sensation in Rome that the living beast had caused in Lisbon, although a rhinoceros was depicted in contemporary paintings in Rome by Giovanni da Udine and Raphael.
Valentim Fernandes, a Moravian merchant and printer, had seen the rhinoceros in Lisbon shortly after it arrived and had written a letter describing it to a friend in Nuremberg in June 1515. A second letter of unknown authorship was sent from Lisbon to Nuremberg at around the same time, enclosing a sketch by an unknown artist, Albrecht Dürer.
Without ever seeing the rhinoceros himself, Dürer made two pen and ink drawings, and then a woodcut was carved from the second drawing
The German inscription on the woodcut, drawing largely from Pliny’s account, reads:
||On the first of May in the year 1513 AD, the powerful King of Portugal, Manuel of Lisbon, brought such a living animal from India, called the rhinoceros. This is an accurate representation. It is the colour of a speckled tortoise, and is almost entirely covered with thick scales. It is the size of an elephant but has shorter legs and is almost invulnerable. It has a strong pointed horn on the tip of its nose, which it sharpens on stones. It is the mortal enemy of the elephant. The elephant is afraid of the rhinoceros, for, when they meet, the rhinoceros charges with its head between its front legs and rips open the elephant’s stomach, against which the elephant is unable to defend itself. The rhinoceros is so well-armed that the elephant cannot harm it. It is said that the rhinoceros is fast, impetuous and cunning.
Dürer’s woodcut is not an accurate representation of a rhinoceros. He depicts an animal with hard plates that cover its body like sheets of armour, with a gorget at the throat, a solid-looking breastplate, and rivets along the seams. He places a small twisted horn on its back, and gives it scaly legs and saw-like rear quarters.
None of these features is present in a real rhinoceros.
It is possible that a suit of armour was forged for the king’s exhibition of the rhinoceros versus an elephant in Portugal, and that these features depicted by Dürer are parts of the armour.
Alternatively, Dürer’s armour may represent the heavy folds of thick skin of an Indian rhinoceros, or, as with the other inaccuracies, may simply be misunderstandings or creative additions by Dürer.
Dürer also draws a scaly texture over the body of the animal, including the armour. This may be Dürer’s attempt to reflect the rough and almost hairless hide of the Indian rhinoceros, which has wart-like bumps covering its upper legs and shoulders.
On the other hand, his depiction of the texture may represent dermatitis induced by the rhinoceros’ close confinement during the four-month journey by ship from India to Portugal.
A critically endangered male Sumatran rhino born in a US zoo has been flown to Indonesia to mate, as part of efforts to save his species. Eight-year-old Harapan, born in Cincinnati, was the last Sumatran rhino in the Western hemisphere.
The rhinos natural habitat in the forest of Sumatra is being devastated by illegal logging, and forest fires set by farmers clearing land for palm oil and pulp plantations
They are prized by poachers as their horns are used in [fake aphrodisiac scams dignified by the term] “Chinese medicine”.
The ancient Sumatran rhino has been declared extinct in Malaysia,
following the fate of black rhinos in West Africa in 2011.
Central Africa’s northern white rhino has been reduced to four animals,
and conservationists say the more plentiful southern white rhinos are under unprecedented attack from poachers eager to sell the horns to Asian and Arab buyers.
After roaming free for millions of years, rhinos may be able to survive in Kenya only if they are protected behind fences in sanctuaries, a leading conservation charity has said.
Those that remain are increasingly vulnerable to extremely well-organised poaching gangs, and people from inside the Kenya Wildlife Service have been found to be colluding with them.
Just last week, preservationists at the Old Pejeta animal sanctuary in Kenya conceded that their one male and two female northern white rhinos will not reproduce naturally.
The animals were flown from the Czech zoo to the Kenyan conservancy in December 2009 in hopes the natural environment could be easier for them to breed there than in captivity.
Efforts will now be made to keep the species alive through in vitro fertilization. That experiment could take place with a southern white rhino surrogate mother. Southern white rhinos almost went extinct at the end of the 19th century, plunging down to only 20 at one point. Decades of conservation efforts gradually brought them back to life.
The greater population of the southern white rhino could aid in reproduction of its northern counterpart. Scientists who have studied the critically endangered animal claim that dramatic population loss has reached the point at which inter-crossing the two subspecies will likely be necessary for the survival of the northern white rhino.
Geneticists view breeding rhinos across subspecies as a last resort of sorts, because of the possibility that the genes of the northern white rhino would not be preserved.
Other options are even less appealing. The six remaining animals in the subspecies would have to inbreed to produce any pure-bred offspring. But the negative effects of inbreeding, like reduced fertility and higher infant mortality rates, decrease the likelihood that the population of the subspecies could rebound this way.
“One can always believe in miracles but everything leads us to believe that hope they would reproduce naturally has gone,” Dvur Kralove Zoo spokeswoman Jana Mysliveckova told Agence France-Presse.