Image: Black rhinos at an animal park in England
Dan Kitwood  /  Getty Images
A 6-month-old black rhino calf stands with its mother in its enclosure at Lympne Wild Animal Park on June 21 in Hythe, England.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 11/10/2011 5:56:43 AM ET 2011-11-10T10:56:43

The Western Black Rhino of Africa was declared officially extinct Thursday by a leading conservation group.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature said that two other subspecies of rhinoceros were close to meeting the same fate.

The Northern White Rhino of central Africa is now "possibly extinct" in the wild and the Javan Rhino "probably extinct" in Vietnam, after poachers killed the last animal there in 2010.

A small but declining population survives on the Indonesian island of Java.

IUCN said Thursday that a quarter of all mammals are at risk of extinction, according to its updated Red List of endangered species.

'Stewards of the Earth'
But the group added that species such as the Southern White Rhino and the Przewalski's Horse have been brought back from the brink with successful conservation programs.

"Human beings are stewards of the Earth and we are responsible for protecting the species that share our environment," said Simon Stuart, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission.

"In the case of both the Western Black Rhino and the Northern White Rhino, the situation could have had very different results if the suggested conservation measures had been implemented," he added. "These measures must be strengthened now, specifically managing habitats in order to improve breeding performance, preventing other rhinos from fading into extinction."  

Rhinos get upside-down helicopter ride to safety

The WWF environmental campaign group last month said that the Javan Rhino found dead in Vietnam in 2010 was the country's last, rendering the species all but the extinct.

Genetic analysis of 22 dung samples collected in Vietnam's Cat Tien National Park from 2009 to 2010 affirmed that the animal, found dead with a bullet in its leg and its horn removed in April 2010, was the final wild rhino in Vietnam.

Rhinoceros horns are a coveted ingredient in traditional Eastern medicine and rumored to cure or fend off cancer, although scientists say there is no evidence to support the claim.

WWF said the Javan Rhino was believed to be extinct from mainland Asia until 1988 when one was hunted from the Cat Tien area, leading to the discovery of a small population.

The IUCN did note that some species have been brought back from the brink with successful conservation programs.

Video: Hidden camera catches rare rhinos (on this page)

The Southern White Rhino numbered just 100 animals at the end of the 19th century, but has since flourished and now has a population of over 20,000.

The Przewalski's Horse, a type of wild horse from Central Asia, has come back from extinction after a successful breeding program in captivity.

The Red List now contains almost 62,000 species of plants and animals, whose status is constantly monitored by conservationists.

The Associated Press, msnbc.com staff and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Rhinos: Flight for survival

Photos: White rhinos returned to Kenya

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  1. "Fatu," one of only eight northern white rhinos known to exist in the world, rests in her cage at the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic on Dec. 17. Three days later she and three others were shipped to Kenya for what conservationists hope will be the start of recovery for one of the world's most endangered large mammals.

    The four were taken to the Communist-era zoo in the 1960s in a bid to create an African safari park. The relatively colder climate meant the animals spent most of their lives in small concrete cells. Back then, no one ever expected these would be some of the last living northern whites on the planet. (Ami Vitale / for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Czech zookeepers on Dec. 19 prepare the crates to move the four rhinos -- two males and two females, neither of which has reproduced in two decades. "Moving them now is a last bid effort to save them and their gene pool from total extinction," said Dr. Rob Brett of Fauna & Flora International, the lead conservation group behind the operation. (Ami Vitale / for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Airlifted in crates, the four rhinos arrive in Nairobi, Kenya, on Dec. 20. Conservationists hope that providing the four with a natural habitat will significantly increase their chances of breeding. To date, captive zoo breeding of northern whites has had limited success, with breeding only occurring at Dvur Kralove. The last calf was born in 2000. (Ami Vitale / for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. The crated rhinos are offloaded in Nairobi, Kenya. They were then driven about 180 miles to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia, Kenya.
    ”If we are successful, the preservation of their unique locally adapted genetic traits may allow their natural range to be re-stocked in the coming years," said Richard Vigne, the conservancy's chief executive officer. (Ami Vitale / for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Pens with outdoor areas have been set up at the conservancy for the new white rhinos. They will remain penned as they get used to the climate and vegetation, and gradually be given more room to roam. Eventually, they will be allowed to roam the entire park.

    The Ol Pejeta Conservancy is protected by armed Kenya Wildlife Service rangers. The rangers protect the wildlife, which includes a growing black rhino population, from poachers going after rhino horns. Some of the rhino horns were trimmed to prevent injury during transport and to make them less desireable to poachers. (Ami Vitale / for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mohammed Doyo, the head keeper of the rhinos at Ol Pejeta Conservancy,anxiously looks over the fence as "Sudan" is unloaded from his long journey Dec. 20. The journey was filled with risks to get them back to Africa and everyone involved with the move was tense but excited. (Ami Vitale / for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. The new arrivals at the conservancy immediately attracted visitors on Dec. 20.

    Some visitors were probably wondering why "white" rhinos when they're gray. The name comes from a misinterpretation of the Dutch "wijde" (wide in English), which was used to describe their wide mouths, an adaptation that helps them graze on grass. Black rhinos, on the other hand, have pointed mouths, which are adapted for browsing on leaves, shoots and branches. (Ami Vitale / for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. "Sudan," one of the new arrivals, smells the ground for the first time at her new pen on Dec. 20. Rhinos can live up to 40 years in the wild and can weigh upwards of 5,000 pounds.

    The northern white is a subspecies of the white rhino along with the southern white, which lives across southern Africa. The whites closest relatives are black rhinos, which also live in Africa. Asia has three rhino species: the Sumatran, Indian and Javan rhinos. (Ami Vitale / for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. "Suni," one of the new northern whites, is cooled down with water on Dec. 20. The program hopes to some day reintroduce the subspecies not only in Kenya's wild but back to southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon.

    "The long-term aim of the translocation is to establish a viable breeding group of locally adapted white rhinos for reintroduction back into secure areas of their original range in eastern Africa," Flora & Fauna International said in a statement. "The time frame of such a reintroduction could well be in the region of 20 years or more." (Ami Vitale / for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
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