Wildlife Guide: African Rhinoceros
What Makes African Rhinoceros Special? All About the life cycle, behaviors, conservation, and where to see wild black or white African Rhinoceros
Did you know?
African Rhinoceros Fun Facts
1. Smile pretty: How to identify the black rhino from the white (they are both grey)! Their mouths, white rhinos have wide mouths, black rhino mouths are tapered.
2. What’s in a name? The white rhino got its name from the Afrikaans word “weit” which means wide and is a reference to the shape of his mouth.
3. Growth spurt: Rhino horn is keratin, like fingernails or hair, and grows continuously 2.5 to 4 inches (60 –100 mm) per year, throughout his life.
4. Watch out! A group of rhinos living together is called a “crash.” Hmmm, that seems appropriate!
White Rhino: The white rhino is sometimes referred to as the square lipped rhino.
Black Rhino: The black rhino is sometimes referred to as the hook-lipped rhino.
Genus and Species
1. White Rhinoceros: Ceratotherium simum
2. Black Rhinoceros: Diceros bicornis
Subspecies of White Rhinoceros
There are two subspecies of white rhinoceros: The southern white rhino is the most numerous of all rhinoceros, but the northern white rhino is believed extinct in the wild.
1. Southern white rhinoceros: C. s. simum. IUCN Red List: Near Threatened.
2. Northern white rhinoceros: C. s. cottoni (only three animals remain in captivity). Considered extinct. See below: "African Rhinoceros Viewing Destinations" Kenya: Ol Pejeta.
Subspecies of Black Rhinoceros
There are three surviving subspecies:
1. Southwestern black rhinoceros: D.b. bicornis. IUCN Red List: Vulnerable
2. Eastern black rhinoceros: D.b. michaeli. IUCN Red List: Critically endangered
3. South-central black rhinoceros: D.b.minor. IUCN Red List: Critically endangered.
Closest Living Relatives
Horse, donkey, and tapir are the rhinoceros' closest living (non-rhino) relatives.
Other Related Species?
There are three Asian rhinoceros species:
1. Sumatran rhinoceros: Dicerorhinus sumatrensis. IUCN Red List: Critically Endangered. Found on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo Update: 7/2018 According to recent studies the "official" number is 100 but researchers feel there may be as few as 30 left in the wild and declining.
2. Greater one-horned or Indian rhinoceros: Rhinoceros unicornis. IUCN Red List: Vulnerable. Found in India and Nepal.
3. Javan rhinoceros: Rhinoceros sondaicus. IUCN Red List: Critically Endangered. Found only in Ujun-Kulon National Park, Java, Indonesia.
Differences Between African and Asian Rhinoceros?
The two species of African and three species of Asian rhinoceros all share many of the same characteristics, however, African rhinos are more aggressive than their Asian cousins. They fight with their horns, impaling their opponents while Asian rhinoceros fight with their teeth.
The Asian species live in wetter habitats, subtropical to tropical forests and grasslands, while the African rhinoceros species prefer dryer savannah or woodland ranges. All five species are shy herbivores. All spend much of the daytime wallowing in mud as protection for their sensitive skin, but the Asian species also swim, in fact the greater one horned or Indian rhino is considered semi-aquatic.
Three pronounced skin folds, one each around the back and front legs and one around the neck and shoulder area, give the Asian species a more heavily ‘armored” look than their African cousins.
The Sumatran rhino is the smallest of the five species, the hairiest, and the one most closely related to the ice age’s woolly rhinoceros. The horns of the Asian species are significantly smaller than the horn of the African.
By the Numbers
ICUN Red List
White Rhinoceros: Near Threatened
Black Rhinoceros: Critically Endangered
How Many African Rhinoceros Are Left
in The Wild
According to Save the Rhino, there were over 500,000 rhinoceros across Africa and Asia at the beginning of the 20th century; today less than 6%, approximately 29,000 individuals, representing all five species, are left in the wild. Africa’s 20,405 white rhinos make up the vast majority of the remaining population followed by black rhinos with 5,055. The remaining 4,000 individuals are divided across the three remaining Asian species.
Although great strides have been made to stem the carnage, the number of rhinoceros poached in South Africa, where their population is greatest, has risen every year since 2007. If we cannot change this trend, deaths will overtake births sometime between 2016 and 2018 and we stand to loose the fight to save the species.
For Some Rhino Species it is Already Too Late: In 2007 the western black rhinoceros subspecies was declared extinct. In November of 2015, the northern white rhinoceros subspecies lost another one of their numbers to age, becoming a worldwide population of only three individuals - all in captivity but all past their breeding age.
By far the greatest threat to the rhino’s survival is poaching for their horn. Traditionally some cultures used the horn, made into knife handles or other amulets, as sign of masculine prowess and good luck. But it is today’s demand, coming from parts of Asia where the horn, ground to powder, is thought to have medicinal properties that is driving the species to extinction.
More Valuable Than Gold: The skyrocketing demand in Vietnam and China is making the poached horn more valuable than gold, and as its value has risen, so has the grip of organized crime. Poaching has become more sophisticated and violent with rangers regularly coming under fire and being killed along with the animals they are trying to protect.
Ironically, the substance itself is nothing more than keratin, and, like your own nails and hair, grows continuously throughout the animal’s life – if the animal is not killed in the “harvesting” process.
The results of Asia's demand, driven by rhinoceros horn's mythical properties, is not only deadly for the species, but also deadly for humans. Illegal wildlife trading, including in rhino horn, has been linked to terrorist organizations originating in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and operating worldwide. In fact, the rhinos are now so rare that some parks and preserves have given individual animals personal round-the-clock guards. Unfortunately, the guards are also being killed at an alarming rate.
African rhino conservation is a story of great wins and losses. On the plus side, concentrated anti-poaching efforts have allowed their numbers to slowly increase and even be reintroduced into some very protected areas within their former ranges.
Back From The Brink - Southern White Rhinos: Heroic conservation work brought the southern white rhino back from the brink of extinction from only 50 individuals remaining in 1900 to over 20,000 individuals in the (mostly reserved) wild today.
The black rhino population is still ICUN Red List assessed as critically endangered, although they too have seen an increase of population from 2,300 individuals in 1993 to about 5,055 across Africa today.
Rhino poaching is being approached from both the demand and supply side of the problem. Education for young people in Asian cultures with historic demand for rhino “medicine” is beginning to show promising results.
The Conservation Effect of Responsible Tourism: In Africa, a growing responsible wildlife tourism industry is positively impacting their survival, too. In areas that receive socio-economic benefits from wildlife tourism, whole communities are turning away from the quick-cash lure of poaching to become stewards of wildlife conservation. And anti-poaching methods have become more sophisticated with the use of specially trained dogs, drones, and radio collars.
With the recognition of organized crime’s international influence, wildlife poaching is now being seen not just as a “species” problem but an issue effecting societies, governments, and the world. Still, in some places the last resort for individual animals at risk against determined, well-armed poachers are their own 24-hour personal guards.
White Rhinoceros Height: 4.9 - 5.9 feet (1.5 - 1.8 m)
White Rhinoceros Weight: 4,080 – 5,500 pounds (1,800 – 2,500 kg)
Black Rhinoceros Height: 5.25 feet (1.6 m)
Black Rhinoceros Weight: 1,985 to 2,975 pounds (900 – 1,350 kg)
Males of both species can be considerably larger than the females.
The rhinoceros is the second largest land mammal next to the elephant. Both of the African species are grey, mostly hairless (except on ears, tail tips, and eyelashes) animals that look as though they are wearing armor. Both sexes of both species typically have two horns that grow up and backward from the front of their heads, with the front horn usually larger. The horns actually sit over his nose and are not attached to the skull. A female’s horn is generally thinner, although since they are regularly sharpened and shaped, size is not a good indicator of gender.
Differences Between Black and White Rhinoceros
White rhinoceros adult males are considerably larger (5,070 lbs. / 2,300 kg) than their black species counterparts, (2,204 pounds /1,000 kg). However, the likelihood of seeing two adult males of different rhino species standing side by side for comparison is small. The easiest and best way to understand which you are looking at is by studying their mouths. White rhinos have square upper lips for grazing. Their name is thought to come from the Afrikaans word “weit” meaning wide – not white - and refers to his mouth. Black rhinos have pointed prehensile lips for browsing. Watch them eat and you will see the white rhino munching grass while the black rhino nibbles bushes and small trees.
Next look at the neck and back. The white rhino’s head is bigger and they have a huge muscle that forms a hump at their back to hold it up. The rest of their back is flat. The black rhino does not have the hump and their backs are concave. Less easy to spot is the difference in their ear shapes, which is a little pointier on the white rhino and a little rounder on the black.
Filariasis: Unfortunately for the animal, if you spot bloody or oozing lesions on its body, it is probably a black rhino.
They are very susceptible to a type of parasite that is carried by flies that feed on the skin causing weeping sores usually on the base of the neck and shoulders. This condition is called Filariasis. Ironically, the oxpecker birds that live with the rhinos and eat their parasites contribute to the open sores by continually aggravating the lesions so they cannot heal.
Take a look at the video below. These rhino have square mouths perfect for grazing on grass; they are white rhinos. You will not see black rhino doing this. Also note the water line and mud on their bodies. Both African rhinoceros species protect their skin with mud. Thanks to Marc Cronje, independent wildlife field guide, for use of his video.
Temperament may also help to identify the species. There is anecdotal evidence that black rhinos are more temperamental and excitable than white. If you do happen on an agitated individual the tail of the white species will be curled up in alarm, the black rhino’s will be held straight out. We strongly suggest that you do not field test this identification method!
Rhino mothers have different approaches to child rearing too. The white rhino calf will usually walk in front of its mother, while its black rhino cousin follows closely behind his.
Understanding African Rhinoceros
Female white rhinos reach maturity by 6 to 7 years old, the black rhino female at about 4 years. If living in favorable conditions they can each produce a calf every 2.5 to four years. The calf is born after a gestation period of 15 – 16 months. Juveniles of both species are not fully weaned for up to three years.
At about 3-years old young bulls leave their mothers, setting off on their own or joining a sub-adult male group in the territory of a dominant male. These youngsters are called “satellite” males. This is a precarious time. While dominant white rhino males are usually tolerant of the adolescents, especially if they do not try to breed; a dominant black rhino male is far less enthusiastic and have been known to challenge and even kill these sub-adults. At about 10-12 years the surviving young males are ready to begin breeding. A healthy rhino has a live span of 30 to 35 years in the wild.
On the Menu
All rhinos are herbivores, although the two African species prefer different fare. The black rhino forages on trees or bushes, his prehensile lips help him to grab little branches that he snips off at a distinctive angled cut. He can live in dryer places and go days without drinking, however they do seek out territories with both water supply and a mineral lick. The white rhino are grass grazers and must drink everyday.
What Are They Doing?
Rhinos are all semi-social at best with the black rhino the more solitary of the two African species.
White Rhinoceros: Females with young will live alone or in crashes with other females. They have a range, not a defined territory, that over lap with other groups.
Black Rhinoceros: A crash of black rhino can occur but less often and with fewer, three to five, individuals. Most black rhino live a solitary existence. Black rhino males are generally the more territorial of the two species, especially in high-density areas.
Rhinos sleep very soundly for a few hours, usually in the hottest part of the day, laying down and tucking their legs in. Their eyesight is relatively poor but even in sleep their ears never stop rotating, picking up sound. Oxpecker, the bird that eats their parasites, helps as an early warning system, too. When disturbed they are up and alert in seconds.
Middens: Adults of both species mark territory and communicate with scent. Individuals defecate in community piles called “middens.” Both male and female black rhino, but only the dominant white rhino male, kick the piles around to spread the scent. The species’ middens can be differentiated by size and content. The white rhino’s will be larger, less numerous in a territory and consist of grassy material verses the black rhino’s smaller piles filled with short woody pieces cut at clean angles. Males of both species and the female black rhinoceros also mark territory by first scraping the ground with their horns or feet then backing up to bushes etc. and spraying urine. The black rhinos have scent glands on their heads that they also use to mark territory, rubbing them against rocks, trees, and other posts.
Mud Baths: All rhinos like to wallow in the mud; it cools them down and acts as protection from the sun. They are night owls, resting during the hottest part of the day and continuing to feed and move about at night when it’s cooler.
Both species communicate through a series of grunts, snorts, and other noises. They also communicate through dung middens and urine sprays – see “What are They Doing” above.
Range and Habitat
African rhinoceros preferred habitat is grasslands and savanna where there is a water supply, but they can live in arid areas, for example Namibia, as well in wetter or woodland areas. Black rhinos love acacia bushes and trees; they can be found in grassland savannahs as well as wooded areas across Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. The white rhino prefers flat grasslands. They are most prevalent in South Africa, but can now be also seen in Namibia, Kenya, and Zimbabwe thanks to re-introduction programs
Enemies and Threats
Without a doubt the biggest and most dire threat to all rhino species is man, with poaching for their horns and habitat encroachment being the primary culprits. Adults have few natural enemies, and although an elephant can kill an adult rhino it is very rare that a dispute reaches that point. See Above: "Conservation Notes" for more information.
A Personal Note:
We all like to assume that the animals we see in a wildlife reserve are safe and living happy lives. The reality is different - even in the best-intentioned park. That reality became sadly obvious with the sighting of my first-ever wild rhino.
It was in Etosha National Park in August of 2014. I was at their fabulous Okaukuejo rest camp watering hole, standing at the wall, looking out beyond the water to the huge expanse of natural semi-desert behind. He was just a dot at first, a big, wide dot.
Inexperienced at identifying Africa’s wildlife at a distance, I watched as the moving dot on the horizon came closer – it was was too heavy to be an antelope, too small for an elephant. Dusk was falling. It stopped and started and stopped again. Each time kicking up a cloud of dust that followed it as it trotted forward. The dot became bigger and more clear.
Could I be so lucky as to see a rhino on my first day in Etosha? And could that rhino be headed to the water hole directly in front of me? I grabbed my camera. He came closer. Except for a few springbok the water hole was uncharacteristically deserted. The lone black rhino approached the water’s edge. Then I saw the snare. It was wrapped tight around his left back leg. A length of barbed wire extended out from the caught leg and dragged behind catching dry grasses and sticks along the way – creating the dust cloud. The rhino's lower leg was dark and wet.
The rhino reached the water and drank in peace for a few minutes - until a pair of black-backed jackals appeared from seemingly out of thin air. They stopped about 10 feet from him and sniffed – then moved in closer. Within seconds they were on either side of his bloody leg, nipping, yapping, feinting in and out. The rhino backed up, turned and charged left. Jackals retreated a few feet. The rhino tried again to drink but the jackals resumed their harassment, going directly for the injured side. Again the snared rhino charged, this time to the right. Once more the jackals jumped back deftly, just out of reach, and then a second later closed in again, nipping at the wound.
Finally the rhino gave up. He turned away from the water and slowly trotted back into the darkening landscape. I could see now that the leg with the barbed wire cutting into it was dragging – the dust was again rising. The four jackals followed a few feet behind. The two-legged jackals remained unseen.
Where to See African Rhinoceros
Active conservation efforts and the quest to keep the remaining animals out of poacher’s gun sights means that most rhinos now live in parks and reserves that have resources to provide special protection. As it becomes possible, individual rhinos are being relocated from precarious areas to these more protected places in the hope that they will survive and breed. One advantage for viewers is that, unless otherwise noted, it is possible to see both the black and white rhino species at the following parks.
Kenya: Lewa Wildlife Conservancy
In 1983 the Craig family set aside 5,000 acres of their ranch for wildlife conservation, specifically for black rhino protection. Today all 62,000 acres (25,090 hectares) are dedicated to conservation and Lewa is a model of conservation and responsible wildlife tourism. The conservancy houses 66 black rhinos and 62 white rhinos, in fact you are invited to help support their conservation, protection, and research by adopting one.
Lewa also is instrumental in protecting the endangered Grey’s zebra and the reticulated giraffe. Lewa Wildlife Conservancy has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2013.
Wildlife Bonus: Cape buffalo, elephant, black and white rhino, reticulated giraffe, Grevy’s zebra, painted dog, as well as lion, cheetah, leopard, and their multi-species antelope prey and 350 bird species.
Kenya: The Ol Pejeta Conservancy in the Laikipia region
Ol Pejeta began life in as a cattle ranch in Africa’s colonial days. In 1988, then owner Lonroe Africa, dedicated it as a wildlife sanctuary. In 2003 it was bought by Flora and Fauna International and now, at 90,000 acres (36,422 hectares), is fully dedicated to wildlife conservation. They protect over 650 rhinos including the largest number of black rhino, 100 individuals, in east Africa and the last remaining three Northern white rhinos as well as other endangered species. A model of responsible practices, all of non-profit Ol Pejeta’s income is mandated to return as investment into the conservancy and the surrounding communities. Visit their rhino orphanage while you are there.
Wildlife Bonus: Many endangered species, including the remaining three northern white rhino, southern white rhino, black rhino, African painted dog, Grevy’s zebra, Jackson’s Hartebeest, cheetah, and lion.
Namibia: Etosha National Park
After your daytime game drives, where rhino can be spotted near trees taking in the shade, settle into one of the benches strategically set out, and watch the show at the lighted water hole at Okaukuejo. It is a favorite of night active species including rhinos and fascinating to watch as they all interact with, or try ignore, each other although standing just a few away. When we were there we saw both black and white rhino species and their calves enjoying an evening drink. This is a good destination for a family or multi-generational safari. We did not encounter a single mosquito in a full month in Namibia (during their winter season).
Wildlife Bonus: Elephant, giraffe, mountain and plains zebras, kudu, springbok, dik-dik, meerkat, lion, and leopard.
South Africa: Kruger National Park
Kruger National Park is a great all year destination with their winter (May through September) probably being the most comfortable for the weather as well as for viewing. Less foliage means wildlife is easier to spot. Kruger Park is huge, actually the size of Wales or Israel, with an estimated 4,814,720 protected acres (1,948,448 hectares), to explore you are guaranteed to see amazing numbers of wildlife species including both African rhino species. Look in the southern regions for the white rhino. Contact Marc Cronje for a fabulous guided tour. This is a good destination for a family or multi-generational safari.
Wildlife Bonus: Lion, cheetah, leopard, Southern African giraffe, black and white rhino, elephant, African painted dog, vervet monkey, sable, kudu, Cape buffalo.
South Africa: uMkuze Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
This is one of the 10 jewels of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage site. View both rhino species from water hole blinds, where you may also sight elephants, giraffes, and antelope. Unlike most other parks, the black rhinos here are direct descendants of animals present when the park was declared in 1912. Leave time to explore the wetlands and coastal sections ht of the park, too.
Wildlife Bonus: Elephant, giraffe, wild/painted dog, hyena, cheetah, leopard and black and white rhino species, Nyala, and 420 bird species. http://isimangaliso.com
The Road Less Traveled
Southern Kalahari Private Reserve
Their mission statement says it all, “To return the Kalahari to itself.” This 247,105- acre (100,000 hectare) private reserve was awarded the World Wildlife Fund’s prestigious Lonmin Award for environmental conservation. It is home to numerous endangered species and an environmentally friendly (solar heating, super effective heat insulation, etc.) village for the 142-member staff and their families. Their school and hospital are open to the surrounding communities. Viewing here is a very personal experience; drive in one of only six vehicles allowed in the reserve (no lines or traffic jams!) or explore on horseback or foot.
Wildlife Bonus: Lions, and cheetahs but they excel with the smaller predators and other mammals including: Two colonies of viewer habituated meerkats, brown hyenas, African wildcat, lynx, small spotted genet, honey badger, aardvark, and pangolin.
Preparing for Your Rhonceros Adventure
Rhinos do not love the heat. They are most active in the early morning before the sun is high or in the evenings and even at night when it is cooler. In the daytime you might find them wallowing in a mud hole or shallow pool or asleep under a tree.
Be a Responsible Wildlife Tourist
Rhinos are curious and can be excitable: When you are viewing from a vehicle, turn off the engine. Remember, to a rhino that vehicle motor might sound aggressive; it might decide that charging the source is the best way to deal with it. A rhino could easily over turn your vehicle.
When on a walking safari stay aware: Keep yourself and your scent downwind from rhinos. Although they have relatively poor eyesight, their senses of smell and hearing are good and they are curious. They are not interested in eating you – however, they are equally uninterested in sharing their space. If they become aware of your presence they will probably check you out – test the intruder – and that could take the form of a (hopefully) mock charge. They have even been known to “stalk” people on foot that do not leave the area after their first warning, and to charge again. Always respect the rhino’s space; they may not be predators, but they are also not passive weaklings. They have been known to kill a massive Cape buffalo. And while a well-conditioned human might run at 15 miles per hour (24 km/h) for a short distance, a seemingly lumbering rhino can run more than twice as fast, up to 35 miles per hour (56 km/h).
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