Rhino facts – all you need to know about rhinos [Africa’s Big 5 series]

Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau

All photographs taken in the wild & available in high definition upon request. All rights reserved.

I follow our trail guide in his tracks while scanning the bushes surrounding me in the Hluhluwe Imfolozi park in South Africa during an early morning bush walk. With three other wildlife enthusiasts, we are on a mission to spot some of the Big 5 and one of world’s most ancient mammals. Our safari guide seems to have picked up some tracks and signs of one of them… Under the rising sun, he snaps his fingers to signal us to stop walking, while pointing out three majestic white rhinos close to a small waterhole, only 200 metres away from our small group. For a few magical moments, the sound of the shutters of our cameras competes with the singing of the birds and the loud and ungracious honking of a couple of Nile Geese fiercely guarding their precious body of water. “Please, do not post your photos on social media with the exact location of any rhinoceros”, our field guide urges us with a solemn voice. Poachers are a very serious threat and all means are good for them to locate these prehistoric animals for their horns that sell for a fortune on the black market in order to feed the unsatiable Chinese and Vietnamese demand.

In this series of five articles, we feature the Big 5 (lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffalos) – Africa’s most dangerous mammals to encounter on foot in the wild. Keep reading to learn more about rhinos…

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Did you know that there are 5 rhino species?

There are five different rhino species remaining on the planet. Two of them, the white and black rhinos, live on the African continent. The other three species live in Asia: the greater one-horned rhino in Nepal and India, the Sumatran rhino in Borneo and Sumatra, and the Javan rhino in Indonesia (and are not discussed in this article).

How to differentiate a white rhino from a black rhino?

No, it is not their skin colour that is going to help you differentiate a white rhino from a black rhino!

Actually, white rhinos were named “wide” rhinos, referring to their lips by the Afrikaners (using the Afrikaans word “wyd”). The word got badly transferred into English as white, and from there the other specie was called black to differentiate it. So stop focusing on the colour, and look closely at:

  • the lips:
    • white rhinos are grazers and they spend most of their time with their head low by the ground nicely mowing the lawn with their wide and flat lips
    • black rhinos have pointy lips that help them browse thorny thickets they feed on (they are sometimes called hooked-lipped rhinos)
  • the habitat:
    • white rhinos like open grasslands with nothing on the way to divert the lawn mower from its feeding mission…
    • black rhinos spend most of their time in thickets in which they are very well camouflaged
  • the body shape:
    • white rhinos (up to 2,500 kg for an adult male) are much larger and heavier than black rhinos (up to 1,350 kg for an adult male)
    • white rhinos have a much larger head than the black rhinos with well-developed neck muscles and a distinctive shoulder hump that is not as marked on black rhinos
    • these characteristics help differentiate tracks of both species to the trained eye, and the difference in their diet helps trackers identify the specie of rhino they are dealing with by studying the dung in the rhino middens
    • the ears of white rhinos are larger than the ones of black rhinos
  • the animal behaviour:
    • generally, white rhinos are more relaxed that the black ones
    • black rhinos tend to be more solitary life while female white rhinos live in small groups called a crash

Where to find white & black rhinos in the wild [habitat]?

Black rhinoceroses thrive in different areas from semi-arid to humid as long as they can find dense bushes to hide in and feed on. Black rhinos can therefore be found in semi-desert savannas, forests, woodlands and even in wetlands.

Your chances of spotting the larger white rhino on the other hand are greater when you stick to the flat grasslands and savannas in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya (where 98% of the populations can be found, their vast majority grazing the South African grasslands).

Rhinos need to drink every 2 to 4 days and need to cool down their bodies during the heat of the day. When they are not feeding you can often observe them snoozing in the mud that protects their skin from the sun while helping them suffocate their ticks.

Rhinos are in deep trouble

The black rhino is listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species with hardly 5,500 individuals remaining in the wild.

The white rhino is slightly luckier, being classified as near threatened with less than 19,000 specimens remaining in the world. In 2018, the last male northern white rhino died in Kenya ending one of the subspecies of the African continent, where only two females are left with no breeding partners.

The “wild” has become a relative notion as in South Africa where most rhinos live, they roam in private game reserves and National Parks (including the massive Kruger Park that is about the size of Israel). Even in these protected environments, they need extra security from armed anti-poaching units to try and keep poachers away. The demand for rhino horns coming from China and Vietnam causes these peaceful giants to live on the brink of extinction, and they are massacred at an alarming speed. In the past decade about 1,000 rangers have been killed on the African continent by organised poaching gangs. The South African National Parks 2020 Annual Report states that the Kruger National Park has lost 70% of its rhino in the last 10 years (of which 50% of its population in the past 5 years) due to poaching.

The situation is so critical that in many private game reserves such as the andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, park conservationists have opted for the expensive process of dehorning rhinos. Often backed up by helicopter, a full team of vets and rangers darts the park rhinos to saw off the horns in a delicate operation in order to try and deter poachers from butchering them.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation: fewer eyes on the ground (without realising it, tourists contribute to watching out for poached species), a skyrocketing unemployment rate in communities neighbouring parks where lodges have been partially shut down, and a steep decline in conservation fees paid by safari-goers which fund anti-poaching units (to try and grasp the situation from the inside without a cookie cutter point of view, please refer to this article) all contribute to more horns being shipped out of Africa also funding terrorism on the way…

How do rhinos breed?

Female rhinos become sexually mature between 6 and 7 years old while males reach sexual maturity between 10 and 12. The bull sharing a territory with a female rhino smells when she gets into oestrus (heat) and approaches her to mate once. As the bull plays no role in raising his offspring, he wanders off. The gestation period lasts for 16 months. The calf weighs about 50 kg for a white rhino and 30 to 45 kg for a black rhino when it gets born and stays by its mother’s side for the next two to four years. Young rhinos will live a solitary life, but for young white rhino females who will look for another female of roughly the same age to share a territory with.

Life expectancy

Rhinos live up to 40 years in the wild.

Encounters: do’s & don’ts

When coming across white rhinos make sure to keep your distances and to keep quiet to not disturb them and enjoy the precious moment observing them. White rhinos are not aggressive and not likely to charge you.

However, black rhinos tend to get easily upset, to be more unpredictable, and to charge quicker. They run fast (up to 55km/h) and can change direction very fast. An encounter with a black rhino is rare and will most likely not last long as they are rather shy and tend to run for the thickets fast!

Do not help poachers, and please, do not share locations of spotted rhinos on social media.

If you see suspicious people (even if wearing a park ranger uniform) in the bush, report it to the first field guide you come across.

For more safari-inspired articles, click on these images:

4 thoughts on “Rhino facts – all you need to know about rhinos [Africa’s Big 5 series]

  1. A lovely post and a very special encounter with the white rhino by the sounds of it. (Though I think you may want to insert a ‘not’ into your Do’s and Don’ts, as you say: “…and please, do share locations of spotted rhinos on social media.”

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