Everything you need to know about rhinos

Posted on Sat September 19, 2020.

As one of the famous 'Big Five', rhinos commonly feature on a safari goer's wish-list. However, these prehistoric giants are becoming harder and harder to find with each passing year.

Having wandered the plains of Africa for millenia, rhinos are now experiencing a dramatic decline in numbers like never before.

Here, guide Elly explains how to tell the difference between black and white rhinos, why they are so endangered and what you can do to help save this iconic species.

I will begin by clearing up a common misconception. Although their names suggest otherwise, the white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) is no more pale than the black rhino (Diceros bicornis). They are, in fact, both grey. Although the exact origin of these names is debated, I can assure you this is not a ploy to confuse first-time safari goers (although it successfully does so!).

A popular theory believes it arose from a mistranslation of the Dutch word “wijd” which means “wide” and refers to the broad upper lip of the white rhino (pictured below). Early English-speaking settlers in South Africa were thought to have misinterpreted the pronunciation to mean “white,” which eventually resulted in the other species being dubbed the “black” rhino.

The two species’ alternative, and more descriptively accurate, names are the wide- or square-lipped rhinoceros (white rhino) and the hook-lipped rhinoceros (black rhino). Indeed, the easiest way to tell the two apart (when they aren't standing next to each other) is by examining the shape of the mouth.

Being predominantly grazers (mostly, but not always, as I learnt below), the white rhino has a very wide lip which it uses to rip up grass and its enormous head is set very low to the ground. Think of it like a peaceful, two-tonne lawnmower.

On the other hand, the black rhino is a browser and feeds mainly on the branches of short trees and bushes. It’s prehensile, hook lip comes in handy here, wrapping around twigs and pulling them into the mouth. You can similarly tell which species a territorial midden belongs to by ascertaining whether the dung contains primarily grass or twigs.

Here's how I learnt that white rhinos sometimes mix up their diet. One afternoon on safari, as I was explaining to my guests that this species eats only grass, the massive bull we were watching proceeded to dig up a small scrub with his horn and began chewing on the roots... Not only did he make me look like a fool that day, but it become clear they do occasionally make use of more nutritious food sources when the grass is poor quality!

This is not the only way to tell the difference between the two species, however; they also have opposing temperaments. Those who have seen a white rhino on safari before will know that they are generally the more mellow of the two, rarely engaging in confrontational behaviour and often fleeing from threats.

Black rhinos are a whole different kettle of fish. These feisty giants have developed a reputation for their nervous tempers and are known to readily attack threats head on. When bushwalking in known black rhino territory, it pays to move slowly and keep your wits about you as there have also been accounts of black rhinos tracking down a group of people by following their scent!

The males of both species mark their territory by dropping dung into a pile, called a midden, and kicking it with their back legs to distribute the scent (pictured below). As they patrol their territory, they will pause every so often to drag their feet over a small bush or clump of grass and spray their urine over it. Collectively, these scent markings function to reassert his dominance and convey key information about him to any females in the area.

I often get asked which is the more endangered of the two species. The answer is the black rhino – with only around 5,500 individuals left in the world, they are not only endangered but critically so. However, this number is a considerable increase from the dwindling population of 2,410 that remained in 1995, thanks to concerted conservation efforts, like WWF's Black Rhino Range Expansion Project.

As for white rhinos, there are estimated to be around 20,000 left in the wild, which may seem like a healthier number but the rate at which this species' numbers have been declining in recent years is truly alarming. You may be thinking right now, "But hang on, I saw an article recently that said the white rhino was almost extinct?"

Genetic testing has now confirmed that what we initially believed were two closely related subspecies of the white rhino are in fact two distinct species: the Northern white rhino (C. simum cottoni) and the Southern white rhino (C. simum simum).

The desperately disheartening news articles you have been reading concern the Northern white rhino, of which there are only two individuals left in the world. Both of these are female, Najin and Fatu, and live their lives under 24-hour armed guard in Kenya. The last male of the species passed away in 2018 at which point the species was declared functionally extinct as neither of the females have been able to carry a pregnancy.

However, this may not be the end for the iconic species. A team of scientists have been able to harvest eggs from Najin and Fatu and used frozen sperm from the deceased males to artifically inseminate them. The resulting embryos are currently being stored in liquid nitrogen, with plans to implant them into surrogate Southern white rhino mothers this year.

Despite the near extinction of the Northern species, the Southern white rhino represents more of a conservation success story. This species recovered from near extinction with numbers as low as 50 – 100 left in the wild in the early 1900’s. With their population estimated to now be around 20,000, they are categorised as 'near threatened' by the IUCN Red List.

While their numbers may be on the rise, the threat of illegal poaching is still ever-present in protected areas throughout South Africa. White rhinos are particularly vulnerable to poaching as they are a relatively placid animal with poor eyesight and live gregariously in herds.

So, why are rhinos being poached in the first place? Based on the Asian black market value, rhino horn can fetch up to US$65,000 per kilogram, making it more expensive than both gold and cocaine by weight. Despite its perceived value, these horns are made of keratin: the same protein as your hair and fingernails.

Demand for rhino horn comes primarily from Vietnam and China, which make up the largest and second-largest black market destinations for this product respectively. It is coveted for a number of reasons, but most notably used in traditional medicine or as a luxury product that symbolises wealth and status.

In 2013, the poaching rate of white rhinos doubled from the year before. It is thought that in South Africa, one white rhino is killed every 15 hours. Although poaching rates are decreasing every year, it is not fully understood whether this is because the country's anti-poaching efforts are more effective or because there are simply fewer animals remaining.

However, all is not lost. New technologies are constantly being invented to improve the detection rates of poachers (check out Postcode Meerkat) and international law enforcement is working hard to intercept the illegal trafficking of rhino horns to Asia. Tracking and detection dogs have also proven to be invaluable in assisting on-the-ground ranger teams to apprehend poachers.

With your continued support, rhino numbers will continue to recover. You can help fund their ongoing conservation by donating to organisations such as Save the Rhino, the World Wildlife Fund and the EWT's Wildlife in Trade Programme. You can also help raise awareness for rhino conservation by spreading the word and educating your family and friends about this species' plight.

Together, we can ensure the rhino's long-term survival in the wild and enjoy their presence on safari for years to come.

Article written by Elly Geaing with photos courtesy of Heinrich Rontgen, Ashleigh Beale and Elly Gearing.