POPULATION AND DISTRIBUTION: The white rhinoceros is near threatened with numbers that keep decreasing each day. The Northern white rhinoceros and the southern white rhinoceros are a genetically distinct subspecies and were found in different regions in Africa.
Once common across southern Africa, southern white rhinoceros were thought to be extinct in the late 19th century, but in 1895 a small population of less than 100 individuals was discovered in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
After more than a century of successful protection and management, they are now classified as Near Threatened and over 20 000 animals exist in protected areas and private game reserves. The majority (98.8%) of white rhinoceros occur in just four countries: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya.
They are the only rhinoceros that are not endangered, although they have borne the brunt of the surge in poaching in recent years.
The northern white rhinoceros once occurred in southern Chad, the Central African Republic, southwestern Sudan, northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and northwestern Uganda. As recently as 1960, there were more than 2 000 remaining.
However, poaching has led to their extinction in the wild. And now there are only 3 individuals left on earth – all of them in captivity. The future for this subspecies is very bleak.
GENERAL: The white rhinoceros is the second largest land mammal after the elephant. Adult males can reach 1,85 m in height and tip the scales at a massive 3, 6 tonnes. Females are considerably smaller but can still weigh in at an impressive 1,7 tonnes.
White rhinoceros are also known as the square-lipped rhinoceros due to their square (not pointed) upper lip. Their name comes from the Afrikaans word “wyd”, which means wide and refers to the animal’s muzzle.
Compared to black rhinoceros, white rhinoceros have a longer skull, a less sharply defined forehead and a more pronounced shoulder hump. They have almost no hair and two horns. The front horn averages 60 cm, but occasionally reaches 150 cm in length.
YOUNG: A young rhino is born without a horn and will be very unstable for the first 2 to 3 days .
REPRODUCTION: Females reach sexual maturity at 6 to 7 years of age while males reach sexual maturity between 10 and 12 years of age. Courtship is often a difficult affair. The male stays beyond the point where the female acts aggressively and will give out a call when approaching her. The male chases and/or blocks the way of the female while squealing or wailing loudly if the female tries to leave his territory. When ready to mate, the female curls her tail and gets into a stiff stance during the half-hour copulation. Breeding pairs stay together between 5 and 20 days before they part ways.
Gestation lasts around 16 to 18 months. A single calf is born and usually weighs between 40 and 65 kg (88 and 143 pounds). Calves are unsteady for the first 2 to 3 days of life. When threatened, the baby will run in front of the mother who is very protective of her calf and will fight for it vigorously. Weaning starts at 2 months, but the calf may continue suckling for over 12 months. The birth interval for the white rhinoceros is between 2 and 3 years. Before giving birth the mother will chase off her current calf.
White rhinoceros can live to become 40 to 50 years old.
TRACKS AND NEST
- The length of both front and hind foot is approximately 300 mm.
- Male’s front tracks are bigger than those of the females.
- Both species have a medley of ‘cracks’ that criss-cross randomly on the underside of their tracks, which is unique to each particular rhino, making it possible for trackers to identify individuals.
- The hind foot mostly half-registers (steps partially over the front track) in a normal walk. They tend to walk slightly duck-footed.
- The sounds of the rhinoceros sighing, snorting or a thorn bush scraping down the tough pachyderm’s hide are all common when tracking these beasts on foot. Oxpecker birds that sit on rhinoceros to feed on external parasites will call and occasionally they will fly up in alarm if they spot you before the rhinoceros does. This always alerts the rhinoceros, which will invariably run off snorting and crashing through the low bush – not a good result for a tracker who wants to locate the animal and leave without it knowing he was there.
- It has three distinct toes – a large middle toe with two smaller outside toes. The nails on each toe generally show up clearly in the track.
- In hard substrate it is often the nail of this large middle toe that shows up clearly.
- The white rhinoceros has two indistinct lobes on the back of its heel – this being different to the black rhinoceros, which only shows one lobe on its heel, although there is a slight indentation on the heel that is mostly difficult to see.
- The outside toes of the white rhinoceros sit closer (higher up) to the large middle toe. The black rhinoceros’ outside toes are smaller and are situated further away (lower down) in the track.
- There are five different species of rhinoceros. Three are from southern Asia and two are from Africa. They are the Black Rhinoceros, White Rhinoceros, Indian Rhinoceros, Javan Rhinoceros and Sumatran Rhinoceros.
- The name rhinoceros means ‘nose horn’ and is often shortened to rhino. It comes from the Greek words rhino (nose) and ceros (horn).
- White rhinoceros are the second largest land mammal The white rhinoceros is the largest rhinoceros species and can weigh over 3 500 kg (7 700 pounds) and is the largest land mammal after the elephant. Elephants can grow to be 7 000 kg (15 000 pounds).
- Rhinos can grow to over 1,85 m (6 feet) tall and more than 3,4 m (11 feet) in length.
- Three of the five rhinoceros species are listed as being critically endangered. The Black Rhinoceros, Javan Rhinoceros and Sumatran Rhinoceros are all Critically Endangered which means they have 50% chance of becoming extinct in three generations.
- Rhinoceros have thick, sensitive skin. Rhino skin may be thick, but it can be quite sensitive to sunburn and insect bites. This is why they like to wallow so much – when the mud dries it acts as protection.
- Relative to their large body size, rhinoceros have small brains.
- Rhinoceros horns are made from a protein called keratin, the same substance that fingernails and hair are made of. The rhinoceros’s horn is not bone and is not attached to its skull; it is also not hollow like elephant tusks. It is actually a compacted mass of hairs that continues to grow throughout the animal’s lifetime, just like our own hair and nails. The longest horn known on a black rhino was 1,2 m (4 feet 9 inches) long (they average about 0,51 m (20 inches).
- Some rhinos use their teeth – not their horns – for defence. When a greater one-horned rhinoceros is threatened it slashes and gouges with its long, sharp incisors and canine teeth of its lower jaw.
- Rhinoceros are herbivores (plant eaters). They have to eat a lot to fill their large bodies.
- A group of rhinoceros is called a ‘herd’ or a ‘crash’.
- Despite their name, White and Black Rhinoceros are actually gray. The white rhinoceros’s name is taken from the Afrikaans word “wyd,” which means “wide” and describes its mouth. Early English settlers in South Africa misinterpreted the “wyd” for “white”. Black rhinoceros probably got their name from the dark wet mud in their wallows that made them appear black in colour. Both species are essentially gray in colour.
- The closest living rhinoceros “relatives” are tapirs, horses and zebras. They are part of a group of mammals called odd-toed ungulates.
- Rhinoceros are speed machines. They can run 48 to 64 km/h (30 to 40 miles per hour); the fastest human can run 24 km/h (15 miles an hour), so finding a tree to climb is a better strategy than trying to outrun a rhinoceros!
- Rhinoceros pregnancies last forever. Or at least it might feel like it, they are pregnant for 16 to 18 months! Mother rhinos are very nurturing. The young stay with them until they are approximately 3 years old.
- Rhinoceros have poor eyesight, but very well-developed senses of olfaction (smell) and hearing. A rhinoceros has difficulty detecting someone standing only a hundred feet away if the individual remains still. However, if the person makes the faintest sound or the rhinoceros is able to smell the person, it will easily detect him, even at much greater distances. The olfactory portion is the largest area of the rhinoceros’s brain.
- African rhinoceros are a good ‘home’ for oxpeckers. The oxpecker eats ticks and other insects that it finds on the rhinoceros and creates a commotion when it senses danger. This helps alert the rhinoceros.
- Rhinoceros communicate through poo! Rhinoceros use piles of dung to leave “messages” for other rhinoceros. Each rhinoceros’s smell is unique and identifies its owner. It can also tell a rhinoceros if the other rhinoceros is young/old/male or female. They also tell other rhinoceros that this is their territory.
- Rhinoceros have been around for over 50 million years. They haven’t changed much since prehistoric times (though of course they tended to be a lot woollier back then). Some of the first rhinoceros didn’t have horns and once roamed throughout North America and Europe. No rhinoceros species have ever inhabited the South American or Australian continents.
- The Sumatran rhinoceros is the closest living relative of this ancient extinct woolly rhino. These rhinoceros had thick, shaggy coats and were hunted by early humans and are depicted in cave paintings dating back more than 30 000 years ago.
- What you eat matters. The black rhinoceros has a hooked lip which allows it to feed on trees and shrubs. The white rhinoceros has a long, flat upper lip perfect for grazing on grasses. The upper lips of the three Asian rhinoceros species allow these animals to browse vegetation in tropical forest habitats.
- The Javan rhinoceros is the world’s rarest land mammal. Less than 50 individuals survive in Indonesia’s Ujung Kulon National Park. This is the only population and none exist in zoos.
- Not all rhinoceros are solitary creatures. White rhinoceros commonly live in extended family groups, particularly females and their calves, and can sometimes be seen in large numbers. The greatest concentrations or densities, however, appear to be those of the greater one-horned rhinoceros in India’s Kaziranga National Park, where visitors can typically see more than a dozen individuals at one time and as many as 50 in a single day!
- Rhinoceros horn is used in traditional Asian medicine. Powdered rhinoceros horn is commonly used to reduce heat from the body for fever conditions; it is wrongly believed to have detoxifying qualities.
- Fighting rhinoceros. Black rhinoceros fight each other and have the highest rate of death among mammals in fights among the same species. Fifty percent of males and 30% of females die from these intra-species fights.
THREATS: Uncontrolled hunting during the colonial era is the major cause of decline of the white rhinoceros. Today poaching for its horn is the primary threat. The white rhinoceros is particularly vulnerable to poaching because it’s relatively unaggressive and lives in herds. The white rhinoceros is also losing its habitat due to agriculture and human settlements.
THE ROLE HESC PLAYS IN THE CONSERVATION OF THESE SPECIES: The Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre helps rhinoceros that have been orphaned and/or poached. These are taken in and given the necessary treatment and security to ensure that they have a future. HESC does not only provide a home for these rhinoceros, they also educate and create awareness about rhinoceros poaching in the community.
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