The Southern White Rhinoceros

The White Rhinoceros is one of the most popular species to see on any game drive. There is no better place to see these ancient armored herbivores than in South Africa, which has more than 80% of the world’s entire rhino population and has 93% of the world’s Southern White Rhino population. Today the Southern White Rhino is found all over Southern Africa and East Africa but this wasn’t always the case. In the late 19th century, they were thought to have been hunted to be extinct. Luckily, in 1895 a small population was discovered in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal. At the time there were less than 50 white rhinos in the wild but thanks to the tremendously successful wildlife conservation project Operation Rhino in the 1950s and 60s, this species’ population has grown to an estimated 19,000 – 21,000 in the world today. 

Ian Player:

The person largely responsible for initiating this project was the late Dr. Ian Player. Southern White Rhinos from Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park were relocated to national parks and reserves all over Southern Africa, and wild populations were established in areas where they had been previously hunted to regional extinction. Operation Rhino is still regarded as one of the most successful conservation projects ever.

Physical Description:

The white rhinoceros is the largest of the five living species of rhinoceros. They have a large hump on their back and tend to walk around with their heads lowered to the ground. They spend the day resting or feeding and are often found lazing around during the hottest part of the day. 

They have hair, but only on their ears, tail tips, and eyelashes. They have a large square mouth with prehensile lips, making them powerful “lawn mowers”. 

It is the largest of the two species of Rhino species in Africa and is the heaviest species of the five living species of Rhinoceros in the world. Males are slightly larger and heavier than females, and baby rhinos weigh only 40 – 60 kgs at birth. Adult males between 1,800 and 2,300 kg and females 1,800-2,000 kg. They are 1,5 to 1,8 meters tall and 3 to 4 meters in length. They can live for 40 to 45 years in the wild. 

The White Rhino is also known as the Square-lipped Rhinoceros because of the shape of its mouth. 

The Horn:
Their horn is used to defend themselves and their young from predators and other rhinos. Males use their horns in combat and to dominate other males. Rhinos also use their horns to guide their calves, forage, and to dig for water. Their horns are made up of compressed strands of keratin, the same key material in hair, nails, feathers, claws, and hooves. Females use their horns to protect their young from predators. White Rhinos have two horns. The first horn is the biggest and is normally around 60 cm long but can grow a lot longer with age, and their second horn is a lot shorter than the first. To help combat Rhino poaching, in many reserves and national parks, Rhinos now have their horns trimmed every year or two, to make them less of a target to Rhino poachers. Although it has a positive effect on combating rhino poaching. Males need horns to show dominance and to defend themselves and thus make it very hard for them to challenge or combat rival males. Rehoning Rhinos may undermine the males’ ability to defend their territories or status.


More about Dehorning:
Dehorning rhinos is an intrusive procedure and is time-consuming. It requires a team of trackers, rangers, vets, and usually a helicopter, to find, and dehorn a rhino. The rhino also needed to be anesthetized, which can cause complications while the animal is immobilized that could lead to death. This risk also increases each time a Rhino is darted and immobilized. It costs around $1000 to rehorn a single Rhino, making it an expensive procedure to help combat rhino poaching. Around 7cm of the front horn and 5cm of the rear horn are left behind and unfortunately, Rhinos are still not safe from Rhino Poachers even after being dehorned. On the Black Market in South Africa, Rhino Horns can fetch prices up to $6000 per kg, and 5 to 10 times that price on the Asian Black Market.

Geographical Range:
This species is now found all over Southern Africa and Kenya. 

Natural Habitat:
Their natural habitat includes Savannah Grasslands and Bushveld, Shrublands, and Fynbos. They prefer moist habitat as this is where their food is more frequently encountered.

Running Speed:
Rhinos are extremely fast runners for their size and can reach speeds of 40kmph!  They run much faster than the average human but can only run for short distances. 

The Southern White Rhinoceros’ Lifespan:
Their lifespan is around 15 years in the wild and the leading cause of their death is

Diet:

The White Rhino is grazing species and uses their enormous square-lipped mouth to graze on large quantities of short green grass. They are exclusively a grazing species unlike the Black Rhino which are browsers and eat primarily from bushes and trees. White Rhinos need to drink large quantities of water to digest their food and prefer to drink twice a day when possible. 

Behaviour:

These gigantic herbivores spend a large portion of their day wallowing in the mud at waterholes to cool down or lazing around on open grasslands. These mud baths also protect their skin from the sun and insects. They live in crashes or herds of mainly females. Crashes can be as large as 14 animals. Adult males are solitary and take pride in marking their territory with large piles of dung and urine. Males also scrape their horns on bushes and scrape the floor while urine spraying. 

A photo of the White Rhino’s only predator, us humans.

Their Predators:

The White Rhino’s biggest and only predator is humans. Young Rhinos have hard skin and spend all of their time closeby to their mother, meaning that they are almost never preyed upon by predators. Adult White Rhinos have no natural predators and attacks from predators on adult white rhinos is almost unheard of. 

Reproduction:

Females reach sexual maturity at the age of 6 – 7 years and males at 10 – 12 years of age. Females only reproduce every 2  to 3 years and have a gestation period of around 16 months. Females give birth to a single calve and they are usually unsteady for the first 2 or 3 days. 

Collective Pronoun and name:

Male Rhinos are called bulls and females are called cows, and a group of Rhinos is called a herd or a crash. Rhino young are called calves. 

Conservation Status:

The Southern White Rhino is considered near threatened on the The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Although their comeback is one of the greatest conservation success stories, in recent years their numbers have begun to decrease due to rhino poaching which still remains a serious threat to the survival of this species.

The Northern White Rhino

The Northern White Rhino is critically endangered and there are only two old females left in the world, both in captivity and are descendants of the last male Northern White Rhino named Sudan, who died in 2018. Thankfully though earlier this year successfully created embryos of the functionally extinct Northern White Rhino and in August 2020 was artificially inseminated and transferred into a surrogate Southern White female but, unfortunately, the procedure was unsuccessful. If the scientists succeed it will be the first time that a virtually extinct species of mammal would be brought back. 

These tremendous giants are extraordinary animals to see in the wild and deserve to roam the bushvelds of Africa for years to come.

Robert Wedderburn
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