White Rhinoceros/Black Rhinoceros

(Ceratotherium simum)/(Diceros bicornis)

by Jay Sharp

White Rhinoceros


The closely related white and black rhinos live in southern and southeastern Africa, with the largest populations of both species in the country of South Africa, according to the International Rhino Foundation. (Three other rhino species – the Indian, the Sumatran and the Javan – live in Asian countries.) Apparently, the white rhino got its name, not from its color, but from an English corruption of the Afrikaan word “weit,” or “wide,” a reference to the shape of the animal’s mouth. The black rhino probably got its name, not from its color, but as a label to distinguish it from the white rhino. Actually, the two rhinos, when not covered with mud, have a similar color, basically brownish gray.



Similarities and Differences

The white and black rhinos belong to the Order Perissodactyla, or the browsing and grazing animals called “odd-toed ungulates,” which include horses, donkeys, zebras and tapirs. Although the white rhino is somewhat larger than the black rhino, the two share various characteristics, including powerful and massive bodies and primitive-looking heads. They look like the Sherman tanks of the animal kingdom.

  • Size and Weight: Typically, according to the International Rhino Foundation, the white rhino measures up to some 6 feet in height and 12 to 15 feet in length. It may weigh as much as 3 tons. It ranks as one of the largest of the land mammals, second only to the elephants. The black rhino, according to Obi Ibeto, writing for Who/Zoo, measures 5 to 6 feet in height and about 12 feet in length. It may weigh 2 1/4 tons.
  • Body: Both species have almost barrel-shaped bodies, a design that accommodates the large stomachs and long intestines required to digest a heavy diet of coarse plant foods. The thick and somewhat wrinkled body skin, which, for both species, has only coarse, sparse hair, looks almost like armor plating.
  • Head and Neck: Long massive heads, with short thick necks; relatively small ears and beady eyes; two compressed-keratin fiber horns that grow along the nose ridge, with the larger one (sometimes several feet in length) above the nostrils, and the smaller one between the eyes. (Rhino horns, unlike those of, say, antelope or sheep, do not attach to the skull.) The white rhino has a large hump – actually a mass of muscles it uses in moving its large head – on the back of its neck. The black rhino has no comparable hump.
  • Mouths: The white rhino, a grazer, has a wide, squared-off muzzle, with a soft upper lip and a hardened lower lip that are designed for cropping grasses when feeding. The black rhino, a browser, has a pointed upper lip designed for grasping and handling leafy vegetation when feeding. Both species have, on both sides of their jaws, heavy premolars and molars that are designed for grinding coarse vegetation.
  • Legs and Feet: Short, thick post-like legs with each foot having three hooves, the central one for bearing the weight of the animal, the other two for providing enhanced stability on muddy surfaces.
  • Senses: For both species, eyesight poor, which sometimes prompts impulsive attacks against misperceived threats; hearing good; smell excellent, probably the most developed of the rhinos’ senses.

Black Rhinoceros

The black rhino, a browser, has a pointed upper lip designed for grasping and handling leafy vegetation.

Range, Habitat and Diet

According to the International Rhino Foundation, perhaps 10,000 white rhinos remain in South Africa; a few hundred in Kenya, Namibia and Zimbabwe; and a scattering in other countries. Among the largest of the pure grazing mammals, they take savannah grasslands and savannah woodlands as their primary habitats, feeding on palatable grasses that grow up to some 4 feet in height. In an ecological role, they scatter the seeds that pass through their intestinal tracts, promoting the health of the grasslands and inhibiting the spread of woody plants.

No more than some 1,000 to 1,200 black rhinos remain in South Africa, with about the same number in Namibia, a few hundred in Kenya and Zimbabwe, and a scattering in other countries. As browsers, they claim dense and woody vegetation as their primary habitat, feeding on the buds, leaves and shoots of woody plants, herbs and succulents. They help keep the woody plants under control, promoting the health of the other plants. According to the Honolulu Zoo, the black rhino, across its range, may eat over 200 species of plants.

Given adequate water, both species drink daily, the white rhino, more than 20 gallons, the black rhino, somewhat less. However, either can survive for several days without water.

Behavior and Life Cycle

A dominant white rhino bull stakes out and vigorously defends a well defined territory, which he marks with sprays of urine and piles of dung. The female shows no territoriality, welcoming encounters with other females and tolerating temporary associations with young unrelated calves. The male begins mating at about ten years of age, once he has established a territory, and the female, at about seven to ten years of age. The male and female seldom bond, even temporarily.

A calf, weighing about 140 pounds, arrives after some 16 months of gestation. Well protected by its mother, it begins to walk by her side about three days after its birth. It will nurse for a year or more, although it begins to nibble at grasses when it is about three months old. It will remain with its mother for two or three years, until she drives it away as she prepares for her next calf. The white rhino may live in the wild for 45 years or more.

A dominant black rhino bull stakes out, marks and defends his territory, but the female gravitates toward other females, often sharing their territory. Both the males and females do, however, fight ferociously among themselves. “It is estimated,” according to the Honolulu Zoo, “that up to half the males and one third of the females die from interspecies fight wounds.” Mating, gestation, birth and nurturing behaviors largely parallel those of the white rhino, although the black rhino may live only 30 to 35 years in the wild.


Young rhinos face the threats of many predators, but a calf in distress may be quickly encircled by adults – their horns turned menacingly outward – to ward off potential attackers. According to the Honolulu Zoo, the white rhino mother follows her calf through their grassy habitat, making it easier for her to keep a watchful eye on it. The black rhino mother, on the other hand, leads her calf through their woody vegetation habitat, making it easier for her to detect and fight off any potential ambush.

Adult white and black rhinos have no predators. With one terrible exception. Man. The rhinos have fallen in great numbers, not only to 19th and 20th century big game hunters who killed them as trophies, but also to 20th and 21st century poachers who killed them for their valuable horns. The horns, elaborately carved as handles for daggers, are pricy symbols of manly prestige and wealth in Yemen and neighboring countries—a vestige of ancient custom. The horns also, supposedly, provide expensive cures for headaches and fevers in several Asian countries.

Over the last 40 years, says the African Wildlife Foundation, the worldwide rhino population has plummeted by 90 percent. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the white rhino – the most numerous with a total of some 17,500 remaining – as “Near Threatened.” It lists the black rhino – with about 4,200 remaining – as “critically endangered.” Fortunately, the two species have been increasing gradually due to conservation measures within their ranges. Unfortunately, the remaining three rhino species may face extinction. The Javan Rhino numbers no more than a few dozen.

Interesting Facts

  • The name “rhinoceros” reflects the animals’ most distinctive feature, namely their horns. The Greek word “rhino” means nose, the word “ceros” means horn.
  • In spite of its bulk, the rhino has surprising nimbleness and speed. It can turn with startling quickness and agility. It can run at speeds of 25 to 30 miles per hour.
  • Rhinos relish wallowing in mud, which helps cool them especially during the hottest months and helps protect them from parasites.
  • The rhino has a special relationship with the Oxpecker, a small bird that scavenges the animal’s hide for ticks and warns it of dangers.
  • Thirty to thirty five million years ago, there were about 200 species of rhinos, including the Paraceratherium transouralicum, which weighed more than 16 tons.
  • Between just 1946 and 1948, Kenyan game control employees slaughtered some 1000 black rhinos to make way for an agricultural settlement, according to the Honolulu Zoo.

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