White rhinoceros

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White rhinoceros[1]
Rhinocéros blanc JHE.jpg
A Southern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum).
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Perissodactyla
Family: Rhinocerotidae
Genus: Ceratotherium
Species: C. simum
Binomial name
Ceratotherium simum
(Burchell, 1817)

Ceratotherium simum cottoni (northern)
Ceratotherium simum simum (southern)

Mapa distribuicao original white rhino.png
White rhinoceros original range [orange: northern (C. s. cottoni), green: southern (C. s. simum)].
White Rhinoceros area.png
White rhinoceros range
(brown – native, magenta – reintroduced, red – introduced)
A pair of white rhinos at the Tobu Zoo in Saitama, Japan.

The white rhinoceros or square-lipped rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) is the largest extant species of rhinoceros. It has a wide mouth used for grazing and is the most social of all rhino species. The white rhinoceros is now considered to consist of two species: the southern white rhinoceros, with an estimated 20,000 wild-living animals as of 2015,[3] and the much rarer northern white rhinoceros. The northern species has very few remaining, with only three confirmed individuals left (two females and one male), all in captivity.[3]


A popular theory of the origins of the name "white rhinoceros" is a mistranslation from Dutch to English. The English word "white" is said to have been derived by mistranslation of the Dutch word "wijd", which means "wide" in English. The word "wide" refers to the width of the rhinoceros' mouth. So early English-speaking settlers in South Africa misinterpreted the "wijd" for "white" and the rhino with the wide mouth ended up being called the white rhino and the other one, with the narrow pointed mouth, was called the black rhinoceros. Ironically, Dutch (and Afrikaans) later used a calque of the English word, and now also call it a white rhino. This suggests the origin of the word was before codification by Dutch writers. A review of Dutch and Afrikaans literature about the rhinoceros has failed to produce any evidence that the word wijd was ever used to describe the rhino outside of oral use.[4] Other popular theories suggest the name comes from its wide appearance throughout Africa[citation needed], its color due to wallowing in calcareous soil or bird droppings or because of the lighter colour of its horn.

An alternative name for the white rhinoceros, more accurate but rarely used, is the square-lipped rhinoceros. The white rhinoceros' generic name, Ceratotherium, given by the zoologist John Edward Gray in 1868,[5] is derived from the Greek terms keras (κερας) "horn" and therion (θηριον) "beast". Simum, is derived from the Greek term simus (σιμος), meaning "flat nosed".

Taxonomy and evolution

The white rhinoceros of today was said to be likely descended from Ceratotherium praecox which lived around 7 million years ago. Remains of this white rhino have been found at Langebaanweg near Cape Town.[6] A review of fossil rhinos in Africa by Denis Geraads has however suggested that the species from Langebaanweg is of the genus Ceratotherium, but not Ceratotherium praecox as the type specimen of Ceratotherium praecox should, in fact, be Diceros praecox, as it shows closer affinities with the black rhinoceros Diceros bicornis.[7] It has been suggested that the modern white rhino has a longer skull than Ceratotherium praecox to facilitate consumption of shorter grasses which resulted from the long term trend to drier conditions in Africa.[8] However, if Ceratotherium praecox is in fact Diceros praecox, then the shorter skull could indicate a browsing species. Teeth of fossils assigned to Ceratotherium found at Makapansgat in South Africa were analysed for carbon isotopes and the researchers concluded that these animals consumed more than 30% browse in their diet, suggesting that these are not the fossils of the extant Ceratotherium simum which only eats grass.[9] It is suggested that the real lineage of the white rhino should be; Ceratotherium neumayriCeratotherium mauritanicumC. simum with the Langebaanweg rhinos being Ceratotherium sp. (as yet unnamed), with black rhinos being descended from C. neumayri via Diceros praecox.[7]

Recently, an alternative scenario has been proposed[10] under which the earliest African Ceratotherium is considered to be Ceratotherium efficax, known from the Late Pliocene of Ethiopia and the Early Pleistocene of Tanzania. This species is proposed to have been diversified into the Middle Pleistocene species C. mauritanicum in northern Africa, C. germanoafricanum in East Africa, and the extant C. simum. The first two of these are extinct, however, C. germanoafricanum is very similar to C. simum and has often been considered a fossil and ancestral subspecies to the latter. The study also doubts the ancestry of C. neumayri from the Miocene of southern Europe to the African species.[10] It is likely that the ancestor of both the Black and the White rhinos was a mixed feeder, with the two lineages then specialising in browse and graze, respectively.

Southern white rhinoceros

White rhinoceros in Lake Nakuru National Park
White rhinos close to Waterberg National Park, Namibia

There are two species of white rhinos; the southern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) and the northern white rhinoceros. As of 31 December 2007, there were an estimated 17,460 southern white rhino in the wild (IUCN 2008), making them by far the most abundant species of rhino in the world; the number of southern white rhinos outnumbers all other rhino species combined. South Africa is the stronghold for this species (93.0%), conserving 16,255 individuals in the wild in 2007 (IUCN 2008). There are smaller reintroduced populations within the historical range of the species in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Swaziland, while a small population survives in Mozambique. Populations have also been introduced outside of the former range of the species to Kenya, Uganda and Zambia.[11]

White rhinos in Taman Safari, Indonesia

Wild-caught southern whites will readily breed in captivity given appropriate amounts of space and food, as well as the presence of other female rhinos of breeding age. For instance, 93 calves have been born at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park since 1972.[citation needed] However, for reasons that are not currently understood, the rate of reproduction is extremely low among captive-born southern white females.[12]

Northern white rhinoceros

A northern white rhinoceros crosses the equator during translocation to Ol Pejeta Conservancy

The northern white rhinoceros, or northern square-lipped rhinoceros (Ceratotherium cottoni) is considered Critically Endangered or Extinct in the Wild. Formerly found in several countries in East and Central Africa south of the Sahara, this subspecies is a grazer in grasslands and savanna woodlands. In the world, there are currently three that have been returned to a conservancy in Kenya.[13]

Initially, six northern white rhinoceros lived in the Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic. Four of the six rhinos (which are also the only reproductive animals of this subspecies) were transported to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, Africa,[14] where scientists hope they will successfully breed and save this species from extinction. In 2015, the Kenyan government placed the last remaining male of the species at Ol Pejeta under 24-hour armed guard to deter poachers. One of two remaining in the Czech Republic died in late May 2011.[15] Both of the last two males capable of natural mating died in 2014 (one in Kenya on 18 October and one in San Diego on 15 December).[13][16]

Following the phylogenetic species concept, recent research has found that the northern white rhinoceros is probably an altogether different species, rather than a subspecies of white rhinoceros as was previously thought, in which case the correct scientific name for the former is Ceratotherium cottoni. Distinct morphological and genetic differences suggest the two proposed species have been separated for at least a million years.[17]


Comparative illustration of black (top) and white rhinos (bottom).
White rhinos have three distinct toes

The white rhinoceros is the largest of the five species of rhinoceros and the world's largest land mammal after the three species of elephant. It weighs slightly more on average than a hippopotamus despite a considerable mass overlap between these two species.[18] It has a massive body and large head, a short neck and broad chest. The head and body length is 3.7 to 4 m (12.1 to 13.1 ft) in males and 3.4 to 3.65 m (11.2 to 12.0 ft) in females, with the tail adding another 70 cm (28 in) and the shoulder height is 170 to 186 cm (5.58 to 6.10 ft) in the male and 160 to 177 cm (5.25 to 5.81 ft) in the female.[19] The male, averaging about 2,300 kg (5,100 lb) is heavier than the female, at an average of about 1,700 kg (3,700 lb).[19] The largest size the species can attain is not definitively known, specimens of up to 3,600 kg (7,900 lb) are considered reliable, while larger sizes have been claimed but are not verified.[20][21][22] On its snout it has two horn-like growths, one behind the other. These are made of solid keratin, in which they differ from the horns of bovids (cattle and their relatives), which are keratin with a bony core, and deer antlers, which are solid bone. The front horn is larger and averages 60 cm (24 in) in length, reaching as much as 150 cm (59 in) but only in females.[23] The white rhinoceros also has a noticeable hump on the back of its neck. Each of the four stumpy feet has three toes. The color of the body ranges from yellowish brown to slate grey. Its only hair is the ear fringes and tail bristles. White rhinos have a distinctive broad, straight mouth which is used for grazing. Its ears can move independently to pick up sounds but it depends most of all on smell. The olfactory passages which are responsible for smell are larger than their entire brain. The white rhinoceros has the widest set nostrils of any land based animal.

Behavior and ecology

White rhinoceroses are found in grassland and savannah habitat. Herbivore grazers that eat grass, preferring the shortest grains, the white rhinoceros is one of the largest pure grazers. It drinks twice a day if water is available, but if conditions are dry it can live four or five days without water. It spends about half of the day eating, one third resting, and the rest of the day doing various other things. White rhinoceroses, like all species of rhinoceros, love wallowing in mudholes to cool down. The white Rhinoceros is thought to have changed the structure and ecology of the savanna's grasslands. Comparatively based on studies of the African elephant, scientist believe the white Rhino is a driving factor in its ecosystem. The destruction of the megaherbivore could have serious cascading effects on the ecosystem and harm other animals.[24]

White rhinoceroses produce sounds which include a panting contact call, grunts and snorts during courtship, squeals of distress, and deep bellows or growls when threatened. Threat displays (in males mostly) include wiping its horn on the ground and a head-low posture with ears back, combined with snarl threats and shrieking if attacked. The vocalisations of the two species are slightly different. The white rhinoceros is quick and agile and can run 50 km/h (31 mph).

White rhinoceroses live in crashes or herds of up to 14 animals (usually mostly female). Sub-adult males will congregate, often in association with an adult female. Most adult bulls are solitary.[citation needed] Dominant bulls mark their territory with excrement and urine.[25] The dung is laid in well defined piles. It may have 20 to 30 of these piles to alert passing rhinoceroses that it is his territory. Another way of marking their territory is wiping their horns on bushes or the ground and scrapes with its feet before urine spraying. They do this around 10 times an hour while patrolling territory. The same ritual as urine marking except without spraying is also commonly used. The territorial male will scrape-mark every 30 m (98 ft) or so around its territory boundary. Subordinate males do not mark territory. The most serious fights break out over mating rights with a female. Female territory overlaps extensively, and they do not defend it.


File:RLPark SouthAfrica.jpg
Young rhino with mother at Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve, Johannesburg

Females reach sexual maturity at 6–7 years of age while males reach sexual maturity between 10–12 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 5–20 days before they part their separate ways. Gestation occurs around 16–18 months. A single calf is born and usually weighs between 40 and 65 kg (88 and 143 lb). Calves are unsteady for their 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 rhino is between 2 and 3 years. Before giving birth the mother will chase off her current calf. White rhinos can live to be up to 40–50 years old.

Adult white rhinos have no natural predators (other than humans) due to their size,[26] and even young rhinos are rarely attacked or preyed on due to the mother's presence and their tough skin. One exceptional successful attack was perpetrated by a lion pride on a roughly half-grown white rhinoceros, which weighed 1,055 kg (2,326 lb), and occurred in Mala Mala Game Reserve, South Africa.[27]


The southern white rhino lives in southern Africa. About 98.5% of white rhino occur in just five countries (South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Uganda). Almost at the edge of extinction in the early 20th century, the southern subspecies has made a tremendous comeback. In 2001 it was estimated that there were 11,670 white rhinos in the wild with a further 777 in captivity worldwide, making it the most common Rhino in the world. By the end of 2007 wild-living southern white rhino had increased to an estimated 17,480 animals (IUCN 2008).

The northern white rhino (Ceratotherium cottoni) formerly ranged over parts of north-western Uganda, southern Chad, south-western Sudan, the eastern part of Central African Republic, and north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).[28] The last surviving population of wild northern white rhinos are located in Garamba National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)[29] but in August 2005, ground and aerial surveys conducted under the direction of African Parks Foundation and the African Rhino Specialist Group (ARSG) have only found four animals: a solitary adult male and a group of one adult male and two adult females.[30][31] In June 2008 it was reported that the species may have gone extinct in the wild.[32]

Like the black rhino, the white rhino is under threat from habitat loss and poaching,[33] most recently by Janjaweed. The horn is mostly used for traditional medicine although there are no health benefits from the horn;[33][34] the horn is also used for traditional necklaces.

White rhinoceros in Poznań New Zoo

Historical hunting

Rhino poaching has been occurring for well over four centuries, as hunters have driven the Indian rhinoceros to near-extinction ever since the colonial era. The 19th-century concept of hunting for sport nearly eradicated the white rhino from the planet, until anti-poaching laws in India and Nepal helped the species recover to a considerable extent. "Operation Rhino," initiated in 1961, was a program designed to save the rhino from extinction. Remaining members of the species were moved to reserves in South Africa, but in 1970 it was revealed that the rhinoceros population had decreased by about 90% since historic times.[35]


Historically the major factor in the decline of white rhinos was uncontrolled hunting in the colonial era, but now poaching for their horn is the primary threat. The white rhino is particularly vulnerable to hunting, because it is a large and relatively unaggressive animal and generally occurs in herds.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence, the rhino horn is highly prized in traditional Asian medicine, where it is ground into a fine powder or manufactured into tablets to be used as a treatment for a variety of illnesses such as nosebleeds, strokes, convulsions, and fevers. Due to this demand, several highly organized and very profitable international poaching syndicates came into being and would carry out their poaching missions with advanced technologies ranging from night vision scopes, silenced weapons, darting equipment and even helicopters. The ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and incursions by poachers primarily coming from Sudan have further disrupted efforts to protect the few remaining northern rhinos.[36]

In 2013, poaching rates for white rhinos nearly doubled from the previous year. As a result, the white rhino has now received Near Threatened status as its total population tops out at 20,000 members. Poaching of the animal has gone virtually unchecked in most of Africa, and the non-violent nature of the rhinoceros makes it susceptible to poaching. Mozambique, one of the four main countries the white rhino occupies, is used by poachers as a passageway to South Africa, which holds a fairly large number of white rhinos. Here, rhinos are regularly killed and their horns are smuggled out of the country.[37] As of 2014, Mozambique labels white rhino poaching as a misdemeanor.[36][38]

Even with increased anti-poaching efforts in many African countries, many poachers are still willing to risk death or prison time because of the tremendous amount of money that they stand to make. Rhino horn can fetch tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram on the black market in Asia and, depending on the exact price, can be worth more than its weight in gold.[39] Poachers are also starting to use social media sites for obtaining information on the location of rhino in popular tourist attractions (such as Kruger National Park) by searching for geotagged photographs posted online by unsuspecting tourists. By using GPS coordinates of rhino in recent photographs, poachers are able to more easily find and kill their targets.[40]

Modern conservation tactics

The Northern White Rhino is critically endangered to the point that there are only three of these rhinos remaining in the world.[41] To keep peace, several conservation tactics have been taken to prevent this species from disappearing from the earth. Perhaps the most notable type of conservation these Rhinos have received is having moved to Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy from Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic on 20 December 2009, where they have been under constant watch every day, and have been given favorable climate and diet, both of which they have adapted to well, in order to boost their chances of reproducing.

In order to save the Northern White Rhino from extinction, Ol Pejeta Conservancy announced that they would introduce a fertile Southern White Rhino from Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, in February 2014. Here they have this rhino in an enclosure with both female Northern White Rhinos in hopes to cross-breed the subspecies. Having the male rhino with two female rhinos will increase competition for the female rhinos and in theory should result in more mating experiences. Till now Ol Pejeta Conservancy has not announced any news of the rhino mating.[14][36][42]

In captivity

Most white rhinos in zoos are southern white rhinos; in 2001 it was estimated that there were 777 white rhinos in captivity worldwide.

The captive northern white rhino population consists of only three animals maintained under 24 hour armed guard in Kenya. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park in San Diego, California, had two northern white rhinos,[29][43] one of which was wild-caught. A female named Nola (b. 1974, on loan from 1989 from ZOO Dvůr Králové in Dvůr Králové, Czech Republic). Nola was euthanized after taking a downturn in her health on 22 November 2015. She was 41.[44] On 14 December 2014 a male named Angalifu died of old age at the San Diego Zoo. He was 44.[45] The other three animals are in Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Female Najin and Fatu with males Sudan and Suni (died 2014)[46] were transferred to Ol Pejeta Conservancy from Dvůr Králové ZOO in 2009 as an attempt to protect taxa in their natural habitat.[47][48]

In 2015, hybrid female Nabire died in Dvůr Králové ZOO,[47] born at Dvůr Králové on 15 November 1983. Her mother was a northern white rhino (C. cottoni), but her father was a southern white rhino (C. simum) named Arthur.


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External links