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White rhinoceros

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White Rhinoceros
White rhinoceros, on the prowl
Conservation status
Near Threatened
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 simum
Ceratotherium simum cottoni

The White Rhinoceros original range (orange: Northern (C. s. cottoni), green: Southern (C. s. simum)).

The White Rhinoceros or Square-lipped rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) is one of the five species of rhinoceros that still exist and is one of the few megafauna species left. Behind the elephant, it is probably the most massive remaining land animal in the world, along with the Indian Rhinoceros and the Hippopotamus, which are of comparable size. It is well known for its wide mouth used for grazing and for being the most social of all rhino species. The White Rhino is the most common of all rhinos and consists of two subspecies, with the northern subspecies being rarer than the southern. The northern subspecies may have as few as 50 remaining world wide.

Taxonomy and naming

Wide lips distinguish the white rhino

A popular theory of the origins of the name White Rhinoceros is a mistranslation from Dutch into Afrikaans and English. The Afrikaans word "wit", meaning "white" in English is said to have been derived by mistranslation of the the Dutch word "wijd", which means "wide" in English and is spelt "wyd" in Afrikaans. The word "wide" refers to the width of the Rhinoceros mouth. So early European settlers in South Africa misinterpreted the "wyd" 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. A review of Dutch and Afrikaans literature about the rhinoceros has also failed to produce any evidence that the word wyd was ever used to describe the rhino. Other popular theories suggest the name comes from its wide appearance throughout Africa, its colour due to wallowing in calcerous soil or bird droppings or because of the lighter colour of its horn. An alternative common 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, is derived from the Greek terms keras "horn" and therion "beast". Simum, is derived from the Greek term simus, meaning "flat nosed".

Southern white rhinoceros

White Rhinoceros at the Henry Doorly Zoo.

There are two subspecies of White Rhinos; as of 2005, South Africa has the most of the first subspecies, The Southern White Rhino (Ceratotherium simum simum). Their population is about 11,600, making them the most abundant subspecies of rhino in the world. 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, 91 calves have been born at the San Diego Wild Animal Park since 1972. However, for reasons that are not currently understood, the rate of reproduction is extremely low among captive-born southern white females.

There were also two White Rhinos in Livingstone, Zambia (in the Mosi-o-tunia zoological park). They were both poached during the night of June 6, 2007. One was shot dead and dehorned not far from the gate and the other received serious bullet wounds.

Northern white rhinoceros

The Northern White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni), formerly found in several countries in East and Central Africa south of the Sahara, is considered Critically Endangered. Their wild population has been reduced from about 500 in the 1970s to only about 5-10 today.

According to BBC, there are only thirteen northern white rhinos left in the world as of 2007.


A white rhinoceros, showing the 'wide' lip.

The White Rhino has a massive body and large head, a short neck and broad chest. This rhino can exceed 6670 pounds (3,000 kg), have a head-and-body length of 3.35-4.2 m (11-13.9 feet) and a shoulder height of 150-185 cm (60-73 inches). The record-sized White Rhinoceros was about 3600 kg. On its snout it has two horns made of keratin, rather than bone as in deer antlers. The front horn is larger that the other horn and averages 89.9 cm (23.6 inches) in length and can reach 150 cm (59 inches). The White Rhinoceros also has a noticeable hump on the back of its neck which supports its large head. Each of the rhino's four stumpy feet has three toes. The colour of this animal ranges from yellowish brown to slate grey. The only hair on them is on the ear fringes and tail bristles. White Rhinos have the distinctive flat broad mouth which is used for grazing.

White Rhinos have three distinct toes.

Its ears can move independently to pick up more sounds but it depends most of all on smell. The olfactory passages which are responsible for smell are larger than their entire brain.

Behaviour and ecology

White Rhinoceros are found in grassland and savannah habitat. Herbivore grazers that eats grass, preferring the shortest grains. The White Rhino is one of the largest pure grazers. Regularly it drinks twice a day if water is available, but if conditions get 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 Rhinos, like all species of rhino, love wallowing in mudholes to cool down.

White Rhinos enjoying a wallow in the mud.

White rhinos can 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 White Rhino is quick and agile and can run 30 mph (50 km/h).

White Rhinos can live in a crash or herd 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. Dominant bulls mark their territory with excrement and urine. The dung is laid in well defined piles. It may have 20-30 of these piles to alert passing rhinos that it's his territory. Another way of marking their territory is wiping his 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 yards or so around its territory boundary. Subordinate males do not mark territory. The most serious fights break out over mating rights over a female. Female territory is overlapped extensively and they do not defend it.


Females reach sexually maturity 6-7 years while males reach sexual maturity at a later date which is 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 loud-wailing if the female tries to leave his territory. When ready to mate the female curls its 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 weighs between 40 and 65 kilograms (90 and 140 pounds) and are unsteady for their first 2 to 3 days of life. When threatened the baby will run in front of the mother. The mother is very protective of her calf and will fight for her baby vigorously. Weaning starts at 2 months and 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 up to 40-50 years old.


The northern subspecies is now only found in the Republic of Congo while the southern subspecies or majority of white rhino live in South Africa. 98.5% of white rhino occur in just five countries (S.A, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Uganda). Almost at the edge of extinction in the early 20th century, they have made a tremendous comeback. In 2001 it was estimated that there were 11,670 white rhinos in the wild with a further 777 detained worldwide, making it the most common Rhino in the world.

Like the Black Rhino, the White Rhino is under threat from habitat loss and poaching, most recently by Janjaweed. The horn is mostly used for traditional medicine although there are no health benefits from the horn; the horn is also used for traditional necklaces. A recent population count in the Republic Congo turned up only 10 rhinos left in the wild, which led conservationists on January 15, 2005 to propose airlifting White Rhinos from Garamba into Kenya. Although official approval was initially obtained, resentment of foreign interference within the Congo has prevented the airlift from happening as of the beginning of 2006. On June 12, 2007 poachers shot the last 2 rhinos in Zambia, injuring one and killing the other. They have removed the horn off the dead rhino.

Distribution of Northern White Rhino

The Northern White Rhino (Ceratotherium simum 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). The only confirmed population today occurs in north-eastern DRC.

Poachers reduced their population from 500 to 15 in the 1970s and 1980s. By the early 1990s through mid 2003 the population recovered to more than 32 animals. Surveys in 2000 indicated that the population has started recovering with 30 animals confirmed in 2000 with up to a possible six others. Since mid 2003, poaching has intensified and reduced the wild population to only 5 to 10 animals.

Garamba National Park

The last surviving population of wild Northern white rhinos are all located in Garamba National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Recent civil wars and disruptions have been cause for much concern about the status of this last surviving population.

In January 2005, the Government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) approved a two-part plan for the translocation of five northern white rhino from Garamba National Park to a wildlife sanctuary in Kenya. The second part commits the Government and its international partners to increase conservation efforts in Garamba, so that the northern white rhinos can be returned when it is safe again. The translocation has not occurred yet.

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. Efforts to locate further animals continue.

White rhinos in zoos

Most white rhinos in zoos are southern white rhinos. The San Diego Wild Animal Park in San Diego, California, U.S.A. had three Northern White Rhinos, all of which were wild-caught. Only a female named Nola, and a male named Angalifu remain after the second female, Nadi, died in late May 2007 from what was believed to be old age. Nola is not fertile, and Nadi was not behaviorally receptive, so this captive population is not breeding.

There are also a few southern white rhinos at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida.

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