One of the rarest and most rewarding sightings you can hope to have in a South African game reserve or national park, is of the black rhinoceros. Even the most fleeting glimpse of this worthy member of the charismatic “Big 5” is sure to excite any wildlife lover!
The black rhinoceros is not named for the colour of its hide, which can in fact be vary varied depending on the shade of mud the animal has been rolling in. Instead, it is named in contrast to the other African rhino species, the white rhinoceros. Many people will however testify that the black rhinoceros may well be named for its volatile and extremely aggressive temperament, and having lived through more than one determined black rhino charge, we certainly agree! Just yesterday (30/01/2014) another game ranger was seriously injured in a black rhino attack in South Africa.
Black rhinos are much smaller than the white rhino, and further differs in having a pointed upper lip instead of the wide flat mouth of their “white” cousins, which explains their alternative (and scientifically more correct) name of hook-lipped rhinoceros. These plucky animals weigh up to 1,200kg and stand up to 1.65m high at the shoulder.
Being almost exclusively browsers, black rhinos use their pointed upper lips with great dexterity when feeding on the leaves, shoots, twigs, thorns and flowers of a huge variety of trees, shrubs, herbs and succulents (some of which would be deadly poisonous to other animals).
As long as there’s sufficient food, water and shade available, black rhinos inhabit a wide range of habitats, ranging from the dry riverbeds of the Namib desert to the edges of forests. They tend to be solitary except when mating or when cows are accompanied by their calves, only very occasionally getting together in bigger temporary groupings around waterholes.
Females give birth to single calves, that weigh around 40kg, at intervals of between 3 and 5 years, after a gestation period of 450 days. Black rhinos have a life expectancy of 30 to 40 years in the wild and while adults seldom fall prey to predators, the calves are at risk of attack by lions and spotted hyenas.
Today, the black rhinoceros is considered to be critically endangered. Relentless poaching saw their population dwindle from an estimated 100,000 animals in 1960 to an all time low of 2,410 in 1995. Dedicated conservation efforts resulted in the total population increasing to 4,880 by 2010, of which 1,915 (or 40% of the total) found sanctuary in South Africa’s wild places. However, the explosion in illicit hunting to feed a seemingly insatiable demand in the Far East (where rhino horn is considered to be both medicinal and a status symbol) is threatening once again to bring this majestic animal to the brink of extinction. It is against this backdrop that the recent auction of a black rhino hunting permit by the Dallas Safari Club for US$ 350,000 caused major international controversy.