Ceratotherium simum simum
It’s hard to imagine a more prehistoric looking large mammal alive in the world today than the white rhinoceros. Being one of our favourite species, we cherish every sighting we have of them while exploring the wild places of South Africa.
It is thought that the white rhino got its name from its wide mouth – a miss-translation of the Dutch word “wijd” which means wide. Scientifically, the name “Square-lipped Rhinoceros’ is probably more correct, but not widely used. The white rhino uses its broad mouth to good effect, grazing as it does almost exclusively on short grasses, in contrast to its smaller African cousin, the black rhinoceros, which is a browsing species. After the elephants, the white rhinoceros is the biggest living land animal. They can stand over 1.8m (6 feet) high at the shoulder and bulls weigh up to 2,400 kg. Cows are lighter at up to 1,800 kg, while calves weigh between 40 and 60 kg at birth.
White rhinos prefer open, lightly wooded habitats with a good covering of short, sweet grasses and easy access to drinking water (they drink about 72 liters of water a day). They are by far the most social of the rhinoceroses, at times congregating in groups of up to 18, though normally much fewer. Adult bulls are territorial, and groups of cows and their calves range over the territories of several bulls.
Cows give birth to a single calf every 3 to 5 years. The calves are vulnerable to attack from lions and spotted hyenas, but healthy adults have little to fear from any natural predators. Most adults succumb to a natural death from injuries sustained in fights, freak accidents like getting stuck in mud, drowning or getting caught in bush fires, and during prolonged droughts. Sickeningly, poaching for their horns has recently become probably the biggest single cause of death for adult white rhinos, which would normally have a life expectancy of up to 45 years in the wild.
Today, the Southern White Rhinoceros is considered “near threatened“. At the start of the 1900’s, only between 20 and 50 animals remained, all of them in the Umfolozi Game Reserve (today part of Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park). One of South Africa’s greatest conservation success stories is how the Natal Parks Board (today Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife) and dedicated conservationists like Dr. Ian Player pulled these majestic animals from the jaws of extinction: by 2010 their wild population stood at an estimated 20,170 of which 18,800 were being protected in South Africa. Now, ever escalating pressure from poaching is threatening to undo their fantastic work. Sadly, the fortunes of the Northern White Rhinoceros, which historically occurred in the Sudan, the DRC and Uganda, is even more dire, with only four individuals remaining in the wild, having been relocated from a zoo in the Czech Republic to a conservancy in Kenya.