Rhinoceros - perhaps one of the most prehistoric-looking animal species that you’ll get to see on a Kruger safari - other than perhaps the Nile Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus).
They are the second largest land mammal on earth after elephants, and even though they don’t always have that majestic presence about them like the African elephant (Loxodonta africa), they do tend to capture your attention with their strange, heavily-built, armored bodies and large horns, which remind you of one of the creatures from the Jurassic age.
Contradictory to the name, white rhino are not white in colour. The name comes from the Dutch pronunciation of “wijd”, meaning wide. This is because the mouth of a white rhino is shaped widely as they are grazers.
This word was eventually pronounced as “white” and the name got given to them as a white rhino and not “wijd” anymore. Like the black rhino (Diceros bicornis), they are grey in colour, and the soil in which they wallow, influences the colour on their bodies.
As mentioned earlier, white rhino are grazers. They have very muscular necks and a large nuchal hump to support their large heads. Due to them being grazers, their heads are generally kept close to the ground. This is also an indication when you see a rhino in the Kruger National Park as to whether it is a black or white rhino (black rhino browse and their heads tend to be more elevated).
Since the white rhino is a grazer, you are more likely to find them in open grasslands and plains, close to a water source.
The white rhino’s wide muzzle (more or less 20 cm in length), has a very hard bottom lip and very soft upper lip. The upper lip will press down on the lower lip in order to grasp clutches of grass and then both moved upwards in order to break the grass. Rhino will usually stand in one spot and, with the movements of their heads, crop the grasses in the area that it can reach, before moving forward to the next spot to repeat the process. They have molars located in the cheeks to grind the grass particles.
A rhino’s horn is its most valued feature. It is made up of keratin - the same substance our fingernails are made of as well as bird beaks, porcupine quills (Hystrix africaeaustralis) and pangolin scales (Manis temminckii) - and has a growth rate of between 2 to 6cm per year. It is something that will continue to grow throughout their whole life.
These horns, a shorter one at the back and longer at the front, are used as a weapon when defending themselves from danger.
The cows tend to have slender and longer horns, whereas bulls will have a stokier, stronger horn with which to fight - this is an easy way to differentiate between sexes when you see them.
The biggest recorded rhino horn found was 1.58m! That’s quite impressive as the average horn of a male rhino already weighs around 4 to 6kg, so imagine the amount of weight that that rhino had to bear!
Unfortunately, due to cultural beliefs, rhino are being poached for their horns and are currently having to be constantly guarded in protected areas, including in the Kruger National Park.
Some smaller reserves may even choose to dehorn their rhino in order to try and protect them from being poached. Unfortunately, this is not always the best option as rhino need them for protection in their daily lives, but it may be necessary in order to help save the species.
The main threat to rhinos is humans, but youngsters who have been left orphaned after poaching incidents or after natural deaths, and even rhinos who have been injured severely during a territorial dispute, might be preyed on by carnivores like lions (Panthera leo) and hyenas (Crocuta crocuta).
There’s actually an amazing video clip taken at Lion Sands in the Sabi Sands Reserve of a leopard trying to hoist an immature rhino up into a tree! Although it is certain that the leopard did not kill this calf, is it a good record of yet another predator that might be considered a threat to a rhino! You can watch the video clip:
A favourite pastime for rhino, is to wallow in mud. And even if it is not in mud, they are very happy to lay down at the edge of waterholes. This action helps them to cool off during the hot summer months. A layer of mud can aid with sunburn, cool off the body and also trap parasites in the mud - which they will rub off afterwards, against a rubbing post.
Rhino like to use the same rubbing posts, on a frequent basis - big rocks, trees, termite mounds. And since it is used on a regular basis, these objects tend to be smoothed down and almost have a shiny, polished look! A rhino’s skin varies at between 1.5 to 5cm thick on different parts of the body and is made up of layers of collagen - you can imagine how hot that must be during the heat of the day!
Rhino are very water dependant and will drink on a daily basis, if the source is within range or in its territory, but they have also been recorded to go without water for 3 to 4 days in times where water is scarce.
If water is available, it is common to see them at a water source in the late afternoon. Usually, the more territorial bulls will have a water source in their territory. They would allow other males to enter and to have access to the water source, as long as the intruding male behaves in a submissive way and does not try to scent mark or attempt to herd females out of the territory.
The same will go for a territorial bull, if it happens that his water sources dry up and he is forced to look elsewhere to quench his thirst.
Ever wonder how they behave at a waterhole where hippos (hippopotamus amphibius) are present? They will try and avoid hippos as much as possible, but there are records showing that hippos would actually attack them as they are very territorial. It is not a common sighting, but if a hippo can chase an intruder away from its territory, it will do so.
When it comes to these two fierce species - a hippo has an unbelievable bite force that can snap the neck of a rhino very easily or pull it under water to drown it. On the other hand, rhino have their formidable horn that can penetrate a hippo in an instant, when confronted in a battle.
Rhinos have very poor eyesight and can basically only determine and identify objects when they are closer. The size of their eyes compared to the rest of the body size, are very small.
Previously, it was believed that rhino can only see about 15 feet in front of them (almost 5m). But a recent anatomical study from an Australian university showed that the retina should be able to make a clear distinction of objects around 200m away. However, this is still considered to be very poor eyesight.
Their olfactory and sense of hearing though, is on a completely different level. Their sense of smell is incredible and aids them in getting information about other rhinos in the area as well as any danger.
Their hearing is extremely acute, and their ears are constantly moving and rotating in different directions to get the best sense of what is moving around them. Even while they’re sleeping, those ears will be moving around to make sure they don’t miss out on anything.
The rhino in the Kruger National Park (both white and black), seem to use communal middens to defecate in.
A territorial bull will have these middens on the borders of his territory and will, on a regular basis, go and scent mark and defecate inside it. While defecating, he will kick it with his hind legs and also urine spray, to ensure the scent gets onto his feet and in between his toes - a method used to leave his scent on a trail, while he is walking through his territory.
Other rhino bulls who might bypass the territory or just visit the territory in order to get to a water source, are also forced to visit these middens and “announce” their presence in the territory by defecating on the sides of the midden, but not kicking it into smaller particles. This way, they leave a message to say that they are there, but not challenging the territorial male. Should they defecate in the middle of the midden of the main bull, it is seen as a challenge.
Females and youngsters will also visit these middens and defecate, and the bull will get information from this as to whether she is coming into oestrous or has calves with her.
Black rhino, for some reason, will also visit these middens and will defecate at the midden to announce their presence - there is no clear theory yet as to why they do this as they are not competing for the same food resources or females.
As mentioned, these middens will be all around the territories of the dominant bull, and they also tend to use the roads in the park as boundaries. In-between the middens, the bull would also urine spray on the bushes and will make clear scrapings with his hind legs where he has sprayed, almost every 30m along the boundaries.
If you had to compare these middens to one of our daily human activities - think of a kind of social medium. They “check in”, read the “status” and leave “comments” for everyone else to see!
Rhino cows are gregarious and will most likely be found with other females, together with their calves.They might also allow older calves to join them and will have home ranges overlapping other female crashes (the collective name for rhino), which, in return, will coincide with up to 7 territories of dominant bulls!
Some studies have shown, that these rhino cow home ranges might expand to even 20km²! It all depends on the availability of food and water resources.
Males, on the other hand, tend to be fiercely territorial and live solitary lives. You might find younger submissive males forming a bond with each other and living a gregarious lifestyle like the cows until such time that they are ready to compete for their own territory, around the age of 12 years.
The territory of the dominant bulls, might be up to 14km² depending on the resources needed to defend it.
Serious fighting amongst bulls is not that common. Instead, they tend to have a stare down with each other! They might touch horns now and again, stamp the ground and only, in worst case scenarios, actually try to stab the other one. The thick skin that covers their shoulders will ensure protection.
The majority of the standoffs seem to happen on the boundaries of the territories and, from case studies, these bulls will push each other backwards and forwards over this “imaginary” line without any real dangerous hard-hitting attacks, and can last for up to an hour!
Fatalities have been reported though, after serious fighting, especially when an oestrous female is the prize
A dominant male will try and keep a female that is in oestrus in his territory with everything he can. These females will move around in their home ranges, which obviously overlap male territories, and the bulls will try and convince the females to stay in their territory.
As soon as the bulls get the scent of a cow ready to mate, they will try and herd them and chase them around, causing a lot of squealing sounds, while blocking them from passing over into the next territory. Most of the time, these females will have their youngest calves with them as well, and these little ones will be squealing too, as they don’t always understand why their moms are being chased around by a bigger rhino.
At first, the male will keep his distance from the cow, but still in sight to make sure she doesn’t run away, until she has reached full oestrus. He will then try and pursue her into accepting him. Cows will even clash horns with such a male.
When she does finally accept him, he will be allowed to rest his chin on her rump for a while before mounting her for the courtship - it might actually take between 15 to 20 hours before she allows him to rest his chin on her! Talk about playing hard to get!
As if all this hard work isn’t already exhausting, the actual copulation lasts for about 30 minutes, which is in itself is astonishing for an animal of that size!
The courtship ritual might be between 5 and 20 days and the male will remain in the cow’s company for about 6 days after mating, and eventually return to his solitary life and to defending his territory.
Although white rhino are considered to be more placid than black rhino, there are some warning signs to look out for.
When you approach a sighting while driving through Kruger Park on a safari, have a look out for the tail and ears - if the tail curls up and the ears are flattened, it means the rhino is agitated and might not tolerate your presence. Slowly back up to a safe distance while appreciating this very special sighting.
And don’t underestimate the speed of a charging rhino - for their size and weight, they can run up to 40km/h!
Most of the time, a rhino might be so focussed on grazing, that they might even graze right up to your vehicle without even noticing it! In cases like that, don’t make any fast movements as they may startle the rhino.
In other cases, you might even have a rhino walk closer to you to see what you are! They are curious and, if the ears are facing forward and focussed on you and your location, it means he might come closer to see what it is that is looking at him.
Also, be very careful when driving past their middens - try to avoid driving over the dung. During the summer months, there are a lot of dung beetles occupying the dung and, unfortunately, a lot of them are killed during this time as people don’t always notice them in time.
On a lighter note - have a look at this video taken of a rhino calf “attacking” our vehicle on one of our Kruger Park safaris… it was hilarious to see how fast a baby rhino can run and how “intimidating” they can be! Enjoy!
It is well known all over the world that, unfortunately, our rhino population is disappearing at a ridiculous rate, due to poaching.
There are currently only 5 known species left in the world compared to more variants in previous years before the demand for rhino horn escalated to where it is today.
All 5 species are heavily protected and are listed on the IUCN Red List as critically endangered, and might soon be completely extinct if conservation efforts don’t help.
Two of these species are actually found in the Kruger National Park, namely the Southern White Rhino and Southern Black Rhino.
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