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Production of white rhinoceroses

4 August 2015


www.leopard.tvHistorically the white rhinoceros Ceratotherium simum simum did not occur south of the Orange River. In southern Africa the eastern boundary of occurrence was the northern parts of KwaZulu-Natal, the western boundary was the north-eastern parts of Namibia and the northern boundary was the Zambezi River. More than 90 per cent of all white rhinoceroses now occur in South Africa. In the middle 1950s there were only 30 white rhinoceroses left in South Africa. Due in part to intensive breeding and reintroductions, there are now in excess of 10 000 but they are being heavily threatened by poachers.

A cow and bull become sexually mature when they are some six years old. In the wild, a bull will only be able to breed when he becomes territorial at an age of 10 to 12 years. However, in the absence of a territorial bull, a younger bull will breed provided that he is sexually mature. A cow can breed until she is about 40 years old and, given a gestation period of 16 to 18 months, she can produce up to 14 calves in her lifetime. The calves younger than two months suckle hourly but older calves suckle once every 2.5 hours and wean when they are 15 to 18 months old.

Until recently some 25 per cent of the white rhinoceroses in South Africa were owned privately, but poaching pressure in especially the Kruger National Park may increase this ownership provided that the rhinoceroses can be protected better privately and by rural communities as an economic incentive. Should the aim be to produce white rhinoceroses intensively, the following guidelines are generally important: evaluate the size, quality and suitability of the habitat into which the animals are to be released after production, apply to the relevant nature conservation and veterinary authorities for the applicable permits, establish the origin of the founder animals and the credentials of the wildlife capture and transportation operators to be used, ensure that proper planning has been done and that the correct facilities have been built to receive and house the animals, and put the animals in a holding camp of approximately 1 ha for three to four weeks before being released if the boundary fence is not electrified.

Production of white rhinoceroses does not go well where cattle are also being produced because the rhinoceroses injure the cattle at waterholes and may become entangled in cattle camp fences. Other rare or endangered wildlife may also come into conflict with white rhinoceroses, while young elephants without a matriarch may in turn attack and kill a rhinoceros.

The stocking density for white rhinoceroses should be maximized at 75 per cent of the ecological capacity of the area for grazers. The larger the founder population, the more successful the production will be. The minimum founder population is a dominant bull, a subadult bull, two adult cows and two subadult cows. Animals that are bought on wildlife boma auctions should have been boma-trained for at least six weeks and it is consequently preferable to buy white rhinoceroses on catalogue and internet auctions. Open water is essential but the rhinoceroses must be monitored daily to detect individuals that may become trapped in mud.

The main facilities that are required are large, sturdy pens (bomas) in the centre of the release area, are in an area of excellent natural food, are close to a reliable water source, have large trees for shading (or shading must be provided), are protected from cold winds, are away from busy roads or human activity, are easily accessible to vehicles, have floors with no or little gravel and loose rocks to prevent injury to the feet, are protected against veld fires and drain well during rainfall. Shelters in the boma should face north to ensure maximum shade in the summer and maximum sun in the winter.

For intensive production in a boma, a receiving pen of 20 x 20 m is necessary to boma-train the animals if they were captured in the wild. The posts should have a diameter that varies from 200 mm (steel - preferable) to 300 mm (wood), with spaces of 200 to 300 mm between adjacent posts and extend 2.2 m above ground level. Cable bomas are not recommended and wooden posts should be treated with tanalith and not with creosote. The boma corners may be roofed over and must be rounded by horizontal posts. Plastic sheeting must not be used because flapping sheets will disturb the animals. Water troughs should be 1 m wide x 1.5 m long x 400 mm deep and should be elevated no more than 300 mm above the ground level. Each trough must have rounded corners and have a pipe to outside the boma to facilitate cleaning and refilling. The whole trough must be in the boma. Simple gate and boma designs appear in the references below.

Careful genetic management is necessary to avoid inbreeding. To ensure a genetically viable population the breeding bulls should be replaced after six years, the cows and bulls should come from different stock and each population should have at least two breeding bulls. White rhinoceroses that are being produced for tourism purposes should preferably come from areas where they have become accustomed to vehicles. Release from a holding boma should only be done after the first adequate rains of the season when there is abundant food and water in the field. Correct fencing is necessary because bulls on adjacent properties may fight through a fence. White rhinoceroses from large conservation areas are also not used to fencing and should only be transferred to wildlife ranches with adequate electrified fences. They should also be released under a long-term tranquilizer such as perphenazine enanthate (Trilafon®).

Rearing orphaned white rhinoceros calves is risky and difficult. The milk of a rhinoceros contains little fat but has a high lactose content with a pH of around 6.4. Commercial milk substitutes can be used but they should be adapted to mirror the content of rhinoceros milk. For older calves, cereals can be added to supplement the milk. A white rhinoceros calf will require 15 per cent of its body weight per day in nutrition, with feeding being divided into four sessions. The use of bottles with rubber teats is advised.

Captive white rhinoceroses are unpredictable feeders that adapt to a boma with more difficulty than black rhinoceroses. Fresh, green grass of good quality should initially be provided twice per day. Once the grass is eaten readily, it can by substituted slowly with hay or teff of a high quality that is mixed with less than 10 per cent lucerne. No more than 2.5 kg of horse cubes can also be given twice per day provided that they do not contain a high content drugs that control coccidiosis caused by the protozoan parasite Coccidia. Antelope pellets or cubes can be toxic to rhinoceroses and should not be given. Constipated individuals can be treated by adding magnesium sulphate to the drinking water. White rhinoceroses should not be dewormed because some of the worms may have a symbiotic relationship with their host. The water should not contain electrolytes because their taste and smell may prevent a rhinoceros from drinking it. Water intake can be stimulated by giving a white rhinoceros 2 ml of Valium®.

When being relocated, the animals should be captured and released in the wet season when they are in an excellent physical condition. However, capturing a white rhinoceros is a specialized process that requires a well-trained capture team. Passive capture bomas can be used but tranquillizing, immobilization and loading a white rhinoceros should be done under the supervision of an experienced wildlife veterinarian. Loading is done by placing a crate in front of a partially immobilized animal and walking it into the crate with the aid of ropes. However, a captured white rhinoceros is seldom transported directly from the field to a new destination.

There are many more requirements and procedures and a full explanation can be found in the references below that are also available as e-books.



Bothma, J du P & J G du Toit (Eds) In Press. Game ranch management, sixth edition. Pretoria: Van Schaik.

Du Toit, J G 2005. The white rhinoceros. In J du P Bothma & J G du Toit (Eds), Intensive wildlife production in southern Africa. Pretoria: Van Schaik, pp 25 - 55.


article by Prof J du P Bothma



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