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The White rhinoceros

4 August 2015


www.leopard.tvThe rhinoceroses of the world developed from a single ancestor in Eurasia and later divided into Asian and African forms, with the white and black rhinoceroses in Africa although there are some authors who believe that a third type of rhinoceros occurs in a limited part of North Africa. The white rhinoceros Ceratotherium simum is also sometimes known as the square-lipped rhinoceros because of its wide mouth that is adapted to feeding close to the ground. The wide mouth and nose are also reflected in the scientific name which is derived from the Greek words cerato for horn, therium for wild beast and simum for flat-nosed.

The white rhinoceros was possibly descended from an ancestral rhinoceros Ceratotherium praecox whose fossils are present at Langebaanweg in the Western Cape province of South Africa where it lived some 5 million years ago. A fossilised tooth of this ancestor has also been found at the Makapan Caves near Mokopane (Potgietersrust) in the Limpopo province. Based on isotope studies of this tooth, 30 percent of this ancestor’s diet consisted of browse. Other studies have also indicated that the ancestors of all the living rhinoceroses had a mixed diet of browse and grass.

The colloquial name white rhinoceros has been used for several centuries and it may be based on the Dutch term wijd for wide which with time became wit in Afrikaans. This name was in turn translated into white in English. There used to be a northern subspecies Ceratotherium simum cottoni and a southern one Ceratotherium simum simum but the former is probably extinct in the wild. All the rhinoceroses form part of the mammal family Rhinocerotidae. The white rhinoceros was first described scientifically as Rhinoceros simus by Burchell in 1817 based on a specimen that was collected at Heuningvlei Pan north of Kuruman near the Molopo River in the North West province of South Africa. However, because the genus Rhinoceros is confined to two species of rhinoceros from Indonesia and India, the white rhinoceros was renamed Ceratotherium simum by Gray in 1868.

Despite its name, the white rhinoceros has a grey skin that can be discoloured by the mud in which it rolls. The front horn is longer than the back one and the lips are square, hence the alternative colloquial name of square-lipped rhinoceros. The horns consist entirely of keratin, are outgrowths of skin and are carried on a long head on a long neck. The longest front horn known measured 1.581 m. The horns of the bulls are thicker than those of a cow at the base. The front horn of an adult rhinoceros grows at a mean rate of 50 mm per year, but growth is most rapid in young rhinoceroses although the calf is born without horns. There is a thick layer of fat on the abdomen. The tail is short and has a sparse fringe of bristly hair. The second premolar teeth erupt first and at an age of eight years all the permanent premolars are in use.

The limbs have three functional toes, each with a broad, stout nail. The feet leave a distinct indentation along the rear edge of the tracks of a white rhinoceros which is absent in the tracks of a black rhinoceros, and the tracks of the front feet are slightly larger than those of the hind feet. The white rhinoceros has the widest nostrils of any land mammal and an acute sense of smell but a poor eyesight. The pointed ears are fringed with hair and the skin is folded prominently on the front of the shoulders, the upper parts of the hind legs and at the junctions of the forelegs and the body. The shoulder height in an adult can be up to 1.8 m, but an adult bull weighs from 2000 to 2400 kg and a cow around 1600 kg. The body weight increases with age up to 14 years of age. A white rhinoceros cannot lift its head up high as it normally grazes close to the ground and it consequently can drown easily during a flood.

The ideal habitat requires short grass interspersed with taller clumps of red grass Themeda triandra and buffalo grass Panicum maximum which grows under trees, water, adequate bushes for cover and relatively flat terrain. Steep slopes are avoided but will be crossed when moving between feeding grounds and to water. White rhinoceroses are essentially solitary but do associate with each other. The bulls occupy territories that can be up to 13.9 km2 in extent, are marked by spray-urination and do not overlap. The dung is scattered with the hind feet. The ranges of the cows overlap and a cow’s range will include the territories of up to seven bulls. Red- and yellow-billed oxpeckers frequently sit on white rhinoceroses to peck off ticks. During the heat of day the white rhinoceros rests in shade.

The white rhinoceros is the world’s largest pure grazer and it crops grass to within 25 cm of the ground surface by moving its head around in a mowing pattern. The lower lip has a hard ridge which aids in cropping grass. A white rhinoceros usually drinks water late in the afternoon and early in the evening, doing so every two to three days. Cows reach sexual maturity when they are six to seven years old and bulls at six years of age. However the bulls only breed when they become territorial at an age of some ten to 12 years. Gestation lasts from 16 to 18 months and the calving interval is two to three years. The calf of some 40 kg is usually born in isolation and has a wrinkled, pale grey skin with a pinkish tint. The cow has four inguinal mammae. When moving, the calf of a white rhinoceros precedes its mother. The life expectancy of a white rhinoceros is around 50 years.

Rhinoceroses have been poached for the imaginary pharmacological properties of their horns for many centuries. Most of the white rhinoceroses occur in South Africa where they are still being poached heavily, although they are also now being poached in Namibia. Some 380 white rhinoceroses were reintroduced into the Kruger National Park from 1963 to 1973 and they reached a maximum population of some 5752 animals in 2012, with an annual population increase from 1973 to 1990 of 7.5 per cent despite that at least 2424 white rhinoceroses were poached there since 2001 and that 3815 have been moved elsewhere from this park.

Rhinoceroses have become valuable commodities on wildlife auctions although they were sold for as little as R1500 by the former Natal Parks Board in 1979. The mean price per animal in 2014 was R382 262. Transportation is done in individual crates of 1.4 m high x 2.6 m long x 0.9 m wide for an adult. During transportation after chemical capture they can be tranquillized in the short term with haloperidol and in the long term with perphenazine enanthate.

Both the white and black rhinoceros were significant in many African cultures for many centuries. It was appropriated as a leadership symbol of power, danger and protection. The gold rhinoceros sculpture of Mapungubwe in the Limpopo province was an emblem of sacred leadership in a class-based society. Rhinoceros figurines are also being used in initiation ceremonies and in the Sotho-Tswana culture the rhinoceros features in praise poems. There is also a plethora of references to rhinoceroses in vernacular names and folklore. Meat that was cut from the breast of a rhinoceros was the preserve of a chief, and a special club of rhinoceros horn was widely used to indicate chiefly status. Rhinoceros bones and horns featured in rainmaking rituals and the monoliths that adorned the central courts of Tswana towns, the courts and walls of the capitals of chieftains in Zimbabwe and Venda most probably signified rhinoceros horns.

More recently, a clay figurine of a rhinoceros was found on the heavily eroded surface of the Melora Saddle where farming once occurred in the Lapalala Wilderness of the Waterberg in the Limpopo province. This was a rare find as the remains of only three rhinoceros figurines that date to the Iron Age from the years 900 to 1300 have been found in South Africa, all from the Limpopo province, although the Mapungubwe sculpture may relate to Venda occupation of the site in the eighteenth or nineteenth century.



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

Cloete, F 2015. Lewendewild-handel stoom voort. Game & Hunt 21(02): 71 - 74.

Grubb, P 2005. Order Perissodactyla. In D E Wilson and D M Reeder (Eds), Mammal species of the world: a taxonomic and geographic reference, third edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, pp 634 - 636.

Skinner, J D & C T Chimimba (Eds) 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 527 - 531.


article by Prof J du P Bothma



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