African rhinos

The two African rhino species – black rhino and white rhino – have both increased in number in recent years thanks to successful conservation efforts, especially in South Africa. Indeed, the white rhino has been brought back from the brink of extinction.

However, both species are again at risk due to a huge surge in poaching to meet demand for illegal rhino horn, primarily in Asia. Countries and conservationists are stepping up their efforts but record numbers of rhinos are currently being killed.
Southern white rhinoceros mother and calf. The white rhino is listed by the IUCN as endangered. 
	© Martin Harvey / WWF
Southern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum simum) mother and calf. The white rhino is listed by the IUCN as endangered.
© Martin Harvey / WWF


Just 150 years ago, Africa’s savannahs teemed with over a million black and white rhinos. But relentless hunting by European settlers saw rhino numbers and distribution quickly decline.

Poaching also escalated during the 1970s and 1980s as demand grew for rhino horn, a prized ingredient in traditional Asian medicines - leaving both species at risk.

Thanks to vigorous conservation and anti-poaching efforts and an international ban on the trade in rhino horn, some African rhino populations are now stable or increasing.

However, most of the continent's remaining rhinos are found in just four countries – South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya. Very few African rhinos now survive outside of protected areas and sanctuaries.

And poaching is again threatening the survival of some populations.

Why rhinos matter

Rhinos have been around for millions of years and play a crucial role in their ecosystem. They’re important grazers, consuming large amounts of vegetation, which helps shape the African landscape. This benefits other animals and keeps a healthy balance within the ecosystem.

Local people also depend on the natural resources within rhino habitat for food, fuel and income. As one of Africa’s ‘big five’, rhinos are a popular sight for tourists. Ecotourism can be an important source of income for local people.

By helping protect rhinos, we’re helping to conserve their habitat for the benefit of people and wildlife, helping support local communities and making sure natural resources are available for generations to come.


The greatest threat facing African rhinos is poaching for the illegal trade in their horns, which has soared in recent years.

The number of rhinos poached in South Africa alone has increased by 9,000% since 2007 - from 13 to a record 1,215 in 2014.

Powdered horn is used in traditional Asian medicine as a supposed cure for a range of illnesses – from hangovers to fevers and even cancer.

But the current surge has been primarily driven by demand for horn in Vietnam. As well as its use in medicine, rhino horn is bought and consumed purely as a symbol of wealth.

Poaching gangs use increasingly sophisticated methods, including helicopters and night vision equipment to track rhinos, and veterinary drugs to knock them out.

This means countries and conservationists need to match this level of technology to be able to tackle the problem, alongside working to reduce demand.
	© National Geographic Stock / Michael Nichols / WWF
© National Geographic Stock / Michael Nichols / WWF
	© Frederick Weyerhaeuser
Black rhino in Namibia
© Frederick Weyerhaeuser
	© Robert Patterson / WWF
A rhino horn and tiger teeth for sale on the table of a black market animal trade dealer at his home in Hanoi, Vietnam. Vietnam is the world’s largest recipient of illegal rhino horn from South Africa.
© Robert Patterson / WWF
	© naturepl.com / Andy Rouse / WWF
Clic to discover how WWF is working to protect rhinos in Africa and Asia
© naturepl.com / Andy Rouse / WWF

Key Facts

  • Species

    White rhino (Ceratotherium simum), black rhino (Diceros bicornis)

  • Habitat

    Grasslands, savannas and shrublands; deserts and xeric shrublands

  • Status

    Near Threatened (White rhino), Endangered (Black rhino)

  • Population

    20,000+ (White rhino), 5,000+ (Black rhino)

  • Main strongholds

    South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Kenya

The African rhino is under serious threat from international poaching syndicates which have intensified poaching driven by growing demand for horns in Asia.

Dr Joseph Okori, Head, WWF African Rhino Programme

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Two species

Despite their names, both the white rhino and black rhino are the same dark grey-brown colour.

It’s thought that the name ‘white rhino’ is a misinterpretation of the Afrikaans word ‘wyd’, referring to its square upper lip. Black rhinos have hooked lips.

Both species of these armoured giants are vegetarian and need to eat large amounts of food every day.

Black rhino

Also called the hook-lipped rhino due to their prehensile upper lip, black rhinos are the smaller of the two African species.

They were once found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, with the exception of the Congo Basin. They are now limited to protected areas in the east and south of the continent.

About 96% of black rhinos were lost to large-scale poaching between 1970 and 1992. But effective conservation efforts have seen the total number grow from 2,600 in 1997 to over 5,000 today.
White rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) wallpaper 
	© Martin Harvey / WWF
White rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) wallpaper
© Martin Harvey / WWF
Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) 
	© WWF / Helmut Diller
Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis)
© WWF / Helmut Diller

White rhino

White rhinos are bigger than black rhinos and have a squared upper lip and almost no hair. While the species is bearing the brunt of the surge in poaching, it is one of conservation’s greatest success stories.

Once thought to be extinct, a population of less than 100 was found in 1895 in South Africa. After more than a century of protection and management, the species now numbers over 20,000 and has been reclassified as Near Threatened.
White rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) 
	© WWF / Helmut Diller
White rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum)
© WWF / Helmut Diller

What WWF is doing

WWF is helping to tackle the major threats by strengthening protected areas, preserving rhino habitat, and helping to stamp out the illegal trade in rhino horn. WWF is:
  • Working with TRAFFIC on the Wildlife Crime Initiative to investigate, expose and crack down on poaching and the illegal trade in rhino horn – and reduce demand;
  • Helping to secure protected areas and create new ones;
  • Promoting wildlife-based tourism that helps fund conservation efforts and gives local communities an income from living alongside wildlife;
  • Working with communities living around protected areas to help them use their natural resources more sustainably; and
  • Supporting the translocation of rhinos to create new, secure populations.

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	© naturepl.com / Mark Carwardine / WWF
Southern white rhinoceros grazing
© naturepl.com / Mark Carwardine / WWF


  •  The WWF Wildlife Crime Scorecard report selects 23 range, transit and consumer countries from Asia and Africa facing the highest levels of illegal trade in elephant ivory, rhino horn and tiger parts.
  • CITES logo
    The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is an international agreement between governments, that aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival and it accords varying degrees of protection to more than 33,000 species of animals and plants.

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