/ ©: naturepl.com / Andy Rouse / WWF

Black rhino

Effective conservation efforts have seen black rhino numbers inch upwards in recent years after a long and devastating period of hunting and poaching.

Even so, black rhinos remain critically endangered, with poaching for their horns posing a constant threat to their survival.
 / ©: WWF / Martin Harvey
A black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) in Zimbabwe.
© WWF / Martin Harvey

Physical description

The black rhino is smaller than the white rhino, although adults can still reach 1.5 metres in height and weigh in at 1.4 tonnes.

The species is distinguished from the white rhino by a prehensile upper lip (hence the alternative name of hook-lipped rhino), which it uses to feed on twigs of woody plants and a variety of herbaceous plants. They have a particular liking for acacias.

The front horn is the longer of the two horns, averaging 50cm in length.
 

Life cycle

Adult black rhinos are mostly solitary. Mother and daughters may stay together for long periods of time, while a female without offspring may join up with a neighbouring female.

Although females reach sexual maturity at 4-5 years, they do not have their first calf until they are 6.5-7 years old. Males need to wait until they are 10-12 years old before they can claim a territory and mate. Black rhinos may reach 40-50 years of age.

During courtship, conflicts over a female may result in the death of one of the competing males.

Breeding occurs throughout the year. The gestation period is between 419 and 478 days, with an average interval of 2.5-3.5 years between calves. Black rhino calves begin to wean at about 2 months of age.
 / ©: Michel Gunther
Black rhinoceros, Nairobi National Park, Kenya
© Michel Gunther

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 / ©: Martin Harvey / WWF
Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) - Two males fighting.
© Martin Harvey / WWF

Key Facts

  • Common Names

    Rhinocéros noir (Fr); Rinoceronte negro (Sp)

  • Scientific Name

    Diceros bicornis

  • Status

    Critically Endangered

  • Population

    Over 5,000

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Distribution

Black rhinos were once found throughout sub-Saharan Africa with the exception of the Congo Basin. Even though they are largely solitary animals, they were once so plentiful that it was not unusual to encounter dozens in a single day.

However, relentless hunting by European settlers saw their numbers quickly decline. By the end of the 1960s, they had disappeared or mostly disappeared from a number of countries, with an estimated 70,000 surviving on the continent.

And then they were hit by a poaching epidemic, which started in the early 1970s - effectively eliminating most black rhinos outside conservation areas as well as severely reducing their numbers within national parks and reserves. About 96% of black rhinos were lost to large-scale poaching between 1970 and 1992.

In 1993, only 2,475 black rhinos were recorded. But thanks to successful conservation and anti-poaching efforts, the total number of black rhinos has grown to around 5,000.

The species is currently found in patchy distribution from Kenya down to South Africa. However, almost 98% of the total population is found in just 4 countries: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya.

There are three subspecies after the West African black rhino was declared extinct in 2011:
  • Southern-central black rhino (D. b. minor): Most numerous subspecies. Found in South Africa, Zimbabwe, southern Tanzania and reintroduced to Botswana, Malawi, Swaziland and Zambia.
     
  • South-western black rhino (D. b. bicornis): More adapted to arid and semi-arid savannahs. Now live in Namibia and South Africa.
     
  • East African black rhino (D. b. michaeli): Current stronghold is Kenya, with smaller numbers in northern Tanzania.
 / ©: naturelpl.com/ Richard Du Toit/ WWF
Black rhinoceros, Ol Pejeta conservancy, Kenya
© naturelpl.com/ Richard Du Toit/ WWF

Habitat

Major habitat type
Tropical and Subtropical Grasslands, Savannas, and Shrublands; Deserts and Xeric Shrublands

Biogeographic realm
Afrotropical

Range States
Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia (re-introduced), Botswana (re-introduced).

Geographical Location
Eastern and southern Africa

Ecological Region
East African Acacia Savannas, Central and Eastern Miombo Woodlands, Namib-Karoo-Kaokoveld Deserts, Sudanian Savannas

Poaching

Uncontrolled hunting in the colonial era was historically the major factor in the decline of black rhinos. Today, poaching for the illegal trade in their horns is the major threat.

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

The recent surge has been primarily driven by the demand for horn by upper-middle class citizens in Vietnam. As well as its use in medicine, rhino horn is bought and consumed purely as a symbol of wealth.

Black rhinos have been killed in increasing numbers in recent years as transnational, organised criminal networks have become more involved in the poaching of rhinos and the illegal trade in rhino horn.
 
Some black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) are under 24 hour armed guard due to risk of poaching ... / ©: Martin Harvey / WWF
Some black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) are under 24 hour armed guard due to risk of poaching Africa.
© Martin Harvey / WWF
 / ©: Robert Patterson / WWF
Rhino horn for sale in Hanoi, Vietnam
© Robert Patterson / WWF

Help save Africa's rhinos

Make a donation towards much-needed anti-poaching equipment and support for rangers across Africa.
Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis). An orphan whose mother was killed by poachers in Zimbabwe / ©: WWF / Martin HARVEY
Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis). An orphan whose mother was killed by poachers in Zimbabwe
© WWF / Martin HARVEY

What WWF is doing

Successes in black rhino conservation over recent years are heartening, but a lot of work remains to be done to counter the current poaching crisis and eventually bring the population up to more than just a fraction of what it once was.

WWF is working to conserve the black rhino by:
  • Expanding existing protected areas and improving their management;
     
  • Establishing new protected areas;
     
  • Translocating rhinos to creat secure, viable new populations;
     
  • Improving security monitoring to protect rhinos from poaching;
     
  • Improving local and international law enforcement to stop the flow of rhino horn;
     
  • Promoting well managed wildlife-based tourism experiences that will also provide additional funding for conservation efforts.
Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) / ©: Martin Harvey / WWF
Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis)
© Martin Harvey / WWF

Did you know?

    • Black rhinos use communal dung heaps, sometimes scraping their feet in the heaps and so leaving a scent as they travel.
    • There are three subspecies of black rhino, although they all look very similar.

Infographic

  •  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.

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