/ ©: naturepl.com / Andy Rouse / WWF

Black rhinoceros

Conservation efforts have seen gradual population increases after a long and devastating period of hunting and poaching.

Even so, black rhinos remain critically endangered, with strong demand for rhino horn posing a constant threat to small populations.
 / ©: naturepl.com / Andy Rouse / WWF
Clic to discover how WWF is working to protect rhinos in Africa and Asia
© naturepl.com / Andy Rouse / WWF

Help save Africa's rhinos

Make a donation towards much-needed anti-poaching equipment and support for rangers across Africa.

Subscribe to WWF

Key Facts

  • Common Names

    Black rhino, hook-lipped rhinoceros; Rhinocéros noir (Fr); Rinoceronte negro (Sp)

  • Scientific Name

    Diceros bicornis

  • Location

    From Cameroon in the west to Kenya in the east, and south to South Africa

  • Status

    Critically Endangered


  • Population

    4,880 individuals as of Feb 2013

Make a donation


Physical description

The black rhinoceros has two horns, and occasionally a third small posterior horn. The anterior horn is longer than the posterior, averaging 50cm long.

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.

Size: 800-1,400 kg.

Colour: Dark yellow brown to dark brown or dark gray.
 / ©: Michel Gunther
Black rhinoceros, Nairobi National Park, Kenya
© Michel Gunther

Living in deserts, grasslands and montane forests

Black rhinos are mainly found in grassland-forest transition zones, but are present in habitats ranging from desert in south-western Africa to montane forests in Kenya.

The species is usually restricted to areas within about 25km of water sources. Black rhinos can often be found in mud or water wallows, where they cool themselves.

Social structure

Adult black rhinos are mostly solitary, although they may form groups of 12 individuals. Mother and daughters may stay together for long periods of time, while females that do not have offspring join a neighbouring female.

Conflict usually arises when outsiders enter an area already utilized by a clan. During courtship, conflicts over a female may result in the death of one of the competing males.

Life cycle
Black rhino calves begin to wean at about 2 months of age. 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.

Breeding is reported to occur throughout the year. The gestation period is between 419 and 478 days, with an average interval of 2.5-3.5 years between calves.

The black rhino feeds on woody twigs and legumes, and a wide variety of plant species, with a predilection for acacias. Sleeping usually occurs at midday, and animals feed mostly during the early morning and in the evening. When water is available the rhino will drink every day. Mineral licks are visited regularly.


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

Biogeographic realm

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

Geographical Location
Eastern, central, western, and southern Africa

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

Population & distribution

Previous population & 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 and distribution 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.

The poaching epidemic that started in the early 1970s effectively eliminated most black rhinos living outside conservation areas, and severely reduced numbers in national parks and reserves. During the late 1970s and in the 1980s, numbers decreased by 40–90% in some regions.

In 1981 only 10,000-15,000 remained, and since 1980 the species has probably disappeared from Angola, Botswana, Chad, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, Somalia, Sudan, and Zambia.

In 1993, only 2,475 black rhinos were recorded. However, overall populations had stabilized by this time, largely due to significant population increases in South Africa and Namibia that offset mortalities elsewhere. Since 1996, most of these populations have continued to show modest increases.

Current population & distribution
Thanks to successful conservation and anti-poaching efforts, the total number of black rhinos has grown to about 4,838.

The species is currently found in patchy distribution from Cameroon in the west to Kenya in the east, and south to South Africa. However, almost 98% of the total population is found in just 4 countries: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya. And of these countries, South Africa is the stronghold with approximately 40% of the total wild black rhino population.

There are four recognized subspecies:
  • Southern-central black rhino (D. b. minor): Inhabited a historic range from central Tanzania through Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique to northern and eastern South Africa; now found in South Africa (stronghold) and Zimbabwe, with smaller numbers remaining in southern Tanzania and reintroduced to Botswana, Malawi, Swaziland and Zambia. Currently the most numerous subspecies. Classified as Critically Endangered.
  • South-western black rhino (D. b. bicornis): More adapted to arid and semi-arid savannahs. Range once included Namibia, southern Angola, western Botswana, and south-western and south-eastern South Africa; now only occurs in Namibia (stronghold) and South Africa. Classified as Critically Endangered.
  • East African black rhino (D. b. michaeli): Historic distribution from south Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia through Kenya into north-central Tanzania; current stronghold is Kenya, with smaller but growing numbers in northern Tanzania. Classified as Critically Endangered.
  • West African black rhino (D. b. longipes): Once occurred across most of the savannahs of West Africa; by the beginning of the century reduced to only a few individuals in northern Cameroon. An extensive 2006 survey failed to find any evidece of the animals and none has been found since. Classified as Extinct.
 / ©: Mauri Rautkari / WWF
Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis), Amboseli National Park, Kenya.
© Mauri Rautkari / WWF
 / ©: naturepl.com / Andy Rouse / WWF
Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) head portrait, Swaziland, critically endangered species
© naturepl.com / Andy Rouse / WWF

What are the main threats?

European hunters were responsible for early declines. Finding rhinos easy prey, there are common accounts of killing five or six in a day, to be eaten or simply for amusement.

European settlers, arriving in the early 20th century to colonize and establish farms and plantations, continued this senseless slaughter: most regarded rhinos as vermin, to be exterminated at all costs.

Poaching of African rhinos for their horns escalated from the 1970s, and remains the greatest threat to black rhinos.

Political instability and wars have greatly hampered rhino conservation work in Africa, notably in Angola, Rwanda, Somalia and Sudan. This situation has exacerbated threats such as trade in rhino horn, and increased poaching due to poverty. 

Habitat loss
Habitat changes have also contributed to population declines, although this is a secondary threat after poaching.

In southern Zimbabwe, privately owned rhino conservancies have been invaded by landless people, reducing safe habitat for two large black rhino populations and increasing the risk of poaching and snaring.
 / ©: Kes & Fraser Smith / WWF
Poached black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis), Kenya.
© Kes & Fraser Smith / WWF
Between 1970 and 1992, 96% of Africa's remaining black rhinos were killed when a wave of poaching for rhino horn rippled through Kenya and Tanzania, continued south through Zambia's Luangwa Valley as far as the Zambezi River, and spread into Zimbabwe.

What is WWF doing?

Recent success in black rhino conservation are heartening, but a lot of work remains to bring the population up to even a fraction of what it once was – and ensure that it stays there.

WWF is working to protect the black rhino and increase its numbers by:

  • Expanding existing protected areas and improving their management
  • Establishing new protected areas
  • Improving security monitoring to protect rhinos from poaching
  • Improving local and international law enforcement to stop the flow of rhino horn and other illegal wildlife trade items from Africa to other regions of the world
  • Promoting well managed wildlife-based tourism experiences that will also provide additional funding for conservation efforts.

» WWF African Rhino Programme
» Black rhino range expansion project (WWF-South Africa)
» Work in Kruger National Park, South Africa
» Work in Namibia

How you can help

  • Don't buy rhino horn products! Illegal trade in rhino horn is a continuing problem, posing one of the greatest threats to rhinos today.
  • Donate towards much-needed anti-poaching equipment and support for rangers across Africa.
    South Africans / Residents of other countries

    Donations will go towards:
    • binoculars
    • radios
    • night-vision gear
    • bullet-proof armour
    • rhino tracking
    • camping equipment
    • training for guards
       All money received will go towards rhino conservation.

  • Spread the word! Click on the button to share this information with others via email or your favourite social networking service.

    Bookmark and Share

Virtual Gifts

Virtual Gifts / ©: WWF

Did you know?

    • Black rhinos use communal dung heaps, sometimes scraping their feet therein and leaving a scent as they travel about.
    • There are 4 subspecies of black rhino, although they all look very similar.


  •  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.

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required