White rhinoceros

The southern white rhino is a major conservation success – but with only four animals remaining, the northern white rhino is very close to disappearing from the wild.
 / ©: National Geographic Stock / Michael Nichols / WWF
© National Geographic Stock / Michael Nichols / WWF
White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum), adult female with calf and storm clouds in the background. ... rel=
Adult female white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum), with calf. Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya.
© Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon

Help save Africa's rhinos

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

Key Facts

  • Common Names

    White rhinoceros, square-lipped rhinoceros; Rhinocéros blanc (Fr); Rinoceronte (Sp)

  • Scientific Name

    Ceratotherium simum

  • Location

    Southern Africa and Kenya (southern white rhino); DRC (northern white rhino)

  • Status

    Near Threatened

    More...

  • Population

    20,000

Physical description

Together with the greater one-horned rhino, the white rhino is the largest of all rhino species. Its name comes from the Dutch "weit" (wide), in reference to the animal's wide muzzle. It is also known as the square-lipped rhinoceros due to its squared (not pointed) upper lip.

Compared to black rhinos, white rhinos have a longer skull, a less sharply defined forehead and a more pronounced shoulder hump. They have almost no hair and two horns. The front horn averages 60 cm, but occasionally reaches 150 cm in length.

Size: 150-185 cm in height, females weigh 1,400-1,700 kg, males weigh 2,000-3,600 kg

Colour:  Slate grey to yellow brown
White rhinoceros. Newborn calf with characteristic pink skin. / ©: WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY
White rhinoceros. Newborn calf with characteristic pink skin.
© WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY

Most complex social structure of all rhino species

White rhinos appear to require thick bush cover, relatively flat terrain, water for drinking and wallowing, and short grass for grazing. They primarily inhabit grassy savanna and woodlands interspersed with grassy clearings.

The ainmals tend to avoid the heat during the day, when they rest in the shade. They are usually active in the early morning, late afternoon and evening.

During very hot periods, the cool and rid themselves of ectoparasites (external parasites) by bathing in mud in shallow pools. Adult males can spend almost their entire life in these areas, unless water is unavailable, in which case they follow a narrow corridor to a drinking site every 3-4 days.

Social structure
White rhinos are attributed to have the most complex social structure of all rhino species. Groups of up to 14 rhinos may  form, notably females with calves. Adult males occupy territories of 1-3km2, which they mark with vigorously scraped dung piles, while adult females have home ranges of 6-20km2 or even larger, depending on habitat quality and population density.

Breeding females are prevented from leaving a dominant's male territory, which is marked and and patrolled by its owner on a regular basis. Males competing for a female may engage in serious conflict, using their horns to inflict wounds.

Life cycle
Females reach sexual maturity at 4-5 years of age but do not reproduce until they reach 6-7 years. In contrast, males tend not to mate until they are 10-12 years old. They can live up to 40 years.

Breeding

Breeding pairs may stay together for up to 20 days. Mating occurs throughout the year although peaks have been observed from October to December in South Africa and from February to June in East Africa. The gestation period is approximately 16 months with a period of 2-3 years between calves.

Diet
White rhinos are the only grazer of all rhino species, feeding almost exclusively on short grasses.

Habitat

Major habitat type
Tropical and Subtropical Grasslands, Savannas and Shrublands

Biogeographic realm
Afrotropical

Range States
Botswana (re-introduced), Cote d’Ivoire (introduced), Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kenya (introduced), Namibia (re-introduced), South Africa, Swaziland (re-introduced), Zambia (introduced), Zimbabwe (re-introduced)

Geographical Location
Central and Southern Africa

Ecological Region
Namib-Karoo-Kaokoveld Deserts, Southern Rift Montane Woodlands, Central and Eastern Miombo Woodlands

Population & distribution

Previous population & distribution
The two living white rhino subspecies are genetically distinct and are found in two different regions in Africa.

The northern white rhino once occurred in southern Chad, the Central African Republic, southwestern Sudan, northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and northwestern Uganda.

As late as 1960, there were more than 2,000 remaining.

Once found across Southern Africa, the southern white rhino was considered extinct in the late 19th century. Then in 1895 a small population was discovered in the Umfolozi-Hluhluwe region in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa.

Current population & distribution
Just 4 northern white rhinos now remain in the wild, in Garamba National Park in north-eastern DRC. However, there are unconfirmed reports of a few survivors in southern Sudan.

After more than a century of protection, southern white rhinos currently number about 20,140. Classified as Near Threatened, they are the only non-endangered rhinos.

The majority (98.8%) of white rhinos occur in just four countries: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya.
 / ©: WWF
Distribution of white rhino in Africa
© WWF
Graph: White rhino population trend (1996-2006) / ©: WWF
White rhino population trend (1996-2006)
© WWF

What are the main threats?

Hunting & poaching
Uncontrolled hunting in the colonial era was historically the major factor in the decline of white rhinos, and poaching for their horn continues to be the main threat.

The white rhino is particularly vulnerable to hunting, because it is relatively unaggressive and occurs in herds.

Efforts to protect the few remaining northern rhino have been severely disrupted because of the ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and incursions by poachers coming mainly from Sudan. Thanks to the dedication of park staff through years of armed conflict in the region, this Critically Endangered subspecies still survives, but for how much longer?

Habitat loss

Loss of habitat to agriculture and human settlement poses a secondary threat.
White rhino killed by poachers for horn. / ©: WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY
The price of being unaggressive. White rhino killed by poachers for horn.
© WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY

What is WWF doing?

The key priority for the northern white rhino is to secure the survival of the four remaining animals in DRC, while also implementing an emergency conservation strategy for the subspecies. 

Although the southern white rhino is faring well, the animals still face the ever-present threat of poachers.

WWF is working to protect the white 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
One WWF project involved a rehabilitation and conservation programme for Garamba National Park in ... / ©: Kes & Fraser Smith / WWF-Canon
One WWF project involved a rehabilitation and conservation programme for Garamba National Park in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, with a focus on the protection of the northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni). It included a training programme in conservation management, a rhino and ecosystem monitoring programme, improved anti-poaching measures, land-use assessment, and the development of a park master plan.
© Kes & Fraser Smith / WWF-Canon

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

Did you know?

    • The white rhinoceros is second only to the African elephant in the size of land mammals.
    • White rhinos are believed to have the most complex social structure of all rhino species.

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.

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Donate to WWF

Your support will help us build a future where humans live in harmony with nature.