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
Physical descriptionThe 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 cycleAdult 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.
Rhinocéros noir (Fr); Rinoceronte negro (Sp)
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DistributionBlack 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
Major habitat type
Tropical and Subtropical Grasslands, Savannas, and Shrublands; Deserts and Xeric Shrublands
Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia (re-introduced), Botswana (re-introduced).
Eastern and southern Africa
East African Acacia Savannas, Central and Eastern Miombo Woodlands, Namib-Karoo-Kaokoveld Deserts, Sudanian Savannas
PoachingUncontrolled 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.
© Martin Harvey / WWF
© Robert Patterson / WWF
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© WWF / Martin HARVEY
What WWF is doingSuccesses 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.
© 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.
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.
TRAFFIC is a joint programme of WWF and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) that monitors the global wildlife trade. TRAFFIC also works in close co-operation with CITES.