The white rhino is a major conservation success story, having been brought back from the very brink of extinction. But the current surge in poaching for their horns, particularly in South Africa, has seen record numbers killed in recent years. Urgent efforts are now underway to stop the poaching and end the illegal trade.
© Martin Harvey / WWF
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Physical descriptionWhite rhinos are the second largest land mammal after the elephant. Adult males can reach 1.85m in height and tip the scales at a massive 3.6 tonnes. Females are considerably smaller but can still weigh in at an impressive 1.7 tonnes.
White rhinos are also known as the square-lipped rhinoceros due to their square (not pointed) upper lip. Their name comes from the Afrikaans word “weit”, which means wide and refers to the animal’s muzzle.
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.
Life cycleWhite rhinos have complex social structures. Groups of sometimes 14 rhinos may form, notably females with calves. Adult males defend territories of roughly 1-3km2, which they mark with vigorously scraped dung piles. The home range for adult females can be more than seven times larger, depending on habitat quality and population density.
Breeding females are prevented from leaving a dominant male’s territory, which is marked and patrolled by its owner on a regular basis. Males competing for a female may engage in serious conflict, using their horns and massive size to inflict wounds.
Females reach sexual maturity at 4-5 years of age but do not reproduce until they reach 6 -7 years. Males tend not to mate until they are 10-12 years old. They can live up to 40 years.
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.
White rhinos are the only grazer among the five rhino species, feeding almost exclusively on short grasses. 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 external parasites by bathing in mud in shallow pools.
© WWF / Martin Harvey
White rhinoceros; Rhinocéros blanc (Fr); Rinoceronte (Sp)
South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Kenya
Southern white rhino (20,000+); northern white rhino (3 in captivity)
DistributionNorthern white rhinos and southern white rhinos are genetically distinct subspecies and were found in different regions in Africa.
Once common across southern Africa, southern white rhinos were thought to be extinct in the late 19th century, but in 1895 a small population of less than 100 individuals was discovered in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa.
After more than a century of successful protection and management, they are now classified as Near Threatened and over 20,000 animals exist in protected areas and private game reserves.
The majority (98.8%) of white rhinos occur in just four countries: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya.
They are the only rhinos that are not endangered, although they have born the brunt of the surge in poaching in recent years.
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 recently as 1960, there were more than 2,000 remaining.
However, poaching has led to their extinction in the wild. And now there are only 3 individuals left on earth - all of them in captivity. The future for this subspecies is very bleak.
Major habitat type
Tropical and Subtropical Grasslands, Savannas and Shrublands
Southern white rhino: Botswana (re-introduced), Kenya (introduced), Namibia (re-introduced), South Africa, Swaziland (re-introduced), Zambia (introduced), Zimbabwe (re-introduced)
Northern white rhino: Captivity (3 in a conservancy in Kenya)
Southern and East Africa
Namib-Karoo-Kaokoveld Deserts, Southern Rift Montane Woodlands, Central and Eastern Miombo Woodlands
PoachingUncontrolled hunting in the colonial era was historically the major factor in the decline of white 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.
Hundreds of white rhinos have been killed annually in recent years. They are particularly vulnerable to hunting, because they are relatively unaggressive and occurs in herds.
What WWF is doingWWF 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 illegal flow of rhino horn from Africa to other regions of the world; and
- Promoting well-managed wildlife-based tourism experiences that will also provide additional funding for conservation efforts.
© naturepl.com / Mark Carwardine / WWF
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.
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.