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White Rhinoceros: Population, Habitat & Facts

Instructor: Amanda Robb
One of the few endangered species making a comeback, the white rhinoceros is a success story for conservationists. Here, we'll learn about the conservation of white rhinos, their habitat, their appearance, and their lifestyle.

What Is the White Rhino?

Picture a small sedan sitting in your driveway. Then, a crane drops another car on top of it. This pile of cars, weighing approximately four tons and reaching over 13 feet long, is about the size of a rhinoceros. Although gigantic, these animals are purely vegetarian, grazing on the grasses of the African savanna. With thick, leathery skin on their exterior and two large horns on the front of their face, a rhino is nothing to mess with.

There are several types of rhinos, most notably the white and black rhinos. Although both are actually gray, white and black rhinos can be identified by their lips. White rhinos have square lips, whereas their black cousins have pointed lips.

White rhinos can be recognized by their square lips
white rhinos

Habitat

White rhinos live in the grassy plains of Africa. Most live in four countries: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Kenya. The northern white rhino is a subspecies that once lived in Uganda, Sudan, Chad, the Central African Republic, and Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, numbers are declining substantially, and there are very few northern white rhinos remaining.

White rhinos can be seen grazing in the grassy fields of the African savanna with other native animals like elephants, zebra, cheetahs, and lions. Small trees dot large expanses of grass, holding on for dear life in the sweltering African heat. Although dry for much of the year, the savanna experiences heavy rainfall during the wet season between May and November. During this time, food is bountiful and many animals come to the grasslands to reap the benefits.

Population

There are two main populations of white rhinos: northern and southern white rhinos. Northern white rhinos have extremely limited populations and a highly fragmented habitat. Today, there are only three northern white rhinos remaining in a heavily protected area, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. The rhinos are considered too old to breed naturally, but scientists are working to use in vitro fertilization to save this subspecies of white rhino.

However, the southern white rhino is a conservation success story. On the brink of extinction from poaching, the southern white rhino is now classified as near threatened, one of the least vulnerable populations. There are about 20,000 southern white rhinos protected on game preserves and their numbers are increasing due to conservation efforts.

The massive decline in both white rhino subspecies is due to poaching, or illegal hunting. As one of the most valuable illegally traded animal parts, sold for tens of thousands of dollars a pound on the black market, poaching persists in Africa even in protected areas like Kruger National Park.

A white rhino with horns removed by poachers
dehorned rhino

Adaptations and Behavior

Although this amazing species is herbivorous, or vegetarian, and low on the ecological food chain, it has few predators due to it's adaptations, or traits that help it survive.

Horns

The most obvious white rhino adaptation is its two large horns. The larger of the two, located further down the white rhino's head, can grow up to five feet long. Unlike other appendages, like elephant tusks, the horns are not made of bone, but rather a protein matrix of keratin, like our own hair and nails. This means that when damaged, the horns are able to grow back.

This is especially helpful considering that the rhino's horns are its main defense. When threatened, a white rhino can charge horn forward delivering a fatal blow. Due to this adaptation and their size, white rhinos have few predators in the wild other than humans. Sometimes a baby rhino may fall prey to lions, hyenas, or wild dogs, but healthy adults are almost never on the menu.

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