Over the past three weeks I have blogged about the animals known in southern Africa as ‘The Big Five.” Today it’s the turn of the rhinoceros, of which there are two species in our region – the Black rhinoceros and the White rhinoceros. As I stated before, the Big Five get their name from being the most dangerous and difficult animals to track and hunt, and the rhinoceros is therefore not a docile animal by any means. Although rhinos have poor eyesight, their sense of smell and hearing is highly developed and, combined with the ability to run at high speeds, they can be quite deadly when they break into a charge and use their horns for ramming their victims. They often charge for no apparent reason, probably to determine whether an object is a threat to them or not.
These enormous beasts have a prehistoric appearance with their thick hides folding over their legs and shoulders to look almost as if they are wearing a suit of armour. They sport two horns on their long faces – a small one at the back and a large one in the front. Their name is derived from the Latin meaning nose and horn. The horns are made of keratin, the same composition as our hair and nails. Unfortunately for the rhinoceros, their horns are believed to have medicinal properties and for this reason they are being poached into extinction as they fetch extremely high prices on the black market. See my blog “Where have all the rhinos gone” about this serious problem.
The two African species are easy to identify by the different shapes of their mouths. Black rhinos have prehensile upper lips because they are browsers, whilst White rhinos have wide square lips that are suitable for grazing. They both have barrel-shaped bodies, but differ in size, with the Black rhino being much smaller than the White rhino. The browsers prefer a diet of branches, thorns and leaves so their habitat is treed or bushy, and the grazers mainly eat short grass which is found in more open bushveld. Both require plenty of drinking water and enjoy wallowing in mud to cool themselves down. Black rhinos are solitary and moody as opposed to the more sociable White rhinos which live in small groups with a territorial male.
Females have a single calf, born throughout the year after a gestation period of about 16 months. Calves remain with their mothers for up to four years and when they are seen together, the calf is usually walking in front of its mother.
If they are left alone by poachers, rhinos have a life expectancy of between 40 and 45 years. Their main predator is man and they are sometimes taken by lions.