The Rhinoceros Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Rhinoceros

7 Conversations

A white rhinoceros, showing the distinctive wide-lipped mouth.

Updated 24 June, 2012

Once upon a time when God made all the animals he had them all make their own skins. To this effect he gave them all a needle to sow them with. But the Rhino, being a bit clumsy, lost his needle and had to use a thorn instead. This is why his coat is so badly fitting. Tragically, he thought he might have swallowed the needle and this is why he can often be seen kicking his dung about. He is looking for his needle still so he can make a better coat.
- Zambian Folk Tale

The Rhinoceros is one of the most distinguishable of all animals due to its size and, more significantly, the horn (or horns) that project from above its nose. It is also recognised by its armour plate-like hide. It is probably, after the elephant, one of the most persecuted and possibly the world's most endangered, large land-dwelling mammal, being hunted to near extinction by the vain and the sexually desperate. This motley collection of odd-toed ungulates once formed a vast family that included the largest land mammal ever to walk, or possibly stomp, the Earth. Often associated with its heavyweight compatriots, the elephant and the hippopotamus, the rhinoceros is actually more closely related to the horse, but under no circumstances should you attempt to saddle one.


The rhinoceros is of the family Rhinocerotidae, and is an odd-toed ungulate, meaning having hooves, or perissodactyla. And in common with perissodactyles, they have mesaxonic feet, meaning that the central toe takes the bulk of the animal's weight, with the other toes being large and splayed to disperse the bulk. Another feature they share with the horse is that, unlike ruminants, they have what is known as hind-gut fermentation. This form of digestion uses bacteria in the caecum and colon to break down food. It is more efficient than that of the ruminants, and so means they can feed in areas with less nutritious food than many other animals.

The rhinoceros is also remarkable for possessing nasal passages that are larger than its brain1, also being much thicker than in similar-sized creatures. Its nasal passages that is, not its brain. Although this could be argued. A rhinoceros' eyesight is also very poor. It has been said that if in the vicinity of a rhino, by crouching and staying still the rhinoceros will pass by, not realising anything was near. However, as their hearing and sense of smell are very acute, do not rely on this as a means of escaping notice. They have large, conical c-shaped, highly-rotative ears that are very sensitive and, as has been mentioned, olfactory organs larger than their brain. So crouching may not be an option.

Despite its bulk, the rhinoceros can also move fairly fast, trotting at up to 25 miles per hour (40 kilometers per hour), and has been reported to gallop at speeds in excess of 40 mph (65kph), a speed not dissimilar to its close cousin, the horse. Many rangers, safari-tourists and wildlife experts have experienced this, some to their ultimate cost. Rhinoceros are most active from around twilight to dawn, and early morning, although they may be active throughout the day. Despite the rhinoceros hide being relatively thick, it is also sensitive. Rhinoceros are prone to sunburn and insect bites, which may explain their nocturnal habits.

In Africa, rhinoceros are often seen accompanied by Yellow-Billed Oxpeckers (Buphagus africanus). This bird appears to be semi-parasitic, primarily living off ticks and insects that use the rhinoceros as a host, as well as picking at bleeding areas, originally perceived to be cleaning suppurating wounds. Recent studies appear to show that, if not actually creating these injuries, the birds worry at them in order to keep them open for a steady food supply2. Due to this almost constant companionship, or even symbiosis, the oxpecker is called Askari Wa Kifaru; the Swahili translation being 'the rhino's guard'.

As mentioned in the opening tale, rhinoceros create piles of dung which they will investigate thoroughly. They also leave urine trails. Each of these has a unique signature smell. This smell will indicate age, sex, reproductive status and family of the donor. They are also used as boundary markers for the rhino's territory.

But enough of the biology lesson.


What of the rhinoceros family tree? Like most animals that have a long line in history, there are many blind alleys and gaps, as well as red herrings that can mislead. However, in the Eocene period, there is a forerunner, Palaeotherium. This was an early form of tapir, another relative of the rhinoceros and the largest land mammal that ever lived, resembling a huge, muscular giraffe. From here the family splits. One group are the Hyracodontids, being the delicate four-toed Hyrachus, and the three-toed Hyracodon, both of which have the body form of ancient horses, but the skull of a rhinoceros. The other group are the Amnyodonts, more akin to the rhinoceros, but with a bear-like skull.

However, a third appears in the Miocene, the Aceratherium, or hornless animal. This, initially, appears odd as the rhinoceros, obviously, has a horn - but there are many similarities. The skeletal build, skull and jaw layout, including teeth, closely resemble the rhinoceros. Of course, genetic timelines and paleantology can only give results from finds, so there are gaps. Over the following evolutionary period there were many variations and mutations in rhinoceros, with various exotic-style horns. Over time, though, the modern rhinoceros diverged to follow two distinct paths, as detailed below:

Asian Genus

The Asian genus of rhinoceros includes Rhinoceros sivalense and Rhinoceros indicus (or unicornis) on the Indian mainland, Rhinoceros sondaicus in Java and the Dicerorhinos sumatrensis in Sumatra. The latter appears to be directly descended from the early species of Rhinoceros simorrense and Rhinoceros platyrhinus. The Asian form is called Rhinoceros as it only has the one horn.

African Genus

The other genus is the African Rhinoceros or, Diceros, of which there are two main species. The Black rhinoceros, Diceros bicornis and the White (or wide-lipped) rhinoceros, Ceratotherium simum. However, there were a large number of other species in Europe and Africa.

In Europe, there was Rhinoceros schleiermacheri in Germany which itself diverged, one group moving north into Siberia and developing a thick hairy coat, while the other moved into Africa. Rhinoceros etruscus was found in Italy, while the Rhinoceros merckii lived in a milder climate, and was much more delicate. Another was Rhinoceros tichorhinus or antiquus, which had a sharply curved horn. As mentioned earlier, there were many other species of rhinoceros, but it is too complicated to go into detail here.

The Five Species of Modern Rhinoceros

White Rhinoceros - Ceratotherium simum

This isn’t, as many believe, named after its skin colour, which is actually a mid-grey, but from a mistranslation of the Afrikaans'3 word weit meaning 'wide' and referring to the animal's square-lipped or wide-lipped mouth.

They measure between 150 and 185cm in height, with females weighing 1,400-1,700 kg, while males weigh 2,000-3,600 kg when fully-grown. The front horn averages 60cm, but can reach lengths of 150cm, but rarely these days. The White Rhinoceros exists as two sub-species, although there is some debate over the real distinction between the two. Some believe the differentiation may be more behavioural than genetic.

  • The Southern White Rhinoceros has experienced a recent up-turn in fortunes in its native South Africa following successful conservation and breeding programmes, and numbers measured around 20,140 in 2012, and it is currently the only non-endangered rhinoceros species. The White Rhinoceros you see in zoos are mostly Southern White Rhinos.

  • The Northern White Rhinoceros is confined to the Democratic Republic of Congo's Garamba National Park. This area is a hot-bed of conflict and very difficult to monitor. The population was estimated to number maybe a couple of dozen before civil war broke out. This meagre population would most likely have been lost to poachers long ago if it wasn't for the efforts of Kes and Fraser Hillman-Smith, heroes of 'Last Chance to See' and ably supported by the World Wildlife Fund and the International Rhino Foundation among others. However, as of 2012, it is believed the population is down to just four. To all intents and purposes, extinct!

The White Rhinoceros is the only grazing rhinoceros, favouring thick scrub and flat grassy terrain with a reasonable supply of water. They live in groups of up to 14, mainly formed of females and calves covering a territory of up to 20 sq km. The males tend to be solitary, with a territory of around 6 square km. Females are sexually mature at around 5 years of age but rarely reproduce until around 7 years old and have a 450 day gestation period. Males tend to be active at 10-12 years, living in the wild, to 40 years.

They primarily live at the grassland-forest interface, although can range from the deserts in SW Africa to the forests of Kenya. Unlike their cousins, they are largely solitary, but may form groups of 10 or so individuals. Intrusive outsiders may cause conflict that can result in death.

Black Rhinoceros - Diceros bicornis

The Black, or Hook-lipped, Rhinoceros is the rhinoceros you are most likely to see in wildlife documentaries or appeals for funds. The species are so named not for the colour of their skin, but for the simple fact that they are not white. Where white rhinoceros have wide lips, ideally suited for grazing, black rhinoceros have a prehensile upper lip which helps them to browse woody plants and shrubs. They also have two horns although, occasionally, a third small posterior horn may be found. The front horn is the longer at 50cm.

They weigh 800-1400kg and range from a dark brown to dark grey. Sexual maturity and gestation period is the same as their cousins detailed above. The prehensile upper-lip enables them to reach and eat woody twigs, especially their favoured acacia, which is a very spiky plant that most creatures avoid. The black rhinoceros is listed, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), as critically endangered. There are four sub-species:

  • South-Central Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis minor), critically endangered.
  • South-Western Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis bicornis), critically endangered.
  • East African Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis michaeli), critically endangered.
  • West African Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis longipes), probably extinct.

Greater One-Horned Asiatic Rhinoceros - Rhinoceros indicus (or unicornis)

This is also known as the Indian Rhinoceros, and is the largest of the species of rhinoceros alive today. As the name suggests, the Indian has just the one horn, as do its other two living relatives. The male Indian rhinoceros is startlingly well-endowed, has deadly aim in the urinating backwards stakes, and is an accomplished abstract artist. Foremost among the species maestros is the now legendary Kumar of Whipsnade Wild Animal Park, Bedfordshire, England, whose original masterpieces may be purchased from the Park for a very reasonable sum.

Its horn measures up to 60cm. The Asiatic rhinoceros has a semi-prehensile upper lip enabling it to tear out clumps of grass and strip delicate leaves from bushes that would otherwise be difficult to reach. Weighing 1,800-2,700kg, it is the second largest of the rhinoceros family. Another solitary rhinoceros, becoming sexually active at the same ages as its African cousins, with a similar gestation period.

Its diet is varied although primarily a grass grazer. It had a huge range from Northern Pakistan across the Northern Indian continent to North Bangladesh and Myanmar. However, it was driven close to extinction, reaching 600 wild individuals in 1975. By 2011 it numbered almost 3,000 and is recognised as a conservation success story.

Sumatran Rhinoceros - Dicerorhinus sumatrensis

The Sumatran rhinoceros is unusual in both being hairy and also appearing red in colour, hence it is also known as the Hairy rhinoceros. It is also unusual being the only Two-Horned rhinoceros in Asia. Its population has decreased by 50% in 20 years with less than 200 individuals remaining in the wild, but the populations are very small and fragmented, with the two sub-species listed below.

This rhinoceros reaches a height of 1.5m, weighing from 600-950kg.The front horn can reach lengths up to 80cm. They primarily live in forests with thick vegetation, but range from swamps to hilly forests. They are predominantly solitary and territorial, becoming sexually mature as its relatives detailed above, living around 40 years. The Sumatran rhinoceros is listed, by IUCN, as critically endangered with two sub-species:

  • Western Sumatran Rhinoceros - Dicerorhinus sumatrensis sumatrensis.
  • Borneo (or Eastern) Sumatran Rhinoceros - Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harissoni.

Javan Rhinoceros - Rhinoceros Sondaicus

The Javan, or lesser One-Horned Asiatic Rhinoceros, lives not surprisingly on Java, and may be the rarest of the large land mammals on Earth, probably numbering no more than 50 in the wild but, more worryingly, none in captivity. It had also been found in Vietnam but, on October 25, 2011, it was declared extinct in that particular habitat.

Its hide resembles true armour-cladding, and may be a relic of the prehistoric rhinoceros. Because of their rarity and their habitat, very little is known about them, often only being seen by camera-traps. The Javan Rhinoceros is listed, by IUCN, as critically endangered, and is the rarest land mammal on earth (as of 2012).

Other Rhinoceroses

A group of rhinoceroses is referred to, quite dramatically, as a 'crash'. While this may be true, the following types don't really qualify as 'true' rhinoceroses, but still deserve a mention in an Entry about the animal.

The Rhinoceros Beetle

No, not an unknown member of a 60s band, but a member of the Scarab, or dung, beetle family, the males of which sport a distinctive horn. The Dynastinae, as they are scientifically classified, are amongst the largest beetles on the planet, with males using their large horns in a similar way to their mammalian counterparts, fighting off other males during mating. There are eight species, containing some very exotically named, and very large beetles such as Hercules, Atlas, Unicorn, Elephant and Ox, to name but a few.

The species found in the UK is Sinodenron cylindricum. This is a black, stocky, squat, heavy-set beetle, with a large horn set in a rather flat 'face' and pock-marked wing-cases. The larvae feed on rotting wood while the adults feed on tree sap. They measure up to 20mm.

Rhinoceros Hornbill - Buceros rhinoceros

The Rhinoceros Hornbill is a large bird found in Indonesia. It is the second largest of the hornbill family, measuring 122cm in length. Typically of hornbills, they have a large bony casque on top of a lightweight but heavy-set bill, which is upturned and babana-shaped. The casque, not the bill. This starts life white, but due to preening on an oily gland beneath its tail it discolours to a red through orange to yellow colouration or outgrowth on the top mandible whose bill follows a similar colouration, except the tip of the bill is white. The exact use of the casque is unknown, but is believed to be either for mating purposes or to amplify sound. It takes around 6 years to fully grow.

The plumage is black with a white tail, having a single black bar across the middle. The sexes can be differentiated by their eyes, the male having red eyes and the female white with bright yellow surrounds. Unusually their eyes have eyelashes, or feather bristles to protect them. It is found in Indonesia, around the Malay peninsula, Borneo, Java, Singapore and Sumatra and is the State bird of Sarawak.

The male hornbill will find a suitable nesthole and, once accepted by the female, the couple will mate and the female will enter the nest hole. Here she will lay three white eggs, and take up residence, while the male will seal up the entrance, except for a small slit, with mud and faeces. The female will now be totally reliant on the male for food, and also to remove faecal waste from the nest for up to three months. The imprisonment protects the female and young from predators but this can be dangerous if the male is himself predated, possibly causing the female to die due to starvation or not having the energy to break free from her prison. Once the young have fledged, both male and female will break down the mud walls to release all enclosed. Usually, by this time the female's plumage is in a very sorry state, being tatty and soiled.

Rhinoceros Iguana - Cyclura cornuta cornuta

This is a large iguana also known as the Horned Ground Iguana, named after the two scaly protruberances found on its snout. Grey-green in colour, these iguana measure around a metre in length, half of which is the tail, and weighs up to 10kg. They live for around 25 years, but are only found in one area, the island of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Unfortunately, due to human deforestation, the wild population is in decline and it is categorized vulnerable on the IUCN listing. However, it breeds well in captivity, and is considered a good pet. It is herbivorous, eating leaves, shoots, flowers, fruits and seeds, but will eat land crabs, insects and carrion.

It breeds during the rainy season, being between April and May, producing a clutch of around 30 eggs 40 days later. These then hatch into active young. The males can be identified by their size, larger horns, jowls and fat pads (parietal lobes) on the top of the head. They are classed as 'True Iguanas' having pleurodont dentition (teeth on the inside of the jaw bone) and inhabiting tropical regions. They favour dry tropical forest areas, but are the most adaptable of the Cyclura genus.

Marco Polo and his 'Unicorns'

The Unicorn, from the Latin unus (one) and cornu (horn), is a beast of myth; strong, wild, fierce and impossible to be tamed. Pliny the Elder claimed it:

a very ferocious beast, similar in the rest of its body to a horse, with the head of a deer, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, a deep, bellowing voice, and a single black horn, two cubits in length, standing out in the middle of its forehead.
So how does this relate to the rhinoceros?

A certain 13th Century Italian trader, Marco Polo, travelled to China and South-East Asia, and documented his travels. During these he reported seeing a one-horned animal the size of an elephant. His accounts suggest he'd seen a rhinoceros, only that word was not then in existence. He was also unable to say what the animal was, so using what knowledge he had, he perceived it to be the fabled Unicorn. It was said that ground Unicorn horn could heal many ailments, as did drinking from a cup made of the unicorn's horn. This draws parallels with the horn of the rhinoceros, which is given similar attributes in the Far East, leading to its imminent persecution.

Albrecht Dürer's Rhinoceros

Albrecht Dürer was an accomplished artist, being a painter, printmaker, engraver, theorist and mathematician from Nuremburg. He was born on the May 21, 1471 and died on the April 6, 1528. He was prodigious in his production of religious prints and woodcuts. However, his artwork is well known, notably his 'The Hands of the Apostle', more often known as 'The Praying Hands' (1508) and the watercolour of the young hare (1502). However, this Entry is more interested in another of his famous works, the woodcut 'The Rhinoceros', also known as 'The Pope's Rhinoceros' for reasons soon to become clear.

Albrecht Dürer would not have seen a rhinoceros and appears to have based his drawing on a letter and a few hasty sketches. So where did the inspiration come from, and which rhinoceros? It appears that the Sultan of Gujarat, Sultan Muzafar II had gifted one to the Governor of Portuguese India, Alfonso Dom Manuel. He duly gifted it to the King of Portugal, Dom Manuel I, shipping it on a ship laden with spices. On its arrival in Lisbon, it was greeted with much admiration. So taken was Dom Manuel, he arranged for a fight between the rhinoceros and an elephant. Records indicate that the elephant fled!

A description of the rhinoceros soon spread, and appeared to have reached Albrecht Dürer from which he based his drawing and woodcut. However, not being able to draw from life, he interpreted the notes appended to the sketches stating: has the colour of a speckled tortoise and it is covered in thick scales...
Hence the heavy scaling and warty appearance in the drawing. It also has a 'unicorn' type horn projecting from the shoulder-blades. It can be perceived to be the Greater One-Horned Rhinoceros of Asia, by its prehensile upper lip but the body armour more closely resembles the Javan, so that is also possible.

So why was the drawing entitled 'the Pope's Rhinoceros'? Dom Manuel decided to send it to Pope Leo X in Rome, who may have been an animal lover, having allegedly admired the elephant 'Hanno' the King had sent him, only the year previously. Unfortunately, the Pope never received his gift, the ship foundering in a storm and the rhinoceros drowning. Despite this, it was recovered and the animal is preserved at the British Museum as one of the 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'.

The Rhinoceros Party

Not a 'crash' of rhinos having a few drinks and dancing to popular music, this was in fact a Canadian Political Party. More can be found out about them in the h2g2 Entry: The Rhinoceros Party.

The Leeds Rhinos

Alright, not actual rhinoceroses, and definitely not categorised as vulnerable or dangerous, however the Leeds Rhinos, and the example below, show how the rhinoceros is used in modern day advertising and marketing, either through its perceived aggression or sexual connotations.

The Leeds Rhinos are a northern English Rugby League team situated in Leeds, that date back to 1864 as Leeds St. Johns. They moved to new grounds at what was Lot 17A Cardigan Estates, which went on to be the world famous Headingley. Much occurred throughout their history, but the moment this Entry is concerned about is when they became known as Leeds Rhinos.

This occurred when the Premier, or top flight, League was renamed Super League II. This occurred in 1997, and at that time Leeds renamed themselves as Leeds Rhinos. Other teams followed their example, with Bradford becoming Bradford Bulls, Wigan becoming Wigan Warriors, etc. Rugby Union is following a similar path, much like many other sporting teams the world over.

Spearmint Rhino

The last of the rhino listings is somewhat controversial. Spearmint Rhino4 is an adult entertainment company that specialises in adult venues, primarily strip clubs, that began in Upland, California in 1989. The first was as an extension to the Peppermint Elephant Restaurant. The company claims there was no particular reason for the name, except they wanted something that was 'a noticeable, memorable and catchy name'. The innuendo surrounding a rhino horn and the erect human male reproductive organ was, from all accounts, not a factor.

Persecution and Slaughter

A major cause for the rhinoceros' population decline is because of its erroneously-named 'horn'. This is not a horn at all, but is an outgrowth of compacted hair and is what the animal derives its name from. Translated literally it means ‘nose horn’, from the Greek rhis, meaning ‘nose’ and keros, meaning horn. Keratin, of which human nails are composed, has the same derivation. The horn continues to grow throughout its life. Stigma attached to horn may result from those tales of unicorns, and strong beliefs that a rhino horn has curative powers, can be used as an aphrodisiac, or apparently increases sexual potency and prowess in human men.

For that reason rhinos have oft been hunted and killed by poachers, simply for their horns and the money it can bring. For those who feel the need to ingest it on the dubious grounds that it increases sexual prowess, probably due to the perceived symbolism of the horn as mentioned, or who wish to own a small bejewelled dagger whose handle is made of the stuff, might just as well use something extracted from their own toenail-clippings.


There are many organisations campaigning to help save the last straggling remnants of the rhino population. Of these, one deserves a very special mention here:

Save the Rhino

A little background is needed, and this is what 'Save the Rhino' say on their tribute to Douglas Adams, the founder of h2g2:

Douglas became interested in conservation in 1985 after the Observer Colour Magazine sent him to investigate Madagascar's endangered Aye-aye, accompanied by zoologist Mark Carwardine. This resulted in a radio series for the BBC and then a book, both entitled 'Last Chance to See...'

Save the Rhino International (SRI) was formed in 1994 and Douglas continued to be a dedicated spokesman for the cause until his untimely death, aged 49, in 2001. At his virtual 60th Birthday Party at the Hammersmith Apollo on 11 March, 2012, profits were donated to SRI as a continuation of his legacy, with his family's blessing.

Two other significant organisations, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the International Rhino Foundation (IRF), run a number of sponsorship and adoption schemes for rhinos. There are also organisations that sponsor captive breeding of rhinos; London Zoo and Whipsnade Zoo in the UK (among others) and the Oregon Zoo in the USA all have such programmes.

1Like Barry Manilow.2A newly discovered vampire?3Afrikaans is one of the official languages of South Africa.4Parental Advisory External Link.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Edited by

h2g2 Editors

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more