Colours of Wildlife: White Rhinoceros

1 Conversation

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours ... but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

White Rhinoceros

This is a watercolour painting of a White Rhino, Ceratotherium simum. I did this from a photo taken by a friend.

These are rhinos I know well. In our local Municipal Nature Reserve there are a few of them. Unfortunately a while a go, a couple were shot by poachers.

White rhinos, like all, rhinos, are very rare today. Yet, they are not primitive or obsolete. Before humans arrived on the scene, rhinos were abundant and very successful over almost the entire world. There were rhinos all over Africa and Asia, and there were forest rhinos in Europe, and a long-haired species, the woolly rhino, that ranged into the cold tundra regions of Europe and Asia. The fact that rhinos are rare today can almost totally be attributed to humans. Rhinos have evolved to the point where, as a result of their size and formidable nasal horns, they are almost immune to even the largest of predators. But they can be killed by humans. Their size makes them easy to spot, and even in prehistoric times they had to contend with bands of humans armed with throwing spears. Today they have to contend with high–powered rifles with telescopes, and hunters using helicopters.

The evolutionary history of rhinos goes back very far. They are perissodactyls, the group that today also includes horses and tapirs. About fifty million years ago the forebears of rhinos were small, lightly–built runners, like Hyrachyus. They rapidly diversified, and by about 35 million years ago there were huge, semi–aquatic forms like Metamynodon. These formed a side branch of the rhino family tree. Another side branch were the Hyracodontids. Hyracodon itself was also a small and slender running form, but others had grown to an almost absurd size. Indricotherium (which is known by a confusing number of other names such as Baluchitherium and Paraceratherium) was the largest known land mammal of all time, reaching 5 m at the shoulder and weighing perhaps as much as 20 tons. This was also a hornless rhino, with comparatively long legs and neck. It had long, tusk-like teeth in its upper jaw.

Almost the opposite in build was the north-American Teleoceras, which has also been called the dachshund–rhino. It had a long, barrel–like body borne on very short, stumpy legs. It had, at most, a single small nose horn, and might have been semi–aquatic like a hippopotamus. Other American rhinos included medium–sized hornless forms like Subhyracodon and species like Menoceras and Diceratherium that had two side–by–side horns on the nose.

In Europe and Asia, extinct rhinos included Chilotherium that, instead of horns, had huge tusks in its lower jaw. The genus Stephanorhinus included medium–sized to large species that lived in forests and maybe plains also. Elasmotherium was perhaps the largest of the true rhinos and lived on cold Asian steppes. It was relatively long–legged, and had a bump right in the middle of its short, deep skull that might have been the base for a huge horn growing from its forehead like that of a unicorn. There are even claims that it might survive in Asia, or at least had survived until historic times, laying the foundation for myths of huge, unicorn–like creatures.

The best known prehistoric rhino is the Woolly Rhino, Coelodonta antiquitatis. These lived alongside the Woolly Mammoths, and like those, there are some frozen bits and pieces preserved of them, as well as cave paintings by old–time humans. So we know that they were covered in long reddish–brown fur. Their horns are also often well preserved. They had two, in line on the skull, the front one becoming quite long and curved with a thinnish, sharp tip. This rhino might have been most closely related to the (barely) surviving Sumatran Rhinoceros, Dicerorhinus sumatranus.

To summarise: far from being obsolete, primitive or poorly adapted, rhinoceroses have until quite recently been diverse and abundant on the continents of Africa, Europe, Asia and North America. They've lived in rainforests, in savannahs, in woodlands and forests, on cold grassy plains, and even on the bitterly cold tundra. The sorry situation they are in today can wholly be attributed to one species – us. There is simply nothing on this planet that can stand up to the sheer destructive power of Homo sapiens, so called 'wise man'.

So: today, five species of rhinoceros survive, but have all been much reduced in number as well as distribution. The rarest is the Javan Rhino, Rhinoceros sondaicus about which I've written here. But the Sumatran species is also extremely endangered. On Africa, two species survive, the White and the Black, Diceros bicornis. They are actually both grey; the White Rhino apparently is misnamed because of the sound of the Afrikaans word 'wyd' (wide) which refers to the wide mouth of this species compared to the narrow mouth of the Black. But being Afrikaans I am not sure, since I've never heard them called anything but 'witrenosters' (white, as in the colour white, rhinos) in Afrikaans, and have also so far been unable to find any historic references of them being called wide, wide–mouthed or wide–lipped in Afrikaans or Dutch. And most of the time it does seem as if 'white' rhinos are somewhat paler grey than 'black' ones. Both of them wallow in mud, but the white rhino spends more time out in the sun and so may usually have more of a whitish, powdery layer of dried mud on it that would lighten its colour.

But the wide mouth is a distinction also. White rhinos are adapted to graze on short grass, and have lawnmower–like mouths to help them quickly gorge themselves on the green stuff. Where many exist in the same environment, they maintain areas of short grass by their own grazing activities. They can eat long grass also, but it's awkward since they then have to lift their long, heavy heads high. About this there is a myth going round that the white rhino is the only species of large mammal that can't swim, since supposedly it cannot lift its head high enough to keep its nostrils above the waterline. I don't think this is true, but the issue has as far as I know not been intensively investigated.

Another contentious issue is just how big white rhinos can get. In dimensions they can exceed 2m/6 ft 6" at the shoulder and 4 m/13 ft in length. In bodyweight I've seen them claimed to reach 5 000 kg/11 000 lbs but this to me seems preposterous as an elephant bull of 6 tons is considered very big. I would say they can reach 2 000 kg/4 400 lbs probably. The front horn can exceed a metre/yard in length, but one doesn't see very long–horned rhinos any more.

White rhinos, in the past, ranged all over the plains of Africa, including North Africa. Even in the middle of what is the Sahara Desert today, rock paintings have been found depicting them, so they did occur there at some time. Note that this desert is only a few thousand years old; previously the region had a much moister climate and abundant vegetation and surface water, which rhinos need. Subfossil white rhino bones have also been found up to the southern shores of the Mediterranean in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. These are all of the northern form of the White Rhino, which today is restricted to the region near the borders of Sudan, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That is to say if it still exists. It might already be extinct; last I've heard it was reduced to less than a dozen animals.

The southern form is found here in South Africa and a few of our border countries. I don't even want to say more; any map showing where they are found is sure to draw the attention of poachers. But we have had some success with conserving and breeding them. But still we have a HUGE problem with poaching. As I said at the start, at present the poachers are using helicopters and rifles with telescopes, as well as GPS devices, and sometimes chain saws to remove the horns with. People who visit large reserves like the Kruger National Park are advised to stay silent about where they've spotted rhinos. I've said so elsewhere but again I want to make something clear about this poaching: today the people behind it are rich people wanting to get even richer. They're not poor people struggling to subsist. They are paying people to find the rhinos and to do their hunting for them. These, as is suggested by investigations us South Africans have been conducting, include professional hunting guides, and veterinarians. And consider this: every rhino is, as the law currently stands, somebody's property, and very valuable property at that. A few rhinos on somebody's farm … the owner of that farm has paid a huge amount of money for them, they represent a huge investment, and every calf born is a huge return on that investment. A small nature reserve might have a few rhinos in it … they might represent the majority of the value of that nature reserve, in very real terms. The poachers are thus not only killing animals, they are robbing people. Beyond the money value of the rhinos there is the sentimental value of them to the farmers or the people who own the nature reserves, not to mention the people who would go there to see them. Imagine what category of a**hole it must be, who would decide to go and shoot dead a couple of somebody else's rhinos (including mothers who still have young calves), cut their horns off and sell them for an obscene amount of money. Make no mistake, the money involved is obscene, which is why this happens.

There's been a huge debate about what to do to conserve the remaining rhinos. One suggested remedy has been to de-horn the rhinos; another has been to inject poison into the horns (making them useless for medicinal purposes). Both are not good for the animals. Just catching them and keeping them sedated is stressful to them. Removing the horns as well as poisoning them is traumatic and potentially dangerous. Rhinos have died while these procedures were attempted.

Another suggestion is that the trade in horns be legalized and rhinos effectively 'farmed' for their horns. This is said to guarantee the survival of the species. But it would then cease to be a WILD species. The bottom line to me as an environmental idealist is that the best situation for a species is to be able to live in the wild, free and under natural ecological conditions. A rhino in the wild has to contend with natural predators and as such needs its horns. It also uses its horns for other purposes, including competition for mates, and for obtaining food. A de–horned rhino is no longer ecologically the same thing as a rhino with its horn intact. Small populations of rhinos kept on small, heavily guarded and managed patches of land are also not ecologically-speaking the same thing as rhinos that can roam over the continent and adapt to various ecological conditions and interact with other things like lions, elephants and more. We are so unaware of evolution, but evolution has to be able to go on, and it can't go on unless species are free to face, move into and out of different environments and compete with each other and with other species under a variety of natural pressures.

This to me is the bottom line: we have to start realizing what Nature really is, what the value of biodiversity is, what the value of stable ecologies all over our planet is, and what the value of evolution is. We are not the bosses of the Earth any more than we are the bosses of the Universe. The more we fool ourselves into believing we can overthrow the way of things that has existed for billions of years prior to our arrival – the very way of things that have formed us into what we are – the greater the fools that we shall be the day this planetary system crashes and things become as tough for us as we've been making them for other things that share the planet with us.

I hold on to the belief that humans can learn and stop making the same mistakes over and over again. I believe there CAN be a future for both rhinos and humans – not to mention many other things – on the Earth. Imagine that we actually learn to preserve and promote biodiversity planet–wide, and not for selfish reasons, but for the sake of the benefit of every living thing (including ourselves). Biodiversity is a good not just because it gives us a greater variety of 'natural resources' to exploit. It is a good because it brings greater beauty and interest to the natural world. A world without rhinos, without elephants, without tigers, without pandas, without whales, without anything else you might name, is simply a poorer world to live in. Life is the most wondrous phenomenon we know of in the Universe, and as far as we know, it only occurs here. Maybe it does occur somewhere else; actually I think it very likely does. But stars are so far apart, and planets that can support life so small and rare, when you consider the vastness of the Universe as a whole, that the rarity of life makes it something more than precious – it might very well be called, and considered, holy. And we are part of it, we are just a single expression of the phenomenon called Life. So … why can't we all agree on that and act in accordance with that? Imagine if we did. Not only would non–human species benefit, but WE would benefit, and not only in material terms, we would benefit in our appreciation of ourselves and our world, we would have the potential for happiness and inner peace that we would forever lack so long as we oppose ourselves to the natural world, so long as our model is one of self–enrichment at the cost of everything else. Because we are not just 'us' – we are inextricably linked with everything else. We desperately right now need a broader outlook and a more long–term vision. What better way than starting to think of the preciousness of this little planet of ours hanging in space, of the delicate complexity of its ecology, and of the enriching and beautifying process of evolution that goes on over millions and even billions of years?

Imagine a future with humanity again living in harmony with other living species (and even in harmony with ourselves!), where we preserve and promote them as well as we can, where we set aside areas where nature can go its own way without being messed up by us – where the processes of ecology and evolution can continue without interruption as they have for so many millions of years. Imagine rhinos no longer being hunted, again roaming all over Africa, where every country prides itself on having large and healthy, WILD populations of rhinos. Where again there are super–long–horned rhinos to be seen, where rhinos can start evolving again, where millions of years into the future, they could again achieve a high diversity, with new species again inhabiting Europe, Asia, and even North America. That would be a nice future, wouldn't it? Why not think of and work towards that?

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