Black Rhinoceros

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Black Rhinoceros

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!"

Today's article features the Black Rhinoceros, Diceros bicornis. This is the final one of the extant rhinoceros species to feature in Colours of Wildlife, but I hope to soon return with a few more prehistoric species. This rhino is not really black, although in many cases it can appear darker in colour than the White Rhinoceros which also occurs in Africa. The colour it appears to be is more due to mud and dust than to its actual skin colour (which is medium grey). The Black Rhino prefers dense bush where it browses on trees and shrubs, while you can find the White Rhino grazing out in the open a lot. But one black rhino subspecies is adapted to live in desert and semi-desert regions. Like other rhinos it still likes to have access to water for drinking and mud for wallowing.

Some people find it difficult to distinguish the two African species. Actually they look very different if you know what to look for. The White Rhino is bigger, with a proportionally longer body, and also a longer head. It carries its head low and has a big hump over its shoulders, formed by muscles used to raise and lower the massive head. Also the mouth is broad and flat, the muzzle squared off at the end. The Black Rhino carries its proportionally shorter and smaller head much higher, and does not have a visible hump over its shoulders. It has a pointed muzzle, with a flexible tip to the upper lip which it uses to pluck off leaves and twigs. It often browses on thorny trees and shrubs, its tough lips protecting it. It will crunch up twigs, thorns and all, with its tough cheek teeth. Black rhinos even eat plants that are poisonous, like species of Euphorbia (see today's Phyto-Philes!) without ill effect.

This rhino, like all rhinos today, is seriously endangered. It is apparently not being poached as much as white rhinos are here in South Africa. This may be due to its habitat, the thick scrub and bush it inhabits being better to hide in and more difficult for humans to penetrate. Still, it is quite rare. I have so far only seen it in the wild once, in the Potgietersrus Game Breeding Centre. My cousin Jaco and I encountered one in the game reserve part of the centre; it snorted at us and moved towards us, with a frightening cracking of branches! We were on foot; I got back to the car pretty quick but my cousin wanted to linger and get photos! He didn't … not of that one, but there was also one in a small camp, of which we got photos. The painting you see here is that animal ‘liberated' from the camp, by my putting in a more natural background.

Black rhinos stand up to 180 cm/5'11” at the shoulder, and weigh from 800 to 1400 kg/1800 to 3100 lbs. I take reports of ones weighing over two tonnes with a grain of salt. Almost all surviving black rhinos will have fairly small horns, but in the recent past there were ones with incredibly long front horns, up to 150 cm/5'! The second horn is usually much smaller; there have been cases recorded of black rhinos growing a third horn behind it. Apart from fighting, they use the horns for digging up roots and breaking branches. Black rhinos can gallop with a speed of 55 km/h, 35 mph. If not poached they can live for 35 to 50 years.

This is a noisy species … as I mentioned they snort loudly as part of a warning before or during charging. Fighting rhinos will growl, scream and roar. The cow will utter little moans during copulation, which may last over thirty minutes. The cow and calves call to each other with squeaking, mewing and mooing sounds. The following video features WHITE rhinos, not black, but this gives you some idea of the sounds black rhino mothers and calves make.

This and other rhino and large mammal species have a mutually beneficial relationship with a kind of small bird called an Oxpecker. Related to starlings, they are adapted to eating ticks and fleas off large game; they have sharp claws to cling on and stout bills with which they comb through fur. Unfortunately they sometimes exceed their mandate by eating blood and flesh from wounds that animals may incur! They are still tolerated in spite of this as they can also help animals by giving them warning of predators. Savvy nature guides will listen for the calls of oxpeckers, or glimpses of them flying around, to alert them to the presence of big mammals nearby.

Black rhinos have an, in my opinion, undeserved reputation for ferocity. Everyone here considers the White Rhino to be a gentle giant, and the Black Rhino to be a short-tempered brute. While it is true that black rhinos are more aggressive, and will challenge people when they become aware of them, I have yet to hear of a human actually being killed by one. The snorting and charging is mostly a bluff; if it doesn't work the rhino will likely run away. Most surviving black rhinos are very wary of humans. In truth their aggression is directed more towards each other. Half of all black rhino bulls and a third of all black rhino females are killed by other black rhinos! This is in fact the highest ‘murder' rate recorded for any species of mammal – US included! Very angry black rhinos have been known to take out their rage on inanimate objects like trees or termite hills.

Black rhino cow with calf by Willem

Most of this aggression comes from territoriality. Black rhino bulls set up territories based on the available food and water of the environment. They will challenge any other bulls straying into their territory. When there is not enough living space and territories get squeezed together there is a lot more aggression and mortality. While the bulls are solitary, cows usually stay with their calves, even when these are mature; sometimes a cow will be accompanied by an older as well as a younger calf. Like white rhinos, they deposit their dung on big heaps or latrines to mark their territory. Black rhino dung can be recognized by its orange colour and the snippets of leaves and twigs in it – white rhino dung contains only grass. These rhinos also spray their urine on bushes and can recognize each other's smell.

In the recent past this rhino occurred over most of Sub-Saharan Africa and ranged in open areas as well a dense bush. It was never a true forest rhino, though. Interestingly, there's not a great diversity of fossil rhinos known from Africa. There is an abundance of prehistoric rhino species known from Asia, Europe and even America! Rhinos are perissodactyls, a group that today includes horses and tapirs. It seems black rhinos shared a common ancestor with white rhinos over five million years ago. The differences between the species is due to the black rhino becoming more specialized for browsing over that time period. In historic times this species has suffered a massive decline in range as well as numbers; its continued survival depends on intense and costly conservation efforts. This is a species that needs but also deserves our support!

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