Wildlife Spotlight: The Black Rhinoceros

By Sarah Gold March 31, 2021

Weighing over a ton, with a leathery armoured hide, mountainous shoulders, and horns that can exceed four feet in length, the black rhino makes an indelible impression on anyone who sees it. Despite its intimidating bulk and aggressive reputation, though, the black rhino is actually quite a shy, easily threatened creature—as well as one of the most perilously endangered species you may see on an African safari. Should you be lucky enough to encounter one, here are a few facts that will help you appreciate why these animals are so special.

Prized—and Hunted—for Their Horns

black rhinoceros
Photo: Micato Safari Director Nuru Mbise

Most safari travellers who seek out black rhinos (as well as their larger, more plentiful cousins, white rhinos) are understandably hoping to catch sight of their most distinctive feature: their double horns. These scimitar-shaped protuberances, which male rhinos use to battle one another for territory and mates, and which female rhinos use to protect their calves from attackers, are certainly visually striking. Unfortunately, rhino horns are as prized by poachers as they are by photographers and wildlife enthusiasts. In fact, the illegal trade in rhino horn, which is considered a powerful folk medicine in many Eastern cultures, is responsible for a reported 98 percent reduction in the black rhino population since the mid-20th century. But thanks to the dedicated efforts of conservationists—and the soaring popularity of safari travel—black rhino numbers have begun to climb again. Though they’re still considered critically endangered, there are more than 5,000 in the wild today.

Protective But Peaceable

black rhinoceros face
Photo: Micato Safari Director Henry Kago

Black rhinos—in fact, all rhinos—are notorious for charging when they perceive a potential threat. This has given them a reputation for combativeness, which isn’t quite accurate. Yes, if a rhino’s perceptive nostrils pick up an unfamiliar scent, or its keen ears discern the approach of an unexpected visitor, it’s likely to burst from wherever it’s been resting (usually a clump of trees or shrubs, where it will be sheltering from the hot sun) and rush at the intruder. And yes, such an ambush can be frightening; a black rhino will emit loud snorts and huffs as it charges, and can move surprisingly fast (up to 35 mph). But while a rhino will indeed fight to protect its young or its (literal) stomping grounds, most rhino charges are defensive rather than offensive. In truth, the creatures are easily startled, mostly solitary, and happiest when placidly munching on leafy shrubs or wallowing in the mud to stay cool. Their poor eyesight also means they end up “attacking” rocks and bushes far more often than they do actual adversaries.

Selectively Social

2 black rhinoceros with lions and a safari vehicle
Photo: Micato Safari Director Peter Githaka

You’ll almost never see a gathering of black rhinos. With the exception of mothers and calves, who stay together until the calves are about three years old, the beasts are consummate loners. That isn’t to say, though, that they don’t socialize; they just do so in ways that aren’t always apparent. Rhinos actually leave copious messages for one another in the same way many other mammals do: with scent-marking. By urinating, defecating, or rubbing their heads in specific places, they can communicate important information to one another like territorial boundaries, and when females are in estrus and looking for mates. Black rhinos also maintain “friendships” with a specific bird species, the red-billed oxpecker. It’s long been known that these birds have a mutualistic relationship with the rhinos— they eat insects on the rhinos’ skin, thus benefitting both themselves and their giant companions. But recently, wildlife researchers have posited that the oxpeckers, as well as ridding the rhinos of pests, also help alert them to danger. The birds have been observed shrieking in alarm when they see nearby humans (which they can presumably distinguish from rocks and bushes). This arrangement is hinted at by the local name for the oxpeckers: Askari wa kifaru, which in Swahili means “rhino’s guard.”

Where and When to Spot Black Rhinos

Black rhino live in game reserves throughout southern and eastern Africa, and you’ll have the chance to encounter them at most classic safari destinations. You’ll optimize those chances, though, by seeking them out where their numbers are most concentrated—like Kruger National Park, in South Africa; the Laikipia Plateau, in Kenya; the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, in Tanzania; and Etosha National Park, in Namibia. While the rhinos reside year-round in their home territories (which can be as small as a few square miles, or as large as 40), they can be hard to see during the hottest hours of the day, when they take cover in shaded thickets. You’re more likely to spy them during the crepuscular (twilight) periods around dusk and dawn—or on a night game drive.

To learn more about Africa’s black rhinos, or plan a trip that lets you encounter them in the wild, contact one of Micato’s safari experts today.

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