Wilbur's Notebook

One of the most endangered animals in the world, fierce in both size and strength, the Rhinoceros is a beautiful part of the African landscape.

There are other creatures, not as large as the elephant, but massive and grey none the less, which at first he took for elephant also, but as they descended towards the low ground he was able to make out the black horns, some as long as a man is tall, that decorated their great grey, creased snouts. He remembered then what Sabah had told him of these savage beasts, one of which had speared and killed Johannes' woman with its deadly horn. These 'rhenosters' seemed solitary in nature for they stood apart from others of the same kind, each in the shade of its own tree.
Birds of Prey

In Birds of Prey Hal Courtney and his companions come across 'rhenosters' for the first time as they descend into the plains of the western cape on their way from Cape Town to Elephant Lagoon (Knysna).

The name rhinoceros comes from the Greek 'pivo', Latin 'rhino', meaning nose, and the Greek 'kepac', Latin 'keras', meaning horn.

The rhino has a keen sense of smell and dominant males will mark their territory by spraying or laying down a boundary with heaps of dung, which has a unique smell that identifies the owner and indicates if it is male or female, young or old. It is by smell that the rhino knows where it is.

While their hearing and sense of smell are keen, rhinos have bad eyesight, meaning that they cannot see you at quite close quarters unless you move. However, if a rhino smells you, or you alert it by making a sound the rhino will often charge first and ask questions later – and while rhinos may look clumsy, they can gallop at up to 30 miles per hour or more, so if being chased by one, it is better to climb a tree than try to outrun it.

There are five species of rhinoceros, three found in Asia (Indian, Sumatran and Javan) and two in Africa (the black rhino and the white rhino). 

White Rhino

There is, in fact, no difference in colour between white and black rhinos. Both are yellowish or brownish grey. The 'white' in white rhino comes from the Afrikaans word 'wyd' meaning 'wide' and refers to the white rhino's wide, square upper lip, suitable for grazing – the white rhino's favourite diet is grass.

The white rhino is the largest of all the rhinos and vies with the hippopotamus as the second largest land mammal in the world after the elephant. The male stands about 6ft tall at the shoulder, grows to about 11 feet in length and can tip the scales at close to 8000 lbs, although an average male weighs about 5000 lbs. There is a distinctive hump at the back of the neck, and this gives the white rhino a very recognisable profile when it lowers its head to eat.

White rhinos live in savannas and grassy plains.   During the heat of the day, they either rest in the shade of a tree or wallow in a water hole, occasionally rolling in the mud to protect themselves from the sun.

They are sociable and gather in large groups of up to a dozen, mostly females and youngsters – the male is more solitary and will part company with the herd once he has performed his mating duties. Females give birth to a single calf every 2 to 5 years and the gestation period is sixteen months, second in length of time only to the elephant. The mother will protect her calf fiercely for the first two or three years of its life, and then chase it off when she is ready to give birth to the next calf.


Black Rhino

'Unlike its cousin the white rhinoceros, who is a grazer on grassland and a lethargic and placid animal, the black rhinoceros is a browser on the lower branches of the thick bush which it frequents. By nature it is a cantankerous, inquisitive, stupid and nervously irritable animal. It will charge anything that annoys it, including men, horses, lorries and even locomotives.'
The Leopard Hunts in Darkness

The black rhino is slightly smaller than the white rhino, with an adult male typically weighing in at about 3000 lbs. All rhinos are herbivores, but while the white rhino likes to eat grass, the black rhino prefers to feed off the leaves, buds and fruits from trees and bushes. For this purpose it has a pointed, 'hooked' upper lip and carries its head high, presenting a different profile to the white rhino who keeps his head lowered. Black rhinos are also more solitary than white rhinos and tend to be found foraging by themselves, like those that Hal and his companions come across in Birds of Prey. Nearly half of all black rhinos live in South Africa, while others can be found in countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Cameroon, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Angola.

The black rhino is more aggressive than the white rhino and has been known to charge at tree trunks or other large objects that loom into its path. They also frequently fight amongst themselves and have the highest death rate from killing each other of any mammal.


South Africa is home to over 70% of all the world's wild rhinos and over 80% of Africa's white and black rhinos.

There are two subspecies of white rhino, the southern white rhino and the northern white rhino.

From being virtually extinct, with an estimated population of just 50 in the wild at the start of the 20th century, the southern white rhino has become the most populous species of rhino, today numbering some 20,000. Over 90% of southern white rhinos are found in South Africa but some have been reintroduced into their former territories of Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland and Mozambique and a small number into new territories in Zambia, Kenya and Uganda.

The northern white rhino, which used to be found in eastern and central sub-Saharan Africa is now, because of poaching, extinct in the wild. There are no definitive figures but it is thought that there are between four and six northern white rhinos still alive in captivity.

The black rhino was once the most abundant species of rhino with huge numbers found in South Africa from the Cape to the Transvaal. Today, there are just over 5000 black rhinos left in the wild, down from a population of 65,000 in the 1970s, although there has been an increase since the 1990s when there were only 2300 left. The overall decrease has been caused not just by poaching but by destruction of habitat and by the black rhino's unfortunate mating cycles, whereby males and females only infrequently seem to be receptive to each other at the same time.