Black Rhinos – critically endangered

I have not previously done a post on rhino, but have been privileged to have a number of sightings.  My most intimate sighting and interaction with a black Rhino was in 1962. It was over a few months in a suburb of  the then Salisbury, Rhodesia, now Harare, Zimbabwe. The black rhino was a young calf called Rupert, named after Rupert Fothergill. Rupert the rhino calf was being looked after by the Condy family.

“Behind us are memories, beside us are friends, before us are dreams.”


Rupert Fothergill led Operation Noah, which was a wildlife rescue operation on the Zambezi river. John Condy was a wildlife vet and part of a team involved in the extraordinary translocation project to save wildlife from the rising waters of the newly formed Kariba dam. This rescue operation lasted from 1958 to 1964. Black Rhino were among the vast array of wildlife saved. On one particular occasion, a female Black Rhino was darted with a tranquilizer. In those days the doses were experimental and very much an estimation.  After being darted, the female dashed for the water and collapsed in the shallows. The rescuers could not raise her out of the water and she drowned. Only afterwards did the rescuers realise that she had a newborn calf. Needless to say John Condy took the rhino calf back to Salisbury to look after it. In the six months or so that Rupert lived in the Condy home he became part of the family.

“Memories of childhood were the dreams that stayed with you after you woke.”
~ Julian Barnes

Rupert arrived in the Condy household as a very young 150lb calf and was relocated to Matopos Nature Reserve about six months later weighing around 500lbs. The idea was never to keep Rupert but rather to nuture him  until he was big enough to be reintroduced into the wild  and habituate him with another black rhino called Sal.

“I can still feel the tingle of excitement knowing Rupert was racing this way from the other side of the house. A game of chicken with that almost breathless excitement waiting to catch the first glimpse of him and jump into a bush or race up a tree to get out of his reach. What ever the cost you did not want him to give you a ‘lamey’ with that little horn.”

~Mike Haworth

As a result, my interest in black Rhino started when I was very young. It is remarkable to think that these mammals have survived for 50 million years and gangs of human beings have been making a concerted effort to eliminate them within the last 40 years. According to Rhino Org, at the turn of the 20th century there were an estimated 500,000 rhino on earth, and by 1970 the worldwide population had fallen to 70,000. Save The Rhino published a graphic which shows the current estimated population of the five remaining species of rhino.

Rhino Population Map 2016

Source: Save The Rhino

What is even more astounding is that the rhino population has been decimated not for for its food value, but for its horn. The rhino is usually shot and the horn hacked off leaving the carcass and in many cases leaving a mortally wounded animal alive.

The name “Rhinoceros” is derived from the Ancient Greek “ῥῑνόκερως”, meaning “horn nose”.

The Black Rhino is physically distinctly different to the White Rhino. It is smaller, weighing between 900kg and 1350kg. It is a browser, using its prehensile upper lip to shred leaves off branches and shrubs. The White Rhino is much larger, has a square lip and is primarily a grazer.

Much of what we believe about rhino eyesight is based on anecdotal reports. The assumption is that black rhinos are nearsighted, making them unable to discern man and a tree even 20 meters away. There doesn’t appear to be any empirical evidence to support this assertion. Rather it is a convenient and plausable explanation for the species’ sometimes aggressive behavior towards humans.  A recent anatomical study of the black rhino’s retina at an Australian university suggests that the human form should be detectable at nearly 200 meters – 10 times the distance assumed. All four Rhino species have eyes that are much smaller than would be predicted based solely upon body size, as reported in a post on 13 October 2013 on The International Rhino Foundation blog, which seems to add to the suggestion around their poor sight. Rhinos are known for their keen sense of smell and hearing.

This particular Black Rhino was drinking at a waterhole and must have heard something behind it and spun around to sense to get a better sense of where and what its was.

That ancient face and the characteristic prehensile top lip are distinctive features of the Black Rhino.

The next image show a mother and calf – which must have been over a year old. Black Rhino are usually solitary but a Black Rhino mother will nurture and protect her calf for between two and four years before pushing it out on its own. Very young calves are often positioned in front of their mother for protection as their most vulnerable part is their backside.

This female Black Rhino approached our vehicle after having sated her thirst at a waterhole. For a few moments, we thought this  female was going to give us a charge but satisfied she knew what we were, she quietly strolled past us without incident.

One particular afternoon, after initially chasing the male away, this female allowed her calf to interact with the male Black Rhino – probably its father. The tenderness was something special, and not expected at all.

The two adults began to rub their horns together after a tentative approach.

The family bond is clear. I never realised that Black Rhino behaved in this way. I knew they gathered at night around waterholes but never like this. The mother of a calf is not likely to mate with a male until her calf has become independent. This sometimes results in aggression on the part of the male, who wants to rid her of her calf so that he can mate with her. Many calves have been killed by aggressive males for this very reason.

Young Black Rhino – hard to believe that someone would want to kill this animal for its horn.

Black rhinos are browsers that get most of their sustenance from eating the leaves of trees and bushes. They use their lips to pluck leaves and fruit from the branches. In the more arid areas, Black Rhino are known to eat Euphorbia, which are poisonous to most other animals.

Both species of Rhino have ears with a relatively wide rotational range to detect the direction of sounds. An excellent sense of smell alerts rhinos to the presence of predators.

“As dreams are the healing songs from the wilderness of our unconscious- so wild animals, wild plants, wild landscapes are the healing dreams from the deep singing wild of the earth.”

~Dale Pendell

This solitary character came down to the waterhole just to drink. We were hoping for a roll in some mud but there was a little too much activity around the waterhole.

As you can see from the water marks on her legs that she walked right into the water. We thought she might lie down in the water to cool down but having had a drink she just wandered off.

As you can see this Black Rhino was not fussed about a lone hyaena behind it. These rhino can spin around remarkably quickly and the hyaena probably knew it.

A male Black Rhino in prime condition.

This male must have been able to see us across the waterhole because the prevailing wind was into our faces. and we were not making a noise.

The game park vets usually notch the ears of rhinos to identify them.

“Cherish sunsets, wild creatures and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth.”

~ Stewart Udall
Late afternoon gathering at the pool!!

The folds in a black rhino’s neck and legs are very evident. According to the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust  website (, most rhinos have lesions behind the shoulders and under the chin and stomach. These obviously itch and irritate, because they are rubbed against rocks and trees until they become open weeping wounds that stubbornly resist healing. The culprit for these lesions is apparently a filarial worm that is specific to rhinos in Africa, but is known amongst horses in the far East.

All rhino species have three toes, and each toe has a large stout toenail, giving it a distinctive footprint. The front feet are bigger than the back feet. Black rhino can move surprisingly fast, up to speeds of around 50km/h- faster than you can run. They can change direction surprisingly quickly, and are known to run right through scrub and bushes. They attack with very swift upward swipes of their horn which can easily penetrate a vehicle door. It also means you need to get high enough up that thorn tree to get out of the way of that horn swipe.

I cannot publish a post on Black Rhino without giving some information about their decimation through poaching. The poaching stats do not separate out the black and white rhino poached. Over the past several years, South Africa’s rhino poaching problem has turned into a full-blown crisis. Save the Rhino organisation reports that South Africa has by far the largest population of rhinos in the world and is a vital country for rhino conservation. However rhino poaching levels have dramatically escalated over recent years as shown in the next graphic.

2015 South African rhino poaching

Source: Save The Rhino website, Department of Environmental Affairs, South African Government

This Black Rhino bull was found wandering Zimbabwe’s Save Valley Conservancy after poachers shot it several times and hacked off both horns. Veterinarians euthanized the animal because its shattered shoulder could no longer support its weight. Photograph by Brent Stirton/National Geographic

According to International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission’s African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG). By the end of 2015, the number of African rhinos killed by poachers had increased for the sixth year in a row with at least 1,338 rhinos killed by poachers across Africa in 2015. In 2015 in South Africa, 1175 rhinos were poached, slightly below the 1,250 illegally killed in 2014. Around 65% of rhino are poached in the Kruger National Park (KNP) and the rest across all of SA’s provinces.

Significant efforts are being made to protect these mammals and the efforts are starting to pay off with 1054 rhino poached in 2016 according to the Department of Environmental Affairs. This represents the second year of declining rhino deaths from poaching. A total of 1 054 rhino were poached in 2016, compared to 1 175 in the same period for 2015, representing a decline of 10.3%. Specifically for the KNP, a total of 662 rhino carcasses were found in 2016 compared to 826 in 2015. This represents a reduction of 19.85% in 2016. This is despite a continued increase in the number of illegal incursions into the Kruger National Park. The Minister said for 2016 there were a staggering 2883 instances of unrelenting poaching-related activities (such as poaching camps, contacts, crossings, sightings, tracks and shots fired) in the Kruger National Park, compared to 2 466 recorded in the same period in 2015, an increase of 16.9%. According to the Minister’s Feb-2017 report,  although there has been a decrease in the number of rhino killed for their horns in the Kruger National Park and Mpumalanga, the number of rhino poached unfortunately increased in some other provinces and Elephant are being increasingly targeted by Poachers.

“The unending slaughter of Africa’s endangered wildlife is amputating a balancing branch of humanity. Unless the world’s political elite establishes universal, thought provoking legislation and enforcement thereof, species on the brink of extinction will be lost for future generations. In particular, China and Africa stand at the cusp of the most historic leadership embarrassment of civilization.”

~ Dex Kotze, Strategist for Global March for Elephants and Rhinos

The Ministry of Environmental Affairs also reported that during September 2016, a rhino survey using the scientifically accepted block count method recorded that a total of 6 649 – 7 830 white rhino lived in KNP. This is lower than the 8 365 – 9 337 that lived in the KNP during 2015. It must be noted that the natural deaths of white rhino increased due to the unprecedented drought conditions. A total of 349 – 465 black rhino lived in KNP in 2016 compared to 313 – 453 in 2015. The drought effect was not as noticeable on the black rhinos.

“I am so impressed by the courage and dedications of the rangers who, every day, risk their lives to protect elephants and rhinos. It is so important that we make the rangers feel that they area valued”.

~ Dr Jane Goodall.

According to the Project Rhino KZN’s website,  KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) rhino poaching losses reach 73 this year (17 more than this time last year) – with provincial parks currently experiencing the heaviest losses – it’s a big boost to know that KZN’s Provincial Government have committed themselves to intensifying the fight against rhino poaching in KwaZulu-Natal.

I salute the tireless efforts of the rangers out in the bush fighting a deadly war against organised heavily armed poaching gangs.

IUCN Red List Assessment Information

Red List Category & Criteria: Critically Endangered A2abcd ver 3.1
Year Published: 2012
Date Assessed: 2011-08-06
Assessor(s): Emslie, R.
Reviewer(s): Knight, M.H. & Adcock , K.
Listed as Critically Endangered as the population of Black Rhino has declined by an estimated 97.6% since 1960 with numbers bottoming out at 2,410 in 1995, mainly as a result of poaching. Since then, numbers have been steadily increasing at a continental level with numbers doubling to 4,880 by the end of 2010. Current numbers are however still 90% lower than three generations ago.
Previously published Red List assessments:
  • 2011 – Critically Endangered (CR)
  • 2008 – Critically Endangered (CR)
  • 2003 – Critically Endangered (CR)
  • 2002 – Critically Endangered (CR)
  • 1996 – Critically Endangered (CR)
  • 1994 – Endangered (E)
  • 1990 – Endangered (E)
  • 1988 – Endangered (E)
  • 1986 – Endangered (E)
  • 1965 –

We need to protect our wildlife so that our children are able to experience the wonders of mother nature’s diversity and inter-connectedness.

“We have to stop the blood flow. We have to be relentless in our pursuit for justice; in our pursuit for humanity. Nature is the mother of us all, and within all of us is the spirit of an eco warrior. The war on poaching is a war on greed, but what stands to be lost is priceless”.

~ Jamie Joseph- Saving the Wild founder

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,


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