A rhinoceros (//, from Greek rhinokeros, meaning 'nose-horned', from rhinos, meaning 'nose', and keratos, meaning 'horn'), often abbreviated to rhino, is one of any five extant species of odd-toed ungulates in the family Rhinocerotidae, as well as any of the numerous extinct species. Two of the extant species are native to Africa and three to Southern Asia.
Temporal range: Eocene–Present
|A Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) at the Saint Louis Zoo.|
Members of the rhinoceros family are some of the largest remaining megafauna, with all species able to reach or exceed one tonne in weight. They have a herbivorous diet, small brains (400–600 g) for mammals of their size, one or two horns, and a thick (1.5–5 cm) protective skin formed from layers of collagen positioned in a lattice structure. They generally eat leafy material, although their ability to ferment food in their hindgut allows them to subsist on more fibrous plant matter when necessary. Unlike other perissodactyls, the two African species of rhinoceros lack teeth at the front of their mouths, relying instead on their lips to pluck food.
Rhinoceros are killed by humans for their horns, which are bought and sold on the black market, and which are used by some cultures for ornamental or traditional medicinal purposes. East Asia, specifically Vietnam, is the largest market for rhino horns. By weight, rhino horns cost as much as gold on the black market. People grind up the horns and consume them, believing the dust has therapeutic properties. The horns are made of keratin, the same type of protein that makes up hair and fingernails. Both African species and the Sumatran rhinoceros have two horns, while the Indian and Javan rhinoceros have a single horn. The IUCN Red List identifies the Black, Javan, and Sumatran rhinoceros as critically endangered.
Taxonomy and naming
|Cladogram following a phylogenetic study.|
The word rhinoceros is derived through Latin from the Ancient Greek: ῥῑνόκερως, which is composed of ῥῑνο- (rhino-, "nose") and κέρας (keras, "horn"). The plural in English is rhinoceros or rhinoceroses. The collective noun for a group of rhinoceroses is crash or herd. The name has been in use since the 14th century.
The family Rhinocerotidae consists of only four extant genera: Ceratotherium (White rhinoceros), Dicerorhinus (Sumatran rhinoceros), Diceros (Black rhinoceros) and Rhinoceros (Indian and Javan rhinoceros). The living species fall into three categories. The two African species, the white rhinoceros and the black rhinoceros, belong to the tribe Dicerotini, which originated in the middle Miocene, about 14.2 million years ago. The species diverged during the early Pliocene (about 5 million years ago). The main difference between black and white rhinos is the shape of their mouths – white rhinos have broad flat lips for grazing, whereas black rhinos have long pointed lips for eating foliage. There are two living Rhinocerotini species, the Indian rhinoceros and the Javan rhinoceros, which diverged from one another about 10 million years ago. The Sumatran rhinoceros is the only surviving representative of the most primitive group, the Dicerorhinini, which emerged in the Miocene (about 20 million years ago).
A subspecific hybrid white rhino (Ceratotherium s. simum × C. s. cottoni) was bred at the Dvůr Králové Zoo (Zoological Garden Dvur Kralove nad Labem) in the Czech Republic in 1977. Interspecific hybridisation of black and white rhinoceros has also been confirmed.
While the black rhinoceros has 84 chromosomes (diploid number, 2N, per cell), all other rhinoceros species have 82 chromosomes. However, chromosomal polymorphism might lead to varying chromosome counts. For instance, in a study there were three northern white rhinoceroses with 81 chromosomes.
There are two subspecies of white rhinoceros: the southern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum simum) and the northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni). As of 2013, the southern subspecies has a wild population of 20,405 – making them the most abundant rhino subspecies in the world. However, the northern subspecies is critically endangered, with as few as three known individuals left in captivity. There is no conclusive explanation of the name white rhinoceros. A popular idea that "white" is a distortion of either the Afrikaans word wyd or the Dutch word wijd (or its other possible spellings whyde, weit, etc.,) meaning wide and referring to the rhino's square lips is not supported by linguistic studies.
The white rhino has an immense body and large head, a short neck and broad chest. Females weigh 1,600 kg (4,000 lb) and males 2,400 kg (5,000 lb). The head-and-body length is 3.5–4.6 m (11–15 ft) and the shoulder height is 1.8–2 m (5.9–6.6 ft). On its snout it has two horns. The front horn is larger than the other horn and averages 90 cm (35 in) in length and can reach 150 cm (59 in). The white rhinoceros also has a prominent muscular hump that supports its relatively large head. The colour of this animal can range from yellowish brown to slate grey. Most of its body hair is found on the ear fringes and tail bristles, with the rest distributed rather sparsely over the rest of the body. White rhinos have the distinctive flat broad mouth that is used for grazing.
The name "black rhinoceros" (Diceros bicornis) was chosen to distinguish this species from the white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum). This can be confusing, as the two species are not truly distinguishable by color. There are four subspecies of black rhino: South-central (Diceros bicornis minor), the most numerous, which once ranged from central Tanzania south through Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique to northern and eastern South Africa; South-western (Diceros bicornis occidentalis) which are better adapted to the arid and semi-arid savannas of Namibia, southern Angola, western Botswana and western South Africa; East African (Diceros bicornis michaeli), primarily in Tanzania; and West African (Diceros bicornis longipes) which was declared extinct in November 2011. The native Tswanan name keitloa describes a South African variation of the black rhino in which the posterior horn is equal to or longer than the anterior horn.
An adult black rhinoceros stands 1.50–1.75 m (59–69 in) high at the shoulder and is 3.5–3.9 m (11–13 ft) in length. An adult weighs from 850 to 1,600 kg (1,870 to 3,530 lb), exceptionally to 1,800 kg (4,000 lb), with the females being smaller than the males. Two horns on the skull are made of keratin with the larger front horn typically 50 cm long, exceptionally up to 140 cm. Sometimes, a third smaller horn may develop. The black rhino is much smaller than the white rhino, and has a pointed mouth, which it uses to grasp leaves and twigs when feeding.
During the latter half of the 20th century, their numbers were severely reduced from an estimated 70,000 in the late 1960s to a record low of 2,410 in 1995. 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.
The Indian rhinoceros, or greater one-horned rhinoceros, (Rhinoceros unicornis) has a single horn 20 to 60 cm long. It is nearly as large as the African white rhino. Its thick, silver-brown skin forms huge folds all over its body. Its upper legs and shoulders are covered in wart-like bumps, and it has very little body hair. Grown males are larger than females in the wild, weighing from 2,500–3,200 kg (5,500–7,100 lb). Shoulder height is 1.75–2.0 m (5.7–6.6 ft). Females weigh about 1,900 kg (4,200 lb) and are 3–4 m (9.8–13 ft) long. The record-sized specimen was approximately 3,800 kg (8,400 lb).
Indian rhinos once inhabited many areas ranging from Pakistan to Burma and maybe even parts of China. However, because of human influence, they now only exist in several protected areas of India (in Assam, West Bengal, and a few pairs in Uttar Pradesh) and Nepal, plus a few pairs in Lal Suhanra National Park in Pakistan. It is confined to the tall grasslands and forests in the foothills of the Himalayas. Two-thirds of the world's Indian rhinoceroses are now confined to the Kaziranga National Park situated in the Golaghat district of Assam, India.
The Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus) is one of the most endangered large mammals in the world. According to 2015 estimates, only about 60 remain, in Java, Indonesia, all in the wild. It is also the least known rhino species. Like the closely related, and larger, Indian rhinoceros, the Javan rhino has a single horn. Its hairless, hazy gray skin falls into folds into the shoulder, back, and rump, giving it an armored appearance. Its length reaches 3.1–3.2 m (10–10 ft) including the head, and its height 1.5–1.7 m (4 ft 11 in–5 ft 7 in). Adults are variously reported to weigh 900–1,400 kg or 1,360–2,000 kg. Male horns can reach 26 cm in length, while in females they are knobs or altogether absent. These animals prefer dense lowland rain forest, tall grass and reed beds that are plentiful with large floodplains and mud wallows.
Though once widespread throughout Asia, by the 1930s they were nearly hunted to extinction in Nepal, India, Burma, Peninsular Malaysia, and Sumatra for the supposed medical powers of their horns and blood. As of 2015, only 58-61 individuals remain in Ujung Kulon National Park, Java, Indonesia. The last Javan rhino in Vietnam was reportedly killed in 2011 by Vietnamese poachers in order to obtain its horn. Now only Java contains the last Javan rhinos.
The Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is the smallest extant rhinoceros species, as well as the one with the most hair. It can be found at very high altitudes in Borneo and Sumatra. Due to habitat loss and poaching, their numbers have declined and it has become the most threatened rhinoceros. About 275 Sumatran rhinos are believed to remain. There are three subspecies of Sumatran rhinoceros: the Western Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis sumatrensis), Eastern Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni) and the possibly extinct Northern Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis lasiotis).
A mature rhino typically stands about 1.3 m (4 ft 3 in) high at the shoulder, has a length of 2.4–3.2 m (7 ft 10 in–10 ft 6 in) and weighs around 700 kg (1,500 lb), though the largest individuals have been known to weigh as much as 1,000 kilograms. Like the African species, it has two horns; the larger is the front (25–79 cm), with the smaller usually less than 10 cm long. Males have much larger horns than the females. Hair can range from dense (the densest hair in young calves) to sparse. The color of these rhinos is reddish brown. The body is short and has stubby legs. The lip is prehensile.
Sumatran rhinoceros are on the verge of extinction due to loss of habitat and illegal hunting. Once they were spread across South-east Asia, but now they are confined to several parts of Indonesia and Malaysia due to reproductive isolation. There were 320 of D. sumatrensis in 1995, which by 2011 have dwindled to 216. It has been found through DNA comparison that the Sumatran rhinoceros is the most ancient extant rhinoceros, and related to the extinct Woolly Rhinoceros, Coelodonta. In 1994 Alan Rabinowitz publicly denounced that governments, NGOs and other institutions were lacking in attempts to conserve the Sumatran rhinoceros. In order to conserve it, they would have to be relocated from small forests to breeding programs where their breeding success could be monitored. In order to boost reproduction, the Malaysian and Indonesian governments could also agree on exchanging the gametes of the Sumatran and (smaller) Bornean subspecies. There has also been a proposal by the Indonesian and Malaysian governments for a single management unit for these two ancient subspecies.
Plantations for palm oil have taken out the living areas and led to the eradication of the rhino in Sumatra.
Rhinocerotoids diverged from other perissodactyls by the early Eocene. Fossils of Hyrachyus eximus found in North America date to this period. This small hornless ancestor resembled a tapir or small horse more than a rhino. Three families, sometimes grouped together as the superfamily Rhinocerotoidea, evolved in the late Eocene, namely the Hyracodontidae, Amynodontidae and Rhinocerotidae.
Hyracodontidae, also known as 'running rhinos', showed adaptations for speed, and would have looked more like horses than modern rhinos. The smallest hyracodontids were dog-sized; the largest was Indricotherium, believed to be one of the largest land mammals that ever existed. The hornless Indricotherium was almost seven metres high, ten metres long, and weighed as much as 15 tons. Like a giraffe, it ate leaves from trees. The hyracodontids spread across Eurasia from the mid-Eocene to early Miocene.
The Amynodontidae, also known as "aquatic rhinos", dispersed across North America and Eurasia, from the late Eocene to early Oligocene. The amynodontids were hippopotamus-like in their ecology and appearance, inhabiting rivers and lakes, and sharing many of the same adaptations to aquatic life as hippos.
The family of all modern rhinoceros, the Rhinocerotidae, first appeared in the Late Eocene in Eurasia. The earliest members of Rhinocerotidae were small and numerous; at least 26 genera lived in Eurasia and North America until a wave of extinctions in the middle Oligocene wiped out most of the smaller species. However, several independent lineages survived. Menoceras, a pig-sized rhinoceros, had two horns side-by-side. The North American Teleoceras had short legs, a barrel chest and lived until about 5 million years ago. The last rhinos in the Americas became extinct during the Pliocene.
Modern rhinos are thought to have begun dispersal from Asia during the Miocene. Two species survived the most recent period of glaciation and inhabited Europe as recently as 10,000 years ago: the woolly rhinoceros and Elasmotherium. The woolly rhinoceros appeared in China around 1 million years ago and first arrived in Europe around 600,000 years ago. It reappeared 200,000 years ago, alongside the woolly mammoth, and became numerous. Elasmotherium was two meters tall, five meters long and weighed around five tons, with a single enormous horn, hypsodont teeth and long legs for running. Both the Coelodonta and Elasmotherium survived through the late Pleistocene when climate fluctuations, increased predation by newer predators such as Hyenas and human hunting lead to their extinction. There may have been a remnant population of Elasmotherium, however, in the south of Western Siberia (the area that is today Kazakhstan) as recently as 29,000 years ago.
Of the extant rhinoceros species, the Sumatran rhino is the most archaic, first emerging more than 15 million years ago. The Sumatran rhino was closely related to the woolly rhinoceros, but not to the other modern species. The Indian rhino and Javan rhino are closely related and form a more recent lineage of Asian rhino. The ancestors of early Indian and Javan rhino diverged 2–4 million years ago.
The origin of the two living African rhinos can be traced to the late Miocene ( ) species Ceratotherium neumayri. The lineages containing the living species diverged by the early Pliocene ( ), when Diceros praecox, the likely ancestor of the black rhinoceros, appears in the fossil record. The black and white rhinoceros remain so closely related that they can still mate and successfully produce offspring.
- Family Rhinocerotidae
- Subfamily Rhinocerotinae
- Tribe Aceratheriini
- †Aceratherium lived from 33.9—3.4 Ma
- †Acerorhinus 13.6—7.0 Ma
- †Alicornops 13.7—5.33 Ma
- †Aphelops 20.430—5.330 Ma
- †Chilotheridium 23.03—11.610 Ma
- †Chilotherium 13.7—3.4 Ma
- †Dromoceratherium 15.97—7.25 Ma
- †Floridaceras 20.43—16.3 Ma
- †Hoploaceratherium 16.9—16.0 Ma
- †Peraceras 20.6—10.3 Ma
- †Plesiaceratherium 20.0—11.6 Ma
- †Proaceratherium 16.9—16.0 Ma
- Tribe Teleoceratini
- Tribe Rhinocerotini 40.4—11.1 Ma—Present
- Tribe Dicerorhinini
- Tribe Dicerotini 23.03—Present
- Tribe Aceratheriini
- Subfamily Elasmotheriinae
- †Gulfoceras 23.030—20.430 Ma
- Tribe Diceratheriini
- Tribe Elasmotheriini 20.0—0.126 Ma
- †Bugtirhinus 20.0—16.9 Ma
- †Elasmotherium – Giant rhinoceros 3.6—0.126 Ma
- †Hispanotherium synonymized with Huaqingtherium 16.0—7.250 Ma
- †Menoceras 23.03—16.3 Ma
- †Ougandatherium 20.0—16.9 Ma
- †Sinotherium 9.0—5.3 Ma
- Subfamily Rhinocerotinae
Predators, poaching and hunting
Although rhinos are large and have a reputation for being tough, they are very easily poached; they visit water holes daily and can be easily killed while they drink. As of December 2009, poaching increased globally while efforts to protect the rhino are considered increasingly ineffective. The most serious estimate, that only 3% of poachers are successfully countered, is reported of Zimbabwe, while Nepal has largely avoided the crisis. Poachers have become more sophisticated. South African officials have called for urgent action against poaching after poachers killed the last female rhino in the Krugersdorp Game Reserve near Johannesburg. Statistics from South African National Parks show that 333 rhinoceros were killed in South Africa in 2010, increasing to 668 by 2012, over 1,004 in 2013. and over 1,338 killed in 2015. In some cases rhinos are drugged and their horns removed, while in other instances more than the horn is taken.
The Namibian government has supported the practise of rhino trophy hunting as a way to raise money for conservation. Hunting licenses for five Namibian Black rhinos are auctioned annually, with the money going to the government's Game Products Trust Fund. Some conservationists and members of the public however oppose or question this practice.
Horn trade and use
International trade in in rhinoceros horn has been declared illegal by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 1977. A proposal by Swaziland to lift the international ban was rejected in October 2016. Domestic sale of rhinoceros horn in South Africa, home of 80% of the remaining rhino population, was banned as of 2009. However, that ban was overturned in a court case in 2017, and South Africa plans to draft regulations for the sale of rhino horn, possibly including export for "non-commercial purposes". The South African government has suggested that a legal trade of rhino horn be established, arguing that this could reduce poaching and prevent the extinction of this species.
Rhinoceros horns, unlike those of other horned mammals (which have a bony core), only consist of keratin, similar to human hair and nails. Rhinoceros horns are used in traditional medicines in parts of Asia, and for dagger handles in Yemen and Oman. Esmond Bradley Martin has reported on the trade for dagger handles in Yemen. In Europe, it was historically believed that rhino horns could purify water and could detect poisoned liquids, and likely as an aphrodisiac and an antidote to poison.
Contrary to popular belief, the market for rhino horn is not largely driven by Chinese. Rather, Vietnamese are currently the biggest consumers of rhino horn and Vietnamese demand drives most of the poaching which has shot up to record levels. In Vietnam, the powdered horn is inhaled by some of the wealthy as a status symbol, where rhino horn is believed by some to have aphrodisiac properties. The "Vietnam CITES Management Authority" has claimed that Hanoi recently experienced a 77% drop in the usage of rhino horn, but National Geographic has challenged these claims, noticing that there was no rise in the numbers of criminals who were apprehended or prosecuted. South African rhino poaching's main destination market is Vietnam. An average sized horn can bring in as much as a quarter of a million dollars in Vietnam and many rhino range states have stockpiles of rhino horn.
It is a common misconception that rhinoceros horn in powdered form is used as an aphrodisiac or a cure for cancer in Traditional Chinese Medicine as Cornu Rhinoceri Asiatici (犀角, xījiǎo, "rhinoceros horn"); no TCM text in history has ever mentioned such prescriptions. Western media has falsely propagated this idea for a long time and the Vietnamese received the idea that rhino horn was an aphrodisiac from the western media's false reporting. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), rhino horn is considered an effective medicine sometimes prescribed for fevers and convulsions, a treatment not supported by evidence-based medicine and has been compared to consuming fingernail clippings in water. In 1993, China signed the CITES treaty and removed rhinoceros horn from the Chinese medicine pharmacopeia, administered by the Ministry of Health. In 2011, the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine in the United Kingdom issued a formal statement condemning the use of rhinoceros horn. A growing number of TCM educators is also speaking out against the practice. Discussions with TCM practitioners to reduce the use of rhino horn, has met with mixed results, because some still believe that it is a life-saving medicine.
In March 2013, some researchers suggested that the only way to reduce poaching would be to establish a regulated trade based on humane and renewable harvesting from live rhinos. The WWF however opposes legalization of the horn trade, as it may increase demand, while IFAW released a report by EcoLarge, suggesting that more thorough knowledge of economic factors is required in order to justify the pro-trade option.
To prevent poaching, in certain areas, rhinos have been tranquillized and their horns removed. Armed park rangers, particularly in South Africa, are also working on the front lines to combat poaching, sometimes killing poachers who are caught in the act. A recent spike in rhino killings has made conservationists concerned about the future of the species.
In 2011 the Rhino Rescue Project, organized by Ed and Lorinda Hern of the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve in Krugersdorp, South Africa, began a horn-trade control method consisting of infusing the horns (while on the animal) with a mixture of a pink dye and an acaricide (to kill ticks) which is safe for rhinos but toxic to humans. After sedating the animal, holes are drilled into the horns, fittings added, and the cavity connected with rubber hoses to a two-foot-by-four-inch diameter metal container of the liquid mixture which is then pressurized. The infusion takes less than 20 minutes of the 45 minutes of anesthesia; because of the high pressure exerted on the animals' internal organs from their large body weight, they are turned every 7 minutes while sedated. The procedure also includes inserting three RFID identification chips and taking DNA samples.
Because of the fibrous nature of rhino horn, the pressurized dye infuses the interior of the horn but does not color the surface or affect rhino behavior. The acaricide is expected to cause nausea, stomach-ache and diarrhea, or convulsions for anyone consuming the horn, depending on the quantity, but would not be fatal; the primary deterrent being the knowledge that the treatment has been applied, communicated by signs posted at the refuges. The original idea grew out of research looking into using the horn as a reservoir for one-time tick treatments, and the acaricide is selected to be safe for the rhino, oxpeckers, vultures, and other animals in the preserve's ecosystem. It was claimed that the dye can not be successfully removed from horns, and would remain visible on x-ray scanners even when the horn is ground to a fine powder.
The UK charity organization Save the Rhino has criticized horn poisoning on moral and practical grounds. The organization questions the assumptions that the infusion technique works as intended, and that even if the poison were effective, whether middlemen in a lucrative, illegal trade would care much about the effect it would have on buyers on another continent. They also claim that poisoned horns could heighten demand for non-poisoned horns among wealthier buyers or could fuel the belief in magical properties of the horn if people survive the poisoning. Additionally, rhino horn is increasingly purchased for decorative use, rather than for use in traditional medicine. Save the Rhino questions the feasibility of applying the technique to all African rhinos, since the acaricide would have to be reapplied every 4 years. It was also reported that one out of 150 rhinos treated did not survive the anesthesia.
Another possible way to undercut the market for rhinocerous horn has been suggested by Matthew Markus of Pembient, a biotechnology firm which proposes the synthesis of an artificial substitute for rhinoceros horn. To enable authorities to distinguish the bioengineered horn from real rhinoceros horn, the genetic code of the bioengineered horn could be registered, similar to the DNA of living rhinoceros in the RhODIS (Rhino DNA Index System). Although initial responses from many conservationists were negative, a 2016 report from TRAFFIC, which monitors trade in wildlife and animal parts, conceded that it “would be rash to rule out the possibility that trade in synthetic rhinoceros horn could play a role in future conservation strategies.”
Albrecht Dürer created a famous woodcut of a rhinoceros in 1515, based on a written description and brief sketch by an unknown artist of an Indian rhinoceros that had arrived in Lisbon earlier that year. Dürer never saw the animal itself and, as a result, Dürer's Rhinoceros is a somewhat inaccurate depiction. Rhinoceros are depicted in the Chauvet Cave in France, pictures dated to 10,000-30,000 years ago.
There are legends about rhinoceroses stamping out fire in Burma, India, and Malaysia. The mythical rhinoceros has a special name in Malay, badak api, wherein badak means rhinoceros, and api means fire. The animal would come when a fire was lit in the forest and stamp it out. There are no recent confirmations of this phenomenon. However, this legend has been reinforced by the film The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980), wherein an African rhinoceros is shown to be putting out two campfires.
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- Rhino Species & Rhino Images page on the Rhino Resource Center
- Rhinoceros entry on World Wide Fund for Nature website.
- International Anti Poaching Foundation
- Rhinoceros Resources & Photos on African Wildlife Foundation website
- UK Times article: "South African spy chief linked to rhino horn trade" 
- Video on South African government minister's alleged involvement in illegal rhino horn trade.