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Mammals of Southern Africa

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The "Big 5": Lion LeopardElephant Buffalo Rhino

The Rhino or Rhinoceros species of the world

There are two species of Rhino or Rhinoceros in Africa:

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One species is found in India:

The Great Indian One-Horned Rhinoceros, Rhinoceros unicornis

LENGTH OF HEAD AND BODY: 2.1 - 4.2 metres
HEIGHT AT SHOULDER: 1.1 - 2.0 metres
MASS: 1500 - 2000 kilograms
LENGTH OF HORN: 20 - 61 centimetres

Since it spends little time or energy in conflict, the daily routine of the one-horned rhinoceros is more leisurely and peaceful than that of the two African species. The latter part of the afternoon is spent in the shade of the forest and as evening approaches, they will move to more open feeding areas. The rhinoceroses will lie down to rest in the feeding area around midnight, so as to resume grazing in the early morning. Females with young calves will retire to the tall elephant grass, where the youngsters are less vulnerable to the unnoticed approach of a tiger. A fully grown adult has no enemies, (other than man), and may therefore rest relatively safely in open terrain.

In the morning, the adults will move into cover, grazing as they go and will emerge towards noon to wallow. Until late afternoon, they remain almost completely submerged, retaining social groups of as many as nine together, adults and young. Wallowing not only protects the rhino from biting insects, it also helps to keep the skin supple and prevents sunburn and overheating, inevitable in such a bulky animal.


Principally a grazing animal, the one-horned rhinoceros will move about its feeding range to take advantage of whatever fresh growth is to be found. Usually considered to be a creature of swampy areas and grassy riverine plains, when necessary it will move into drier grassland and even into higher wooded country. Rhino from wildlife reserves will often move into agricultural land, to feed on the newly sprouted rice shoots, corn, wheat, mustard, lentils and potatoes, thereby coming into direct conflict with farmers. In the same token however, farmers will drive their cattle daily to feed on the precious grass, deliberately cultivated in the Park for the rhino, once again establishing a direct conflict.

The feeding apparatus of the one horned rhino is fairly adaptable as its semi-prehensile upper lip can be folded away when it needs to graze on short, fresh grasses, as well as being able to grip tall grass and slender twigs.


The surprising speed and agility of the one-horned rhinoceros, was noted by the hunting authors of the nineteenth century. Finishing off a wounded animal after having followed it through the tall grass, was a considerable feat and this required true sportsmanship. The awesome spectacle of a rhinoceros at full gallop was indeed a nerve racking ordeal. The fact that a charge is rarely carried through, would have been a small consolation to the hunter and, although pursuit has had fatal results on more than one occasion, the one-horned rhinoceros has retained its reputation as a timid, inoffensive animal, always more ready to run than fight.

Rhino were also hunted from a perch on the back of an elephant. The security of height was illusory as Indian elephant are terrified of rhinoceros. A triumph of the Tiger Tops Lodge in the Chitwan National Park, was to produce a team of elephants which would refrain from total panic when they were gathered into a half circle around a rhino, for visitors to admire and photograph. Prior to this, training elephant to stand their ground in the face of a charge, was considered virtually impossible.

Social Behaviour

Unlike the African species, the one-horned rhinoceros is not fiercely territorial. The grass jungle is divided between them into 'public' and 'private' areas, connected by paths which also have 'public' or 'private' status. The public areas include wallows and bathing places, which are open to the use of all rhinoceroses. Private baths lead to grazing areas about 4000 sq. m (5000 sq. yd) in extent, which are protected by individuals or females with calves.

There is no aggressive patrolling or urine spraying involved in the defence of these areas. Bulls will occasionally confront intruders into their feeding area and females too will fight for territory: it is not unusual to see rhino with apparently severe wounds and old scars produced by their opponents' sharp lower incisors during these territorial skirmishes. However, since the feeding territories are large, and often out of sight of each other, confrontations are more accidental than deliberate.

No evidence of the use of dung as a territorial marker has been encountered, although the one-horned rhinoceros establishes and uses communal dung heaps in the same way as its African relatives. This is considered a social function and a continuously updated directory of animals present in the area. The dung heaps can become enormous, as high as 1 metre (3 ft), and as much as 5 m (16 ft) across. They are added to by every animal passing by. There are reports of rhino pausing in full flight to defaecate on a dung heap, suggesting that it is socially imperative to update the directory, even more so in times of stress than when the community is at peace.


One-horned rhinoceros have been breeding successfully in Zoo's since 1956 but courtship has rarely been observed in the wild. Females are sexually mature from the age of three and bulls at seven or nine years of age. Every five to eight weeks, a female will come into season for 24 hours, advertising her condition by spraying urine, and uttering a strange whistling with every breath. The male reacts by in turn spraying urine and taking chase. The intimate signals between the partners are essentially the same as in the African black rhinoceros. Copulation lasts for an average of an hour and gestation is on an average 16 months. The newborn calf weighs ±65 kg (145 lb.) and will almost immediately begin its impressive intake of milk which will enable it to gain 2-3 kg (4½ - 6½ lb.) in weight every day. The mother produces approximately 20-25 litres (35-44 pints) of milk per day.

The calf has all the skin folds of the adult at birth, with a smooth plate on its nose where the horn will grow. An apparent difference between the African and Asian species is that the horn of the Asian rhino is more firmly attached to the skull because of the greater size of the bony boss which supports it.


The one-horned rhinoceros has almost no predators in the wild, though there is evidence that tigers will take young calves if they can. The mother will fight fiercely in defence of her young and their teeth can inflict serious injury. Like so many large herbivores, the one-horned rhinoceros, with its confidence born of invulnerability in its natural habitat, falls easy victim to the bullet and is as effortless to kill as any other slow moving, peaceable creature.

Distribution and Status

The first reserves to be declared, at Manas and Kaziranga, still hold the two largest populations in one-horned rhinoceros in India. Rhinoceros unicornis, the great one-horned rhinoceros, once ranged extensively across the plain of the Ganges, from the Indus Valley in the west, all the way to Assam and across the north of India to Peshawar, near what is now the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Kaziranga became a game sanctuary in 1926. It was closed to all visitors and immediately became the haunt of poachers. When opened to the public in 1938, the activity of poaching ceased and in a survey conducted in 1959, by the prominent Indian biologist, E.P. Gee, the number estimated in the reserve stood at 260.

The royal hunting grounds at Chetwan in Nepal, became a reserve in 1973. Dr Esmond Bradley Martin, the American Biologist, outlined the reasons for success of rhino conservation in Nepal in Oryx (1985). The remains of the Rhinoceroses that die from natural causes within the park, are made available to the local population, who use certain parts of the animal in religious observances and poaching is deterred, not only by the presence of 500 armed men of the Royal Nepalese Army, but also by the enlightened attitude of the Park authority (the King of Nepal, who has absolute authority in his country).

The local inhabitants use the hide to make containers for the libations of milk and water which are a central part of the ceremony of Shradda, by which both Hindus and Buddists commemorate their parents and grandparents on the anniversary of their deaths. The meat, including the liver, is used for medicinal purposes, and the dried blood is used by women to ease menstrual pain and in some areas it is considered an aphrodisiac for men.

Often collected in the field, in the form of soaked sand, rhino urine may also be purchased at the zoo in Kathmandu and is regarded as a powerful treatment for a wide range of ailments. Oil lamps are made from the bones which are used in religious ceremonies and bone rings are thought to ward off evil spirits. The horn and hooves however are the property of the King and highly valued: they are removed and taken to the Palace.

This policy has been effective in undermining the market for poached rhinoceros products, partly because of the near certainty of being arrested and severely punished and partly because such products, necessary for religious and medicinal purposes, are relatively easily available.


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