What is the difference between a black and white rhino?
This is an incredibly common question and for a lot of people, a rhino is a rhino is a rhino. There are in fact, however five different species of rhino left worldwide and in this region we have the possibility of seeing two species; namely the black and white rhinos. The naming in itself has created confusion because both species of rhino are in fact grey (or at least until they have a mud bath) but there are some very distinctive differences between the two. Some of these include appearance, habitat, food preference and behaviour. With photographs and easy categorisation, this blog aims to be the guide that clarifies exactly which rhino you’re looking at and why.
Size: First and foremost, the white (square-lipped rhino) is substantially larger in size than its counterpart, the black (hook-lipped rhino). A white rhino female weighs about 1, 700kg and the male about 2,300 kg, compared with a black rhino which ranges between 800 – 1,400 kg.
Mouth and food preferences: One of the greatest differences though is the shape of the mouth. A white rhino has a very broad, flat, wide lip, which makes perfect sense as this animal is a grazer and requires a mouth designed for this. The broad muscular lips are ideal for gripping and tearing up grass and it quite noisily smacks its lips together as it feeds. In effect these large lips act as a non-mechanised lawnmower. The black rhino on the other hand is a browser and feeds on leaves, shoots and branches. As a result it has a prehensile, pointed lip, which it uses to grab hold of often very spiky trees.
Body shape: The white rhino is much longer, bigger and more cumbersome looking whereas the black rhino is shorter and more compact. A white rhino also has a relatively flat back with a small hump about three quarters of the way along its body where a black rhino has a deep arch in its back. Although this may not be easy to see when the animal faces you directly, it is very obvious from the side profile.
As discussed above, these animals have very differing diets, which also affects their body shape. Remember that the white rhino will always have its head on the ground because it’s feeding on grass. It has a long face, small eyes and a weakened neck because it doesn’t need to lift that large head to feed. You will therefore never see a white rhino wandering around carrying its head high (or at least not for long periods of time). A black rhino on the other hand needs to carry its head high as it spends most of the time feeding off of trees. If a black rhino picks up the scent of a threat, it will swivel its body with its head held high attempting to pinpoint the danger. The white rhino is more likely to keep its head low and rather swivel its ears to keep safe.
The ears: That brings us to the ears. Because the white rhino has poor eyesight and a nose that is always on the ground, its ears are hugely important to its overall awareness and safety. As a result it has very long, tubular ears that funnel sound into them and which it swivels independently like little satellites even when it is resting. The black rhino on the other hand has its ears, eyes and nose high in the air most of the time meaning it is less dependent on just one of its senses. As a result its ears are much smaller and rounder in shape.
Horn: What is also interesting is that the horn length also tends to differ between the species. The white rhino tends to have a longer front horn with a much shorter second horn. The black rhino, on the other hand tends to have a slightly shorter front horn and longer second horn than the white rhino, meaning that its two horns are more similar in length.
Habitat: Although the habitats of black and white rhino can overlap, there are definitely specific areas that you would expect to see one more then the other. For example, a white rhino will typically be found in grasslands or in areas that are more open, whereas a black rhino will be found in thickets and dense brush where its food preference is more prevalent.
Behaviour: Black rhino have always had a reputation for being more aggressive and inquisitive than the white rhino, which are normally a little more placid. Although I do think there is truth to this, I do also think that habitat plays a part in it. Imagine that you’re driving or walking through the thick habitat of a black rhino. In all likelihood when you come upon each other it will be at much closer quarters than if you spotted a white rhino in a grassland at a distance. When you’re in an animal’s comfort zone, it is much more likely to act in an aggressive, defensive manner than if you saw it at a distance and it had more of a chance to run from you. Having said this though, people do seem to have more close encounters with grumpy black rhinos than white ones.
Dung: Being able to look at these animals and tell the difference is one thing but amazingly enough you can also do it without seeing them at all. Rhinos share dung middens (a place where they repeatedly defecate, mostly for territorial purposes) and in those piles, the dung is very easily distinguishable. Firstly the white rhino dung is made up purely of grass. It is badly digested and looks very similar to the grass that comes out of your lawn mower. A black rhino however, has twigs and branches in its dung. Amazingly, every single piece in its dung is shawn off at a 45 degree angle due to the way that its teeth grind together as it feeds. This way, you will never be able to confuse it with any other species. The dung also differs in colour. Funnily enough, a black rhino’s dung is very brown and a white rhino’s dung is very black. This is due to the high levels of melanin in the grass that the white rhino eats.
Numbers: Accurate numbers are difficult to discern as both public and private game reserves have become cagey about statistics due to the explosion of rhino poaching throughout Africa. General estimates however suggest that there are about 15 000 white and 3 000 black rhinos left in the wild. The IUCN lists the white rhino as Near Threatened and the black rhino as Critically Endangered. In the early 1900s there were hundreds of thousands of rhinos roaming through Africa and the black rhino species was the most prolific. Civil wars, habitat changes, illegal poaching, and competing species have all decimated this number though. This is one of the crucial reasons that conservation areas such as Londolozi and the Greater Kruger National Park are in place today.
So although these two species are both large, grey mammals, you can see that there are some major differences between them. My hope is that from now on, by keeping an eye out for these various distinctions, you won’t have to worry about getting the two confused again.