White Rhino

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Africa Bush Rescue

From the archive: Saba Douglas-Hamilton joins vets Douw Grobler and JJ Van Alten as they track down and dart a male white rhino in South Africa.

The Northern White Rhino by Mark Carwardine

The best thing about the northern white rhino is its colour. It's not white. Not even remotely off-white. It's actually more of a battleship grey or, sometimes, a latte-coloured brown.

A white rhino in the wild. Photo by Mark Carwardine
Photo by Mark Carwardine

The confusion over its name is not because zoologists are colour-blind, or stupid. It's because they are bad at languages. 'White' is apparently a mistranslation of the Afrikaans word 'weit', which means 'wide' (some say it's a mistranslation of the Dutch word 'wiyd', which also means 'wide', but that's just splitting hairs).

The Afrikaners were referring to the rhino's mouth, which is... well, wide. So the rhino with the wide mouth ended up being called the white rhino.

Some experts simply call it the northern square-lipped rhino to avoid confusion, and to show off.

Whatever its name, it is the second largest land animal on the planet, after the elephant. Weighing as much as 2.7 tonnes and towering as high as 1.8 metres at the shoulder, it is HUGE in capital letters. Stalking one on foot is like creeping up on a Cherokee Jeep.

The northern white rhino has a very close relative known, rather informatively, as the southern white rhino. Technically, they are different sub-species, but if they happened to be standing side-by-side it would be almost impossible to tell them apart.

Paradoxically, these two animals are both the commonest and the rarest of all the world's rhinos.

Just over a century ago, after years of intensive hunting, there were just a couple of dozen southern white rhinos hiding nervously in a reserve called Umfolozi, in South Africa. But tough protection measures (widely applauded as one of the most successful conservation efforts in history) saved them from extinction. At the last count there were no fewer than 17,480 southern white rhinos in the wild. Most of them are still in South Africa, but there are smaller translocated populations in Kenya, Namibia and Zimbabwe, and a few in Botswana, Mozambique, Swaziland and Uganda.

A rhino faces down the camera

The northern white rhino is an entirely different story. It lived, until recently, in Uganda, southern Chad, south-western Sudan, the eastern part of Central African Republic, and north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. It couldn't have picked a more troubled corner of the world to set up home.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given such a deadly cocktail of poaching, civil unrest and corruption, it has been struggling to survive for years. Four individuals were seen in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, during ground and aerial surveys in 2006, but none have been seen there (or anywhere else) since. There are 11 in captivity, in the Czech Republic and California, but they're not breeding. And that's the lot.

The general consensus among those in the know is that it is now extinct in the wild. Terrible news.


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