There are two subspecies of white rhino. Southern white rhinos live almost exclusively in the country of South Africa. Northern white rhinos were formerly found in several countries in east and central Africa but are now critically endangered, teetering on the brink of extinction, with less than a handful living in a Kenyan wildlife reserve. Both subspecies inhabit grassland and savannah habitat. You can see southern white rhinos on exhibit at The Maryland Zoo in the African Journey Watering Hole exhibit.
White rhinos are eating machines. They spend about half of their waking hours eating and the rest of the time resting or perhaps wallowing in mud holes. White rhinos are very large animals that must eat up to 120 pounds of grass per day to sustain themselves. They will drink whenever and wherever they can find water but can survive up to five days without it.
At present, Northern white rhinos are critically endangered. As of 2005, Southern white rhinos were just as endangered; in fact, they faced immediate extinction. They have made a tremendous comeback, though, and are now the most plentiful species of the five extant rhino species.
All rhinos are threatened by habitat loss and by poachers who are after their horns. Rhino horn has no known health benefits. Still, it is valued for its use in many traditional medicines in Africa and Asia. Some conservation groups have tried removing the horns of wild rhinos to protect them, but such efforts are rarely successful. Poachers will still kill the animals in order to avoid tracking them again.
Sumatran rhinos once could be found throughout Southeast Asia, particularly in the dense mountain forests of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Myanmar, as well as the foothills of the Himalayas in Bhutan. Now, however, the only remaining viable population lives in isolated pockets of Indonesia, mainly on the island of Sumatra.
Sumatran rhinos are solitary creatures that feed on fruit, twigs, leaves, and shrubs. Their favorite foods include wild mangoes, bamboos, and figs. They also seek out salt licks and will visit their favorites every month or two.
Though poaching is what caused their numbers to plummet, isolation is now the biggest threat Sumatran rhinos face. Their numbers have decreased more than 70 percent in the past 20 years and, in 2019, they were declared extinct in the wild in Malaysia. Researchers estimate there are fewer than a hundred Sumatran rhinos left in the wild. Those dwindling numbers mean they must travel farther than ever to find a mate and reproduce. Worse, if females go too long without mating, they can develop cysts and fibroids that make them infertile.
Legally protected across their range, Sumatran rhinos are also the focus of an extensive international cooperation program. Rhino Protection Units guard the regions in which they live to prevent further poaching, while attempts at captive breeding to rebuild their population continue. Scientific breakthroughs led to the births of three calves at the Cincinnati Zoo in the early 2000s. But despite these efforts, the global population continued to dwindle.
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Now, you may think a wallow is a wallow is a wallow. We learned that for rhinos, this is far from the truth. Just like we like to arrange our rooms to suit our individual style, rhinos similarly make wallows to their liking. They use their head (horn) and legs to stylize their wallow. Check out this video of Bina and her wallow- if you listen closely you can hear the sounds of insects and Siamangs in the background. Bina likes to loosen dirt from the sides of the wallow to create a thicker liquid base to coat herself in -helping protect her skin from biting insects. You can also see how exhausting proper wallow making can be!
Here at the Cincinnati Zoo, our rhinos also get the chance to stylize their wallows. Sumatran rhino Harry prefers his wallow to have more liquid, while our African black rhino Seyia prefers a pastier mud mix for her wallow.
Most people understand that the poaching of rhinos is cruel and could, quite possibly, drive rhinos to extinction. But why the inordinate fuss about rhinos? Are they special enough from an ecological point of view, that ecosystems need them to be around?
Of course, no species should go extinct due to man, and rhinos are iconic symbols and tourism draw-cards. But aside from those sound enough reasons, do rhinos earn the right to stay from an ecological point of view?
Also, each time a rhino wallows, a considerable amount of mud is removed and, as it dries or is rubbed off, the fertile alluvial soil that accumulates in dams and natural waterholes is distributed far and wide, enriching the soil far from the wallow. A 2014 study by two scientists concluded that rhinos had a more significant impact on the topography than even elephants.
Dung beetles establish their claim to a good piece of dung by rolling it away post-haste! Once away from the dung scene, they lay their eggs in the dung ball and bury it. Some of these carefully buried brood chambers are a nutritious snack once the larvae are developed, and little carnivores/omnivores such as slender mongoose benefit greatly. This is just one example of how far the impact of rhinos stretches along the wildlife food chain. Crested guineafowl and other large birds scratch through the dung treasure trove looking for both insects and, later in the season, undigested seed.
Rhino are plagued by ectoparasites such as the rhino fly, which can be seen through binoculars by the score on the flanks of white rhino. The rhinoceros stomach botflies spend a large part of their lifecycle in the stomach of the rhino, and their existence is so tightly bound to that of rhinos that their numbers decline sharply when rhino numbers decline.
Rhinos are host to ticks, too. The ticks, in turn, sustain other species such as oxpeckers which eat them. A rhino host carrying a plethora of ticks is so prized by oxpeckers that following the flight path of these noisy birds is often the easiest way to locate the rhinos themselves! Terrapins, too, feed on the ticks carried by rhinos when rhinos drink and wallow at waterholes.
Short grass lawns are essential for the survival of certain plants, for example, short annual grasses such as Tragus berteronianus (Carrot Seed Grass) in an otherwise perennial grass sward; ungulates such as wildebeest; and birds such as longclaws, larks and pipits. These species cannot survive in wooded or long-grass ecosystems. White rhinos mow the grass to a height that provides suitable habitat for these species. These rhino lawns also act as areas of sanctuary during veld fires (for slow-moving tortoises, for example) and for plant species that cannot tolerate fire.
Harapan, the handsome young stud born here in April of 2007, and who has spent some time in Florida and San Diego California over the years, returned here on July 3, 2013. His behavior indicates he is happy to be home. Most days he eats his first meal of ficus browse ( tree cuttings) and fruits and vegetables and then he saunters over to the wallow to get himself good and muddy. The unique part of his behavior is that he then goes into his pool for a quick rinse. Next he wanders inside and checks up on the keepers to see how our day is going. Then, repeats all the steps over again. People often ask zoo keepers if the animals know you or know they are back home. After this experience, I can honestly say Yes. Harapan is without a doubt happy to be here and we are happy to have him home.
Black rhino eating vegetation.Rhinos help other wildlife by expanding access to the water supply. Their ability to dig for water with their mighty horns leads to the creation of new waterholes. And when rhinos wallow in mud puddles with their tremendous weight, they help maintain existing reservoirs.When they roll their bodies about in mud, rhinos also extract enriched sections of fertile soil. They then carry it on their skin and distribute essential nutrients to other areas, thereby stimulating new plant growth.
Sumatran rhino cooling off in a mud wallow.Their contribution to the food chain goes further as seed spreaders. In one day, rhinos can consume over 120 pounds of vegetation; they then disperse seeds at great distances in their over 50 pounds of dung. The dung itself is also a soil fertilizer, serving to enrich and germinate new vegetation.As a species that has been around for millions of years, rhinos are critical to shaping habitats, supporting other wildlife, and maintaining the balance of ecosystems.
Black rhino populations suffered a drastic decline at the end of the 20th century. Between 1970 and 1993, the population of black rhinos decreased by 96% from approximately 65,000 to only 2,300 surviving in the wild. Since 1996, intense anti-poaching efforts and strategic translocations to safer areas have allowed the species to slowly recover. Poaching still looms as the greatest threat.
In partnership with Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation, AWEI undertakes research, engagement, and training in support of transforming and conserving African landscapes through wildlife enterprise.
A Sumatran rhino wallowing in the mud.Undoubtedly, the most distinctive rhino feature are their horns. The black, white, and Sumatran rhinos have two horns, while the Javan and the greater one-horned rhinos have a single horn. Rhino horns are made of compressed keratin fibers and can regrow when damaged. Their horns serve to defend territory, protect calves from threats, and forage for food and water. 2b1af7f3a8