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African rhino

Southern White rhinoceros. Adult and calf.
Scientific name:
Ceratotherium simum (white rhino)
Diceros bicornis (black rhino)
Number remaining: Around 20,000 white rhinos and 5,000 black
Extinction risk:
White rhino: near threatened
Black rhino: critically endangered

About the African rhino

There are two species of African rhino – the white and the black. Despite their names, both are the same dark grey-brown colour. It’s thought that the name ‘white rhino’ is a misinterpretation of the Afrikaans word ‘wyd’, referring to its square upper lip. Black rhinos have hooked lips.

Most African rhinos are found in just four countries – South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya – where they mainly roam grassland and open savannah. These armoured giants are vegetarian and need to eat large amounts of food every day.

White rhino

One subspecies - the southern white rhino - is a significant conservation success story. The population has recovered from fewer than 100 in 1895 to over 20,000 today. But sadly there are no northern white rhinos left in the wild, and only a handful in captivity.

Black rhino

The smaller black rhino has three remaining subspecies. A fourth – the western black rhino – was declared extinct in 2011. About 96% of black rhinos were lost to large-scale poaching between 1970 and 1992, and there are now just 4,800 individuals in the wild today.

Poaching for their horns is still the greatest threat to African rhinos today. In South Africa, rhino poaching has risen to worrying new levels since 2007, after falling to much lower numbers during the previous 20 years.

Find out how you can help save African rhinos


Why rhinos matter

White rhino mother and baby

Rhinos have been around for millions of years and play a crucial role in their ecosystem. They’re important grazers, consuming large amounts of vegetation, which helps shape the African landscape. This benefits other animals and keeps a healthy balance within the ecosystem.

Local people also depend on the natural resources within rhino habitat for food, fuel and income. As one of Africa’s ‘big five’, rhinos are a popular sight for tourists. Ecotourism can be an important source of income for local people.

By helping protect the rhino, we’re helping to conserve its habitat for the benefit of both people and wildlife, helping support local communities through ecotourism and making sure natural resources are available for generations to come.

Threats to African rhinos

A soldier stands guard over four rhino horns seized from poachers.  Terai Arc, Nepal

Poaching

African rhinos are extremely vulnerable to poaching for the illegal trade in body parts. Powdered horn is used in traditional Asian medicine as a supposed cure for a range of illnesses – from hangovers to fevers and even cancer.

The number of rhinos poached in South Africa alone has increased by 7,700% in the past seven years – from 13 in 2007 to 1,004 in 2013. This recent surge has been primarily driven by the demand for horn by upper-middle class citizens in Vietnam. As well as its use in medicine, rhino horn is bought and consumed purely as a symbol of wealth.

Poaching gangs use increasingly sophisticated methods to evade authorities – including helicopters and night vision equipment to track rhinos, and veterinary drugs to knock them out. This means conservationists need to match this level of technology to be able to tackle the problem.

Find out how we're tackling the illegal wildlife trade

Southern white rhinoceros with rainbow and storm clouds, Kenya

How WWF is helping protect African rhinos

Our goal is to increase rhino numbers in at least five key populations by 5% each year, and establish two new rhino populations by 2020.

 The Wilge River wetland is near the lip of a major escarpment, near the foothills of the Drakensberg mountain range. Lush in summer, it turns dry and fawn in winter. This area is home to a number of highly endangered animals like the Wattled Crane (Bugeranus carunculatus) and the White-Winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi).  The frost kills most trees here, so grasses thrive. Grasslands are critical ecosystems for South Africa as they are often associated with wetlands and catchments, and only 3% of the biome is formally conserved.  Republic of South Africa

Expand protected areas

We’ll help achieve this through our African rhino programme which gives technical and financial support to 12 rhino conservation projects across Africa. We’re helping to expand protected areas, create new ones, and increase security in these areas to protect rhinos from poachers. We also promote wildlife-based tourism that helps fund conservation efforts and gives local communities an income from living alongside wildlife.

Ranger Paulin Ngobobo, from an anti-poaching unit, Virunga National Park, Congo

Prevent poaching

We’re working with TRAFFIC (the wildlife trade monitoring network) to investigate, expose and crack down on poaching and the illegal trade in rhino horn – and to reduce the demand so that this trade is no longer a significant threat to African rhinos.

Discover how we're tackling the illegal wildlife trade

How you can help protect African rhinos