Four subspecies are recognized. Three survive: the South-western Black Rhino (D. b. bicornis), the Eastern Black Rhino (D. b. michaeli), and the South-eastern Black Rhino (D. b. minor.) The Western Black Rhino (D. b. longipes) was declared extinct in 2011.
In its “2021 State of the Rhino Report,” the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) sets the population range for the Black Rhino at 5,366–5,627. The African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG) put the population at 5,495 in its briefing document for the CITES Cop 18 meeting held in September 2019. The population continues to increase, notwithstanding the current poaching crisis.
Once the most widespread and numerous of all rhinos, the Black Rhino’s distribution has contracted drastically over the past 50 years. It is now extinct in much of its former range. Current strongholds are east and southern Africa. (See maps)
The Black Rhino thrives in several habitats, including bush, thicket, woodland fringes along rivers, and marshland. In northwestern Namibia, it is adapted to the sparse vegetation of a desert landscape where rainfall (in the far west) is often no more than four inches (100 mm) a year.
Weight: 1,900–3,500 lbs (850–1,600 kg) Shoulder height: 4 ft 11 in–5 ft 9 in (1.5–1.75 m) Length nose to tail: 11 ft 6 in–12 ft 10 in (3.5–3.9 m) Front horn length: 20–55 in (50–140 cm) Rear horn length: up to 22 in (55 cm).
The Black Rhino is much smaller than the White Rhino, the other African species. It has two well-developed horns, the front one being the longer. Its mouth, with its prehensile, pointed upper lip, is distinctive. Black Rhinos also show individually unique wrinkling around their eyes—useful for field identification of particular individuals.
The Black Rhino lives for 30–40 years in the wild, possibly a little longer. Females reach sexual maturity somewhere between four and seven years of age; males are 7–10 years old before they are ready to breed. Breeding pairs stay together for 2–3 days, but sometimes for a few weeks. Females give birth to a single calf after a gestation period of about 15 months. A newborn calf weighs some 80–110 lbs (35–50 kg) and is sufficiently mobile to follow its mother after three days. Youngsters are weaned at around two years of age. Male calves will stay with their mothers for another year or so until the next calf is born, but female offspring might remain longer, forming small groups.
The Black Rhino browses a wide range of trees and shrubs—more than 200 species are known to be on their menu. The prehensile upper lip is well-adapted for grasping leaves, twigs, and small branches and stripping them from the plant. The Black Rhino can eat grass but seldom does.
The Black Rhino is very agile and is the fastest of all the rhinos. It can reach 35 mph (55 kph) over short distances.
Sniffs, snorts, and squeals are the usual vocalizations of the Black Rhino. When they do get together in groups, grunting also comes into play.
Black Rhinos are notoriously bad-tempered in the wild and generally solitary. However, groups are not unknown. A BBC film unit using high definition night vision cameras revealed “large midnight gatherings of these characteristically grumpy animals [showing] the highly endangered rhinos at their most intimate—greeting each other with gentle “kisses and romantic gestures.” Like White Rhinos, Black Rhino bulls are territorial but will accept a few subordinate males in their domains. Outsiders, especially young and older bulls unable to defend themselves adequately, face fierce opposition. Serious injury and even death can result from these battles. Females occupy ranges that tend to be larger than those of males. They are generally solitary but for their most recent calf.
Black Rhinos, like White Rhinos, are confined to game reserves and private ranches where interaction with humans is limited to tourists, conservation staff and, sadly, poachers.
Listed as “Critically Endangered” on the IUCN Red Data List. Although listed on CITES Appendix I, there is an exception of a small annual hunting quota for South Africa and Namibia.
The greatest threat to the survival of the Black Rhino remains poaching for its horn. Containing poaching and extending its range are imperative for the species’ future.