The Rhinoceros is a truly fascinating creature. They belong to a taxonomic order called Perissodactyla, or, odd toed ungulates, which actually makes them more closely related to the equids (Horses and Zebras), than the likes of Elephants or Hippopotamuses.
Even today, it's still surprising for some to learn that there are five species of Rhinoceros distributed across the globe. While the Javan, Sumatran, and Greater One-Horned Rhinoceroses span the Asian continent, the Black and White Rhinoceroses grace the plains and savannas of sub-Saharan Africa.
Aside from the obvious, the one thing that all of these species have in common is their critically endangered status. But since this article is focused mainly on spotting the differences between the two African species, I'll leave this important information to the end.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that the most obvious difference between the two is their colour. In fact, they are actually both grey in colour, and the origins of their names are widely thought to be the result of a language mixup.
The English word "white" is said to have been derived by mistranslation of the Dutch word "wijd", which means "wide" in English. The word "wide" refers to the width of the rhinoceros's mouth. Consequently, English-speaking settlers in South Africa misinterpreted the "wijd" for "white" and the rhino with the wide mouth ended up being called the White Rhino and the other one, with the narrow pointed mouth, was called the Black Rhino.
While there are plenty of differences between Black and White Rhinoceroses, I've aimed to highlight the easiest to identify. Images of Black Rhinos are on the left, with White Rhino comparisons on the right.
Alternative names for these beautiful animals are the Wide-lipped (white) and Hook-lipped (black) Rhinoceroses. The shapes of their mouths are without doubt the most easily distinguishable feature between the two. Black Rhinoceroses developed a pointed, hooked lip used to pick fruit from branches and select leaves from twigs. In contrast, White Rhinoceroses exhibit flat, wide lips that are perfectly suited to grazing.
The White Rhinoceros is the largest of the whole family, but the difference between its African cousin can only really be appreciated when the two are seen together. In terms of weight, White Rhino males can reach a staggering 2,300 kg, whereas the largest Black Rhinos are about 1,100 kg. The White Rhino can grow as high as 5-6 ft at the shoulder, with Black Rhino reaching between 4.5 and 5.5 ft.
Both species have two horns, but differences in the way they grow are not a reliable means of identification. White Rhinos tend to have a larger size difference between the two horns, with the front one always being the longest. Black Rhino horns are often more manicured, and, while fairly uncommon, the back horn can be longer than the front.
When observed from a long distance, it can be particularly difficult to determine which species you're looking at. One fairly common way of comparing the two is to take a look at the shape of their backs. While the Black Rhino has a deep concave back, the White Rhino has a fairly flat back with a prominent bump just behind the midway. Another distinguishable characteristic you may notice is that Black Rhinos tend to hold their shorter, rounded heads in a raised position, whereas the White Rhino keeps its elongated, square-shaped head lowered.
One should not rely solely on feeding behaviour to distinguish between the two, but in general White Rhino are grazers that feed upon grass and Black Rhino are browsers that gorge on fruits and leaves attached to bushes. In times of drought, however, both have been known to adopt the other's feeding habits.
Being significantly larger, the gestation period of the White Rhino is around 16 months as opposed to Black Rhino which is approximately 15 months. The young of the White Rhino usually runs ahead of its mother where it can be easily seen and therefore protected at all times. Due to their habit of spending most of their time in thick bush, the young of Black Rhino usually stay behind the mother as a defence tactic against predators.
There are many behavioural differences, but the best known is the Black Rhino's tendency to be more excitable and aggressive than White Rhinos. One theory for this is because they spend most of their time browsing in thick bush where predators or other threats can spring up on them at any given moment. White Rhino generally spend most of their time in open fields where they have plenty of time to react to any threats.
Why are Rhinoceroses facing extinction?
Poaching has escalated in recent years with a growing demand in Asian countries such as China and Vietnam for Rhino horn. It is used in traditional Chinese medicine but is more commonly purchased as a status symbol of wealth and power.
Despite concrete evidence supporting the fact that rhino horn has absolutely no medicinal value whatsoever, poachers are now being supplied with sophisticated equipment by international criminal gangs to track and kill rhinoceroses. The horn is made of keratin, the exact same substance that makes up human hair and nails. Despite this scientifically proven fact, rhino horn is currently fetching prices of up to $100,000 per kilogram, so it's no wonder anti-poaching units are being kept so busy.
If you'd like to contribute to the conservation of one of our planet's most enchanting and iconic species, you can do so by supporting amazing organisations like Save the Rhino, Helping Rhinos, and International Rhino Foundation.