Kenya Masai Mara

How to tell a black rhino from a white rhino

Despite the names, each of these two species are both grey in colour but there are five features you can look closely at to tell them apart. Depending on your viewpoint and the individuals you’re observing, some will be clearer than others as distinctions. 

Upper lip

The easiest way to tell which of the two species you’re looking at is by getting a good view of their upper lip: 

  • Black rhino: a pointed upper lip, helping them to pull leaves from trees and bushes as they browse for their food. Black rhino are also known as the hook-lipped rhino.
  • White rhino: a square-shaped upper lip – perfectly adequate for grazing. White rhino are also known as the square-lipped rhino. 
a black rhino
Black rhino

 

White rhino

 

Head and face shape 

  • Black rhino: shorter from top to bottom with a more protruding – albeit smaller – ‘forehead’ than that of a white rhino. 
  • White rhino: longer with a less defined forehead than the black rhino. White rhinos have much longer skulls from mouth to ears. 

Tip: Black rhino also tend to carry their heads high while white rhino hold their heads a little lower – closer to the ground for grazing!

black rhino head on
Black rhino

 

white rhino 2
White rhino

 

Shoulder hump

  • Black rhino: a hollow, saddle-back with a sacral bump very close to their rear. 
  • White rhino: a more pronounced shoulder hump, with a sacral bump starting about two thirds of the way towards their rear (less close to their rear).  
black rhino full body shot
Black rhino

 

white rhino full body shot
White rhino

 

Ears 

  • Black rhino: smaller and rounder ears than the white rhino. 
  • White rhino: narrower, more closed and more pointed at the tips than the black rhino. With poor eyesight and a nose that’s usually close to the ground, the ability to hear from their larger ears holds important evolutionary value as an adaptation for them. 
black rhino head
black rhino

 

white rhino face on
white rhino

 

Horns

  • Black rhino: each of their two horns are closer in length than those of a white rhino. 
  • White rhino: their front horn is longer with a much shorter second horn behind it. 

Tip: the shape of a black rhino horn also differs between sexes: with males tending to have thicker horns, and the females often longer and thinner ones. 

side profile of a black rhino
Black rhino

 

a white rhino with large horn
White rhino

 

Size

  • Black rhino: slighter, smaller and more compactly built in general than the white rhino. Black rhinos measure up to 1.6m at the shoulder. 
  • White rhinos: substantially larger than black rhino, measuring up to 1.8m at the shoulder. White rhino are the second-largest land mammal after the elephant.

Why are they referred to as ‘black’ and ‘white’?

  • Black rhino: one theory is they got their name simply by way of distinguishing them from the white rhino. Another is in relation to their muzzle-shape, with black coming from the word ‘beak’. 
  • White rhino: people say that their name came from the Afrikaans word ‘weit’ meaning wide, in reference to the shape of their muzzles. 

In addition, there are also some behavioural observations which help to identify which species you’re looking at. 

Which is more sociable?

  • Black rhinos usually live alone with gatherings of up to five individuals, a rare and usually brief occurrence. 
  • White rhinos are more sociable and can be found in large groups of seven individuals or more. 
black rhino running
Black rhino

 

three white rhino grazing
White rhino

 

Feeding behaviour 

As mentioned earlier:

  • Black rhino browse for their food, reaching to branches and shrubs above the ground. 
  • White rhino graze along the ground and their heads hang lower to the ground than a black rhino’s at all times.

Mother and baby 

  • Black rhino calves tend to walk behind their mother.
  • White rhino calves are often seen walking in front of their mother. It’s likely that this is so that they can keep their grazing eyes on their calves and any predators in their midst more easily. 

 

a rhino calf

Tip: This is not a fool-proof method as behaviour is not as predictable as physical characteristics.

 

Other

When tracking rhino on safari, you can also take a look at any dung you come across. 

  • Black rhino dung is orange-brown, retaining an orangey-yellow colour when dry. 
  • White rhino dung is dark or light grey, retaining a pale yellow or white colour when dry. 

Which is more rare – black or white rhino?

As a whole species, black rhino are more rare than the white rhino:

  • Black rhino are ‘critically endangered’ with 3,142 mature individuals left. 
  • White rhino are ‘near threatened’ with an estimated 10,082 mature individuals left. 

The answer to this is straightforward with regards to the two species as a whole but confusion can arise with regards to the statuses of the subspecies. 

How many white rhinos are left in 2020?

There are two subspecies of white rhino, northern white rhino and southern white rhino:

Where can I see white rhino in the wild?

Southern white rhino can be found in four African countries: Kenya, South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya has around 70 southern white rhino.

If you’d like to visit the last remaining northern white rhino, Najin and Fatu, you may like to find out more about Governors’ luxury accommodation in Laikipia.

How many black rhinos are left in 2020?

There are four subspecies of black rhino; south-eastern black rhino, eastern black rhino, western black rhino and south-western black rhino:

  • Western black rhino are ‘extinct’  

 

Where can I see black rhino in the wild? 

All three of the extant subspecies of black rhino can be found in Kenya, Namibia, South Africa and Rwanda. You can see them on safari in Kenya. Lake Nakuru National Park has around 25 eastern black rhino (one of the largest populations in the country). The Masai Mara National Reserve has one of the few natural populations of Eastern Black Rhino in Africa, with around 50-60 individuals. An exciting and fairly recent conservation story is the release of five captive black rhinoceros into Akagera National Park, Rwanda last Summer (2019). 

 

 

Recommended safaris and accommodation:

Kenya and Rwanda are both fantastic destination options for travellers hoping to see rhino in the wild. Visit our location pages or get in touch for help planning your safari. 

 

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