A modern day rhino or rhinoceros looks pretty much like its ancestor that existed on earth more than 30 million years ago.
Its status as an animal “biggie” hasn’t changed much either. The ancestors of the modern-day rhinoceros – the 4 feet tall Uintatherium and the 15 feet high Indricotherium – were the largest land mammals ever. Today’s rhino is the largest living land mammal, after the African elephant, in terms of size and weight.
The name ‘rhinoceros’ is derived from two Greek words ‘rhino’ meaning ‘nose’ and ‘keros’ meaning ‘horned’.
There are five different kinds of rhinoceroses in the world. Two of these are found in Africa and three in Asia. The two African varieties are the black and white. The Asian varieties are found in India, Java and Sumatra.
The largest rhino is the African white, measuring six feet high at the shoulder and weighing over four tonnes. The smallest is the Sumatran rhino, standing at about four-and-a-half feet at the shoulder and weighing less than a tonne.
This powerful animal has one or two curved horns, which grow on top of its nose. The African and the Sumatran varieties have two horns, while the Indian and Javan rhinos have only one horn. White rhinos have larger horns, which can grow up to five feet in length!
Rhino horns are entirely replaceable. They are made up of hair-like growth that thickens and grows above the nasal and the frontal bones. The horns are not attached to the skull and may even be torn off during a fight. When this happens, the horn grows back again.
Rhinoceroses are herbivores or plant eaters. They are shy and solitary and love to wallow in a muddy pool to beat the heat of the day. As they stomp out of the pool, they have a thick layer of mud, which on drying keeps the rhino cool and also protects the animal against insect bites.
While all rhinos have thick hides, the Indian variety, which is found in the northeastern state of Assam, is distinguished with pleated skin that looks like armour plating. At first appearance, when their hides are clean, both the white and black African rhinos look very similar and confusingly have the same colour – grey.
However their feeding habits differ. The white rhino is a grazer and eats ground plants and grass. So it has a wide, flat mouth. The term ‘white’ has nothing to do with its colour. It is a corruption of the Afrikaans word (language of South Africa) “wit” meaning “wide” rhino.
The black rhino is a browser. It feeds on leaves plucked from shrubs and bushes. So it has a hook-like upper lip.
Rhinos belongs to the ‘odd-toed’ group of ungulates (hoofed animals). They have three toes on each foot, each toe ending in a separate hoof. Each front foot actually also has a fourth toe that is no longer used.
Rhinos are nearsighted animals, but have good hearing and an excellent sense of smell. When they hear a strange noise or smell something new, they lumber across on their short legs. Their power and sheer weight gives them confidence and, since they can’t see well, they charge without warning.
A female rhino bears one calf at a time. The calf is born about 18 months after the mating season and remains with the mother for several years. Though these animals are shy, they are known for unprovoked attacks, especially when there is a young calf around.
But the rhino population is dwindling. Over the centuries, man has hunted the animal for its horn, believing that this cone of matted hair contained magical properties.
The African black, the Indian one-horned and the Javan species are heavily poached. In fact, the Javan is facing extinction with less than 50 individual rhinos left.
The white rhino population has recovered a little over the last 20 years due the rigorous policing of the Kruger National Park in South Africa. To deter further poaching, game wardens sometimes cut off the horns so that these animals are not unnecessarily killed.