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the web of life in southern Africa

Ceratotherium simum (Square-lipped rhinoceros, White rhinoceros)

square-lipped rhinoceros, grass rhinoceros [English]; witrenoster [Afrikaans]; Witrenoster, Breitmaulnashorn [German]; rhinocÍros blanc [French]; kiaru ya majani [Swahili] umkhombo omhlophe [isiNdebele]; umkhombe [isiXhosa] [siSwati]; ubhejane omhlophe [isiZulu] [Sesotho]; t'shukudu, mogohu [Sepedi]; tshukudu, mogohu, tshukudu e molomo o sephara [Sesotho]; kgetlwa, tshukudu, mogohu [Setswana]; chipembere [Shona]; mhelembe [Xitsonga]; tshugulu [Tshivenda] 

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Synapsida (mammal-like reptiles) > Therapsida > Theriodontia >  Cynodontia > Mammalia (mammals) > Placentalia (placental mammals) > Laurasiatheria > Ferungulata > Paraxonia > Perissodactyla (odd-toed ungulates) > Family: Rhinocerrotidae (rhinoceroses)

Ceratotherium simum (Square-lipped rhinoceros, White rhinoceros)

Square-lipped rhinoceros with Red-billed oxpeckers, Kruger National Park, South Africa. [photo Arno Meintjes ©]

Ceratotherium simum (Square-lipped rhinoceros, White rhinoceros)

White rhinoceros grazing, Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. [photo Jeff Poklen ©]


The square-lipped or white rhinoceros is the largest of the 5 existing rhino species and the third largest land mammal. The skin colour is grey, and there is a distinctive large hump on the neck. The head is long and carried low ending in a broad square muzzle, with two horns above the nose usually the front horn is longer. The rhinoceros gets its name from the Greek meaning “nose-horn”. The rhino’s horn has no core and consists of an aggregation of hair-like keratin fibres attached to the skin and seated on a roughened area of the nasal region of the skull. Short stout limbs support the animal’s massive weight and the feet have 3 digits. The common name “white” is actually derived from the Dutch for “wide”, an early description of the characteristic mouth shape.

The rhino is one of Africa’s “Big Five”.


Height at shoulder 1.8 m; weigh range 2000 – 2 300 kg (male) and 1400 – 1600 kg (female).

Dental formula

I C P M = 24


16 months

Distribution and habitat

Previously had a wide distribution but limited to reserves and game farms. It generally prefers dry savanna woodland, short-grassed areas with thick bush cover and water.

General behaviour

Rhino’s have poor vision and are unable to see a motionless person at 30 m. However, there sense of smell is excellent. In contrast to the black rhino the white rhino is mild and inoffensive in nature, and is easily frightened off.

Square-lipped rhino cannot survive in arid habitats as they are dependant on upon water and drink almost daily. They also use waterholes for wallowing, and coat themselves in mud. It is thought that the mud serves to protect the animal against biting insects. Although rhino’s have thick hides, the blood vessels lie just below the thin outer layer.

Male rhino’s are solitary and territorial. While often solitary female white rhino will form family groups with other females and their young.


A grazer, favours feeding on short grass.


White rhino mothers will stand protectively over their calf when threatened. Calves are vulnerable to attack by many predators including lions and hyenas. The white rhino calf walks in front of its mother. After a gestation period of 16 months, they are born but will stay with their mother’s for 2-3 years, until shortly before the birth of the next offspring when she will drive them away.

Life span

45 years


The rapid decline in numbers of both African rhino species is a result of extensive poaching for their horns. Their conservation status is critically endangered and all rhino are listed on CITES Appendix 1. The horns are sold on the black market, most go to Yemen and Asia. In Yemen the horns are carved into dagger handles, and in Asia they are ground for use as traditional medicine. The best chance for survival seems to lie in armed protection, their attraction in terms of tourist revenue and protection in nature reserves and parks.

Text by Denise Hamerton