Rhinoceros, commonly known as rhino, is a large, herbivorous mammal identified by its characteristic horned snouts and the northern white rhinoceros is one of the two serving species in Africa. In Uganda, only the white rhino lives.
Its name “rhinoceros” comes from the Greek words “rhino” (nose) and “ceros” (horn). They are renowned for having poor eyesight, but their senses of smell and hearing are well developed.
You can identify a rhino from other animals by their massive bodies, stumpy legs and either one or two dermal horns. In some species, the horns may be short or not obvious.
People have hunted rhinos for their horns, nearly to extinction. They sell them as trophies or ground the horns up and use the powder in folk medicine for their supposed healing properties.
According to Live Science, the powder is often added to food or brewed in tea, believing the horns are a powerful aphrodisiac, a hangover cure and treatment for fever, rheumatism, gout and other disorders.
The biggest of the five surviving species are Africa’s white rhino and Asia’s greater one-horned rhinos. The five species that still live include Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus), and Greater one-horned rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis), and only two are found in East Africa.
- White rhino (Ceratotherium simum) — the only rhino species surviving in Uganda
- The black rhino (Diceros bicornis) — is the smaller of the two African species, and you can see it in Kenya and Tanzania.
At one time, the black rhinoceros and northern white rhino occurred naturally in Uganda but were poached to local extinction.
Currently, there are a little over 24 Rhinos in Uganda under the protective watchfulness of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA).
The northern white rhino is a geographically isolated Black rhino race of the white rhino of southern Africa: formerly common in Uganda west of the Albert Nile.
You can join a walking safari excursion to see the White Rhinos up close in Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, just outside Murchison Falls National Park or at Uganda Wildlife Education Center (UWEC) Zoo in Entebbe.
The Northern White Rhinoceros
Also known as the Square-lipped rhino, the northern white rhinoceros (or just white rhino) is the larger of the two surviving species in Africa. It has a bigger head and spends most of the day with its head lowered on the ground feeding.
Both black and white rhinoceroses are actually grey, not white, as the name suggests. They are different, not in colour but lip shape.
The black rhino has a pointed upper lip, while its white relative has a squared lip. The difference in lip shape is related to the animals’ diets.
Black rhinos are browsers that get most of their sustenance from eating trees and bushes, and they use their lips to pluck leaves and fruit from the branches. Northern white rhinos graze on grasses, walking with their enormous heads and squared lips lowered to the ground.
The head hangs down, low to the ground; they look up only when alarmed. They have two horns on the end of their nose, and the front horn is usually much larger than the inner horn.
Rhinos are known for their distinct ‘prehistoric’, solid look, appropriate labelling for one of the oldest land mammal species in the world and live up to 50 years. It can weigh 40-50 kilos at birth and an adult male between 1,800 and 2,500 kilos and females 1,800-2,000 kilos and stand at shoulder height: 1.5 – 1.8 m
There are two subspecies of White rhino: Southern (Ceratotherium simum simum): approximately 17,212 and 18,915 individuals exist, the only specie surviving in Uganda and the Northern (Ceratotherium simum cottoni): only two animals remain.
The northern white rhinoceros lives on Africa’s grassy plains, where it sometimes gathers in groups of as many as a dozen individuals. Under the hot African sun, a white rhino will take cover by lying in the shade.
They are also wallowers; they will find a suitable water hole and roll in its mud, coating their skin with a natural bug repellent and sunblock that gives them the skin colour.
They have sharp hearing and a keen sense of smell that they use to find one another by following the trail of scent each enormous animal leaves behind trading the landscape.
The mating system in white rhinoceroses is polygynandry, meaning both males and females have multiple sexual partners.
Male white rhinos are vigilant for females who enter their territory. Once the female enters the domain, the male remains with the female for a day to investigate whether the female is ready to mate. If the female is ready, the male usually follows her for 3 to 5 more days, during which time the females respond with snorts and roars.
Before mating, pair bonds last for 5 to 20 days; in this period, if females attempt to enter another male’s territory, males block the way, and sometimes a confrontation will occur. However, if females successfully enter another male’s territory, the previous male will discontinue his effort to follow the female.
Males can detect whether females are ready to mate by the urine smell; urine includes chemicals that signal females in estrus. Females usually experience their first estrus at three and a half years, but they don’t breed until age 5. Almost all females breed after five years of age. Some signs of mating behaviours sent by a female northern white rhinoceros are frequent urination and whistling sounds.
Among males of the same population, faecal testosterone levels in territorial males are higher than the non-territorial males. Furthermore, territorial males usually spend more time with females and generally have more mating partners than non-territorial males. Thus, territorial males have higher reproductive success than non-territorial males.
While mating, male white rhinoceroses place both of their feet on the back of the female. Copulation lasts for 15 to 30 minutes on average, with ejaculations every 4 to 5 minutes. Mating behaviour continues for 2 to 5 days as male testosterone levels are high for 2 to 5 days. After that, the female leaves the male’s territory.
White rhinoceroses breed throughout the year, but breeding usually peaks between October to December in southern African populations and February to June in eastern African populations.
White rhinos give birth to one offspring at a time, which weighs, on average, 48.5 kilograms at birth and doubles its size by six months.
Mothers are the sole caregivers of the young, and males have no parental investment beyond the mating process. Calves start grazing at two months, but they depend on their mothers for nutrition until six months after birth. Beyond six months, the mother still nurses the calf and protects them from predators and external threats, such as wildfire.
Furthermore, calves usually move in front of their mother in the early stage of their life, responding immediately when their mothers change direction. Calves typically follow their mothers continuously for two months, and white rhinoceros stay with their mothers for 2.5 to 3 years. At that time, the mothers drive their calves out of their territories and become sexually receptive again.
Communication and Perception
White rhinoceroses communicate using several different noises. Typically, male white rhinos are louder than females. In addition, males make grunts and snorts during fights with other bulls.
Females utter a loud bass bellow while fighting with other females or in confrontation with males. Panting, whining, and squeaking are the sounds made by calves if they do not see their mother. White rhinoceroses often make gruff squeaking sounds when chasing or being chased, and their defensive sound is snarling. Male rhinos make hic-throbbing sounds when approaching females.
Rhinos are nearsighted but have heightened hearing and smell senses. Therefore, olfactory communications play a significant role in securing their territories.
In white rhinoceros populations, dominant males spray their urine to mark the boundaries of their territories. Furthermore, white rhinoceroses have communal dung heaps, which makes it easier for rhinoceroses to identify each other in an area. Communal dung heaps also play a role in mating because males can determine if a female is prepared to mate based on the smell of the dung.
Uganda’s Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary
Besides UWEC Zoo in Entebbe (near the international airport), Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary is the only other place you’ll be able to see the White Rhino. You can take a drive or a guided walking excursion in the Sanctuary perimeter, and the place is convenient en route to Murchison Falls National Park.
You can practically drive there in three hours, join the rhino tracking excursion, have lunch in Masindi, and drive back to Kampala on the same day.
Ziwa entrance fee is $20 for foreigners and 10K for Nationals. Rhino Tracking is $30/20K for foreigners/nationals, and nature walks and bird watching excursions are $20/20K per person. The guided shoebill tracking costs $25/20K per person.
Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary was a collaborative effort between the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the Rhino Fund Uganda, a Ugandan NGO committed to restoring Uganda’s northern white rhinoceros population and Ziwa Ranchers Limited, a private land management company. Currently, the ranch is entirely run by UWA.
The sanctuary offers a secure place where rhino populations can be expanded by breeding, protected from human and non-human predators and gradually re-introduced into Uganda’s national parks while at the same time allowing the public to enjoy these majestic animals as the project moves forward.
A team of approximately 78 park rangers and security guards keep a 24-hour watch on the rhinos to ensure their safety. The 70 square kilometres (7,000 ha) sanctuary is surrounded by a 2 metres (6.6 ft) electric fence to keep the rhinos in and the intruders out. It is also home to at least 40 mammal and reptilian species, including monkeys, antelopes, hippopotamuses, crocodiles and numerous bird species including the magnificent shoebill prehistoric bird.
Tourist facilities at the sanctuary include a safari lodge, guest house, budget accommodation, and campgrounds. The accommodations are two separate businesses, and both have restaurants that offer meals to tourists. In addition to on-foot rhino trekking, tourist activities include birding, canoe rides and nature walks.