Unraveling the Rhino


Anyone can recognize a rhinoceros. Thanks to picture books, zoos, and toy stores, even toddlers know them by name. But that’s about as far as our knowledge goes. Rhinos are often underestimated and misunderstood. And with their numbers dwindling, it’s important to tell their story.

Greater Good Charities' Project Peril is dedicated to the conservation of species identified as in peril, threatened, endangered, or close to extinction throughout the world, including rhinos.

Once there were as many as 100 species of rhinos. Today there are just five. Africa is home to black rhinos and white rhinos. Greater one-horned rhinos, Sumatran, and Javan rhinos are found in Asia. All are classified as either vulnerable, near threatened, or critically endangered.

Not black or white

Black rhinos and white rhinos are both gray. “White” is likely a misinterpretation from English speakers who heard these animals referred to as “wijde,” Dutch for wide, in reference to the species’ wide mouths, perfect for grazing on grass. Black rhinos, who have a narrow, hooked lip for eating leaves and shrubs, are said to be named for the dark soil they love to wallow in—or just to distinguish them from their “White” cousins.

Resting rhino face


Maybe it’s the big, pointy horns in the middle of their heads. Or their skin, which looks like armor. Or that they’re the second-largest land animal. Rhinos look intimidating without even trying. In truth, they tend to be gentle creatures who like to eat plants and nap all day.

Tough on the outside

In zoos you’ll often find rhinos grouped with elephants and hippos in the pachyderm area. Pachyderm literally means “thick skin,” and while rhinos’ skin can be up to 2 inches thick, it’s sensitive and prone to sunburn. That’s why rhinos roll in the mud. It keeps them cool, and protects them from the sun, insect bites, and parasites. It’s also social and fun. And like the mud baths offered at fancy spas, rhinos benefit from the great source of vitamins and minerals, which ease muscle and joint pain.

Needless speed?

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Some call rhinos bad-tempered, because they charge a lot. But these generally laid-back herbivores have really poor eyesight, and when they feel threatened—even by a tree that they can’t tell is a tree—they advance—quickly—sometimes as fast as 30-40 miles per hour.

Rhinos aren’t dinos

Just because rhinos look like Triceratops’ fancy cousins, doesn't mean they’re related. Unlike the prehistoric reptiles, rhinos are mammals, and much closer kin to tapirs, horses, and zebras, their fellow odd-toed ungulates.

Bad medicine

Poachers have devastated the rhino population in the past decade, killing thousands in order to steal their horns. Made primarily of keratin—like our nails and hair—rhino horns are used medicinally in Asia for a large number of diseases and conditions, however no western scientific studies prove they have any curative benefits.

Beyond words

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Maybe you don’t listen to rhino sounds for relaxation, but these animals are excellent communicators amongst themselves. Growls and trumpet calls signal confrontation. Angry rhinos call out in sneeze-like fashion. Scared rhinos will scream, while happy ones make a “mmwonk” sound. Scents say a lot, too. Dominant male rhinos urinate around their territory to mark it. And dung heaps work like guest books; rhinos sniff them to find out who else is nearby.

Unlikely allies

Rhinos, which can weigh as little as an adult human or as much as an SUV, have a symbiotic relationship with birds, particularly oxpeckers. Small enough to fit in your hand, these birds eat insects—including ticks—off rhinos’ backs. They even remove bugs from rhinos’ ears and noses. Described as “the rhino’s guard” in Swahili, oxpeckers alert their big buddies when they sense danger.

Environmental workers

Black rhino calf Meimei (C) Save the Rhino International-1

Rhinos are tremendous stewards of their habitats. They shape the environment and strengthen biodiversity through the grasses and vegetation they graze on. Rhinos’ presence is crucial to the survival of our ecosystems.

You can help support our work protecting species like rhinos by making a one-time or monthly gift to support Project Peril.