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Specimen of the Month: The White Rhino (Ceratotherium simum)

This month, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma-Louise Nicholls, has the pleasure of telling us all about her favourite odd-toed ungulate, the rhinoceros. 

Oh my goodness gracious, I get to write a blog about rhinos, my absolute favourite animal. Hold on to your hats and don't go anywhere folks, this is going to be exciting. Not only is this the penultimate Specimen of the Month blog to focus on each of the eight species of animal in our incredible Robot Zoo, it also happens to be World Rhino Day!

A feat of engineering 

  • Robot Rhino, The rhino robot in our very popular Robot Zoo.
    The rhino robot in our very popular Robot Zoo.

The robotic rhino grazing on the snazzy grey carpet in the Robot Zoo is made largely out of every day and household objects, this ingenious work of engineering manages to pick out all of the White Rhino’s most important features. It has a fly swatter hanging off of its rear end for example, as real rhinos flick away irritating insects with a swish of their hair-tipped tails - although only two of the five species of rhino have a particularly tufty tail per se; the White Rhino and the smaller, delightfully furry Sumatran Rhino. Microphones for ears, and large cones they called 'smell-inlets' for nostrils demonstrate the rhinos excellent senses of smell and hearing. Armour plating represents their thick skin and bright purple rubber takes the place of thick grass-gripping lips. It even uses a crane to lift the head, demonstrating how strong their neck muscles are.

A tale of two rhinos

  • Southern White Rhinoceros, Southern White Rhino at Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park in South Africa. Very few people can tell the difference between a Northern and a Southern White Rhino by eye, in case you were wondering.
    Southern White Rhino at Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park in South Africa. Very few people can tell the difference between a Northern and a Southern White Rhino by eye, in case you were wondering.

There are two subspecies of White Rhino; the Southern and the Northern. The wild population numbers of Southern White Rhino is a huge feather in the cap of conservation, and every one of these thick-skinned beasts hoofing about in sub-Saharan Africa is a testament to how humans aren’t entirely useless as a species. The White Rhino was down to just 100 individuals in the late 19th Century due to hunting in the colonial era. Due to intensive conservation efforts, the numbers have risen to over 20,000 and subsequently the (Southern) White Rhino is not currently listed as endangered. 

In contrast, their friends in the North are not doing so well. There are three Northern White Rhinos in the world. Three. They are called Sudan, who is the only male, and Najin and Fatu who are both females. Unfortunately, Sudan is Najin’s father and Fatu’s grandfather, making repopulating the earth with Northern White Rhinos an awkward conversation. Further complicating things is that Sudan has to be under armed guard 24 hours a day to protect him from poachers who would target him for his horn, which is as medicinal as the metal cone on our robot. 

A sixth rhino?

  • Nola the Northern White Rhino, This is a female Northern White Rhino that used to live at San Diego Zoo.
    This is a female Northern White Rhino that used to live at San Diego Zoo.

There has been an argument put forward that the Northern White Rhino is not, in fact, a subspecies of the slightly larger White rhino but a distinct species in its own right. Personally the idea of there being six rather five species of rhino in the world means Christmas has come early in my book, but the proposed name of Nile Rhino may never make it into the history books as the rhino scientists of the world met the proposal with scepticism. Darn it. Still - as exciting as it would be on the one hand if Sudan and his family of two did represent a distinct species, on the other, it would mean we are on the verge of losing a much more genetically distinct animal than previously thought. I could explain in detail why having distinct species is important to the ecosystem (not just rhino enthusiasts), but I’m out of space so you’ll have to campaign for the Horniman to allow me more rhino airtime.

Until then- Happy World Rhino Day!