Skip to main content
sdzglibrarybanner San Diego Zoo Global Library

Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) Fact Sheet: Population & Conservation Status

Population Status

Total population size

  • 5,040-5,458 individuals (in 2015) (Emslie et al. 2016)
  • Most wild black rhinos are conserved in 4 states
    • South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya conserve 96% of remaining wild population

Populations by subspecies (population estimates from Emslie et al. 2016)

  • D. b. bicornis (southwestern)
    • About 2,200 individuals
    • 91% live in Namibia, 9% in South Africa
    • 1 individual sighted in Angola; locally extinct in Rwanda since 1999
  • D. b. michaeli (eastern)
    • About 890 individuals
    • 80% live in Kenya, 8% in South Africa, 12% in Tanzania
  • D. b. minor (south central)
    • About 2,160 individuals
    • 76% live in South Africa, 19% in Zimbabwe
    • Small numbers remain in Botswana, Tanzania, Swaziland, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique
  • D. b. longipes (western)
    • Recently extinct

Historical population size

  • Most most numerous of all rhino species through much of 20th century
    • Hunting, land clearance, and poaching reduced to a few thousand
  • History of decline
    • 1800s-1900s: as many as 850,000; fairly continuous throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa
    • 1970: 65,000 in small, scattered, isolated populations
    • 1990: 3,800
    • 1995: 2,410 (low point) - 98% decline since 1960 due to large-scale poaching
    • 1999: 2, 700 - slight increase
    • 2001: 3,100 - slight increase
    • 2010: 4,880 (latest estimate) - steady increase over past 15 years

Conservation Status

IUCN Status

  • Diceros bicornis; Critically Endangered (2011 assessment) (Emslie  2012)
  • Some subspecies also assessed:​​​
    • Diceros bicornis ssp. michaeli; Critically Endangered  (2011 assessment) (Emslie 2011)​​
    • Diceros bicornis ssp. bicornis; Vulnerable (2011 assessment) (Emslie 2011)
    • Diceros bicornis ssp. longipes; Extinct (2011 assessment) (Emslie 2011)​


Conservation efforts

  • Populations in protected areas
    • Most rhinos now live in protected, managed game reserves
  • Needed efforts
    • Targeted research to examine seasonal diet
      • Imperative to understand the seasonal shift in diet when setting up protective reserves
    • Combat poaching
      • Many poached after wandering off a reserve looking for food during a drought
      • Assess the value of dehorning managed populations
        • The threat of poaching is still so prevalent, that some conservationists condone the practice, thus eliminating the temptation to poachers
    • Sustainable use (ecotourism, trophy hunting, horn harvesting, and trade in rhino products)
      • Management through sustainable use is controversial

Threats to Survival

Isolation of small populations

  • Unmanaged populations
    • Tend to be small and isolated
    • More vulnerable to disease, inbreeding, and local extinction


  • Highly vulnerability to poachers
    • Poor eyesight enables poachers to easily target rhinos, as long as they are down wind
      • Prior to human encroachment, rhinos did not suffer from predation pressure and therefore, did not evolve behavior or sensory capability to avoid predators
      • In Recent times, rhinos have learned some avoidance tactics
    • Sedentary nature, and regular activity patterns also make it easier for poachers to find them
      • E.g. rhinos revisit resting and watering spots
  • Reasons for poaching
    • Valued for their horns
      • Medicinal uses (most common)
        • Purported to help fevers, headaches, toxins, typhoid, jaundice, rashes, vomiting or excreting blood, to keep evil away, etc.
        • An aphrodisiac: contrary to popular thought, rarely used this way;  mostly by the Gujaratis in India
          • Horns are essentially the same chemical structure as hair; composed of keratin
      • Carved cups and dagger handles
      • Asian ("fire") horns thought by some to be more potent than African ("water") horns resulting in more hunting pressure for Asian species.
    • Blood and skin
      • Purported to have medicinal effects
  • Poaching market, major consumers
    • All rhino products: mostly China and Taiwan, but also Burma, Thailand, and Nepal
    • Horns, medicinal uses: Japan and Korea
    • Horns, dagger handles: Yemen (carved dagger handle is status symbol)
    • Also a strong market in countries with immigrants from these places (e.g., the Chinese living in the US)
  • Problems enforcing conservation laws
    • Civil war and political instability
    • Poverty due to exponential population growth, hyperinflation, and corruption
    • Well armed poaching gangs
    • Competition for land (leading to habitat destruction) by increasing populace
  • Other comments on poaching
    • It is likely that any improvement in health is due to the placebo effect (because of strong traditional beliefs), rather than to any real curative properties. Few scientific studies have been done, and have conflicting results (see Leader-Williams 1992)
    • Earliest evidence of horn use for medical reasons: 2600 BC, China
    • It is still legal to sell rhino products in many countries, and in others, enforcement is often lax

Page Citations

Ashley et al. (1990)
Emslie (2002)
Emslie (2012)
Emslie & Brooks (1999)
Leader-Williams (1992)
Schenkel & Schenkel-Hulliger (1969)

SDZG Library Links