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White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) Fact Sheet: Population & Conservation Status

Population Status

Population estimates (Emslie 2012; International Rhino Foundation 2014; IUCN 2010; Simmons 2018)

  • Northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni)
    • 1903: subspecies discovered
      • More numerous than southern subspecies, but much rarer than black rhino
    • 1960: 2,230
    • 1971: 650
    • 1981: <350
    • 1991: 30
    • 2010: 4 in Africa (99.8% decline since 1960), as of 2010 December
    • 2015 (15 November): 3 in Africa
    • 2018 (20 March): 2 in Africa
  • Southern white rhino (C. s. simum)
    • 1895: only one population of <100 animals left in the wild
    • 1929: 150
    • 1948: 550
    • 1968: 1,800
    • 1987: 4,665
    • 1997: 8,440 individuals in 247 populations
    • 2002: 11,640 individuals
    • 2010: 20,160 in wild, as of December 2010 (see IUCN page)
      • Primarily South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya
    • 2013: 20,405
    • 2015: approximately 20,000 (Emslie et al. 2016)

Conservation Status

IUCN Status

CITES Status

  • Geographically distinct listings (UNEP 2019)
    • South Africa and Swaziland, southern subspecies (C. s. simum) - Appendix II
    • All other populations (both subspecies) - Appendix I

Southern white rhino recovery

  • One of the most remarkable conservation achievements
    • Strict protections put in place when down to fewer than 100 animals in South Africa
    • Effective measure grew population
    • By 1961, individuals were being moved and reintroduced to other parts of southern Africa
    • Now the most numerous species of rhinoceros in the world

Threats to Survival

Isolation of small populations


  • 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


White Rhino Conservation

Nola a white Rhino

Only 2 northern white rhinoceros remain in the world.

Nola, pictured above, was the last member of her subspecies in the United States; two other females survive in Africa. San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is developing techniques to use artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and surrogate southern white rhinos.

The outlook for southern white rhinos is more hopeful and their population recovery is a remarkable conservation achievement. Once numbering fewer than 100 individuals, a more healthy population of over 20,000 now survive in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Botswana and Swaziland.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Charlton (2015)
Emslie (2012)
Emslie and Brooks (1999)
International Rhino Foundation (2002)
International Rhino Foundation (2014)
IUCN (2010)

Leader-Williams (1992)
Owen-Smith (1973)

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