The rhino is a homely beast,
For human eyes he's not a feast.
Farewell, farewell, you old rhinoceros,
I'll stare at something less prepoceros. (Ogden Nash)
Well, it seems that the white rhino – or more correctly, the square-lipped rhino because of its wide flat mouth, which is supremely well designed for its job as a lawn mower – was referred to as ‘wijd’ (wide) in Dutch. Somehow that became misunderstood or corrupted into ‘white’ by the dippy English. And while they were on a roll with colours, they simply dumped the name ‘black’ on the slightly smaller rhino so they didn’t have to think too hard.
The black rhino is more correctly called the hook-lipped rhino because of the almost finger-like protrusion of his upper lip, which allows him to grab hold of the leaves and shoots he loves to munch on. That prehensile lip is almost as clever as the tip of an elephant’s trunk, even allowing him to open gates or car doors if he really puts his mind to it.
Despite their armour-plated appearance, rhinos are fairly sensitive souls. Their skin may be an impressive 12-15 centimetres thick, but it’s actually quite susceptible to sunburn and insect bites. That’s why they love to wallow in a mud bath, caking themselves in a nice UV-protective, parasite-slaying mudpack. Since rhinos can’t sweat, the water also helps to keep them from overheating.
For all their bulk – a group of rhinos is rather appropriately called a ‘crash’ – they’re very agile and can turn quickly in a small space and charge at 45 kilometres an hour, snorting like a steam engine. In fact, they have quite an extended vocabulary of snorts, grunts, growls, squeaks and bellows to communicate their varied emotions and anxieties.
As compensation for their poor eyesight, they have large ears that can rotate to pick up sounds from many directions. The thick soles of their feet act much like your expensive trainers to absorb shock and cushion their stubby little legs.
Even the rhino’s toilet habits are worthy of note. They defecate in middens, great big piles of dung. The males in particular scatter the dung with their hind legs to advertise their dominance over a particular patch (though black rhino females also use middens). Another way for the males to show who’s boss is to spray urine backwards against trees and shrubs as a clear warning sign to anyone who may be getting a little uppity.
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