In search of the African Grey Unicorn

Unicorns, mythical beasts that are confined to fairy tales and children’s storybooks, right? Wrong. If you come to South Africa and look deep into the African bush you might just see one. No, I’m not talking about the fabled horses/goat type animal with flowing manes and a single horn, but rather something that is more prehistoric, a critically endangered herbivore, a mammal with stunning grey skin, and two beautiful but deadly horns.

Have you guessed yet what the African unicorn is? If not, I’ll give you another hint, this animal is a hook-lipped browser, that feeds on bushes, trees, and shrubs, have you figured it out? Yes, I’m talking about the Black Rhino.

Although modern-day societies have relegated the Unicorn to an animal of myth and legend, in much ancient society’s it was a revered animal that appears in many natural history books of the time. It was an animal of purity and grace whose horns had the power to cure sickness, impotency, or poison. They were a rare animal and if you had enough money you could purchase one of these horns, not only to show off your power and status but to protect you (sounds familiar right?). It is now widely thought that these Unicorn horns were from either Narwhales or Rhinos.

Because of intensive poaching, which has caused their numbers to crash, seeing these beautiful animals is a rare and special event. At first, you see something grey hiding in the bush and you know you are about to see something special. You see a Rhino with its head held high, you see the pointed lip and you can’t help but smile, even if you only get a fleeting glimpse, before it thunders off into the bush.

Illustration & Photograph © WWF

Some interesting facts about the Black Rhino:

  • Diceros bicornis is the Black Rhino’s scientific name. “Di” means “two”, “Cerato” means “horn” in Greek and “bi” means “two”, and “cornis” means “horn” in Latin – so their name latterly means two horn, two horns. The females use their horns to protect their young from predators, whilst males use them to help them defend their territories.
  • They are much smaller than their White Rhino cousins. On average the female’s weight is 900kg and the male’s 1350kg. Their birth weight is normally in the 35-45kg range.
  • The easiest way to tell that you are looking at Black Rhino dung is to look for twigs or branches in the dung, the ends of which are always at a 45-degree angle.
  • They are part of a group of animals called odd-toed ungulates and the taxonomic order Perissodactyla – there are 17 species and 3 family groups in this order (Horses (Equidae), Tapirs (Tapiridae), and Rhinos (Rhinocerotidae))
  • The Black Rhinos’ upper lip is prehensile and pointed. This means that their upper lip is flexible and moves which allows them to grab and manipulate the tastiest branches and leaves.
  • Red-billed and Yellow-billed Oxpeckers are sometimes found riding on the Black Rhinos’ back. They help remove ticks from the Rhino’s delicate skin and will also alert the Rhino to any danger. Next time you go on a bushwalk and you hear the distinctive Oxpecker call, remember that it is alerting you to the presence of a large animal.
  • Think you can outrun these magnificent beasts? Think again, scientists think that the top running speed for a human is 40kmh (and even then, you will have to be in top condition) a Black Rhino on the other hand is 55kmh. They are also able to change direction astonishingly quickly, and they use their bulk to run through bushes and shrubs.

One thing is certain about these beautiful animals. If we don’t work now to preserve and increase their numbers then sooner rather than later, they will also join the ranks of fairy tale animals.

Rhino Dehorning | EcoTraining

EcoTraining students had the privilege of meeting Dr. Peter Rodgers from Provet and took part in an incredible rhino dehorning mission. Dr. Rodgers and his team at Provet Wildlife Services have been dedicated to the health and safety of our wildlife for over 20 years. Listen as he explains the intricacies that go into a dehorning and why this is imperative for conservation and the survival of rhino.

About The Author

Written by Emma Summers

Emma Summers is an EcoTraining Camp Manager at Selati Game Reserve.