Have you ever seen a rhinoceros in the wild? You may be able to identify them by their characteristic horns resting atop their nose or their wrinkly skin, but there’s a lot more to these large mammals!

What types of rhinos are there?

There are five different rhino species, and World Wildlife Fund works with nearly all of them through varying locations across the globe. You’ll find white rhinos and black rhinos in Africa, greater one-horned rhinos in northern India and southern Nepal, and Sumatran and Javan rhinos in Malaysia and Indonesia.

How did rhinos get their names?

Try to say “rhinoceros” five times fast… it is quite the challenge! The word “rhinoceros” stems from the Greek words rhino meaning “nose” and ceros meaning “horn.” The full name pays homage to the unique characteristic of this valiant animal, its horn. Each of the specific species has name origins that differentiate their unique characteristics, regions, or history.

It is a common misconception that both black and white rhinos’ names refer to the color of their skin, when in fact, they both are gray. White rhinos get their name from the Afrikaans, a West Germanic language, where the word “weit” means wide and refers to the animal’s mouth. Also known as the square-lipped rhinoceros, white rhinos have a square upper lip with almost no hair. On the other hand, black rhinos have a hooked upper lip, also giving them the nickname “the hook-lipped rhino”. You can spot these rhinos on Natural Habitat Adventure’s Kenya Rhino Conservation Safari and Nat Hab’s Epic Botswana & Namibia Safari.

Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) mother and calf, Lewa & Borana Conservancy, Kenya.

Black rhinoceros mother and calf in Kenya. © naturepl.com / Will Burrard-Lucas / WWF

Three White rhinoceroses (Ceratotherium simum) walking together, Solio Game Reserve, Laikipia, Kenya. September.

Three white rhinoceroses in Kenya. © naturepl.com / Tui De Roy / WWF

The name of the greater one-horned rhino is self-explanatory, they have one horn. Almost all of the other species of rhinos have two atop their nose. Their scientific name is “Rhinoceros unicornis” referring to their “unicorn-like” appearance due to the singular horn.

Greater one-horned Rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis) Kaziranga Tiger reserve, India.

A greater one-horned rhino in India. © WWF-Sweden / Ola Jennersten

Venturing over to Malaysia and Indonesia, we come across the Sumatran and Javan rhino species, which get their name from this distinct region they call home. The Javan rhino is the other species that has one horn, and they live in the Java region of Indonesia. Today, this species solely resides in Ujung Kulon National Park in Java, Indonesia. Lastly, the Sumatran rhino once roamed as far away as the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas in Bhutan and eastern India, through Myanmar, Thailand, possibly to Vietnam and China, and south through the Malay Peninsula. Today, the species only survives on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Like the Javan rhino, their name refers to the region in which they live.

Javan Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus) Ujung Kulon National Park, Java, Indonesia.

A Javan rhinoceros swimming in Java, Indonesia. © Stephen ​Belcher Photography / WWF

The last Sumatran rhinoceros individual of Malaysia Iman, photographed at her sanctuary in Malaysia. Iman died 23.11.2019 of cancer. Iman was photographed only weeks before her death by a Finnish photographer Kaisa Siren.

A Sumatran rhino after a mud bath in Malaysia. © Kaisa Siren

Are rhinos endangered?

Currently, three out of the five rhino species are considered to be critically endangered: the black, Javan, and Sumatran rhinos. Critically endangered means that this species is facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.

Rhinos once roamed many places throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa and were known to early Europeans who depicted them in cave paintings. At the beginning of the 20th century, 500,000 rhinos roamed Africa and Asia. By 1970, rhino numbers dropped to 70,000, and today, around 27,000 rhinos remain in the wild. Very few rhinos survive outside national parks and reserves due to persistent poaching and habitat loss over many decades. Three species of rhino—black, Javan, and Sumatran—are critically endangered. Today, a small population of Javan rhinos is found in only one national park on the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Java. A mainland subspecies of the Javan rhino was declared extinct in Vietnam in 2011. Successful conservation efforts have led to an increase in the number of greater one-horned (or Indian) rhinos, from around 200 at the turn of the 20th century to around 3,700 today. The greater one-horned rhino is one of Asia’s biggest success stories, with their status improving from endangered to vulnerable following significant population increases. However, the species remains under threat from poaching for its horn and from habitat loss and degradation.

In Africa, southern white rhinos once thought to be extinct, now thrive in protected sanctuaries and are classified as near threatened. But the western black rhino and northern white rhinos have recently become extinct in the wild. The only two remaining northern white rhinos are kept under 24-hour guard in Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Black rhinos have doubled in number over the past two decades from their low point of fewer than 2,500 individuals, but total numbers are still a fraction of the estimated 100,000 that existed in the early part of the 20th century.

Two white rhinoceroses (Ceratotherium simum) running in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve, South Africa

Two white rhinos running in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa. © Bo Dabi

What is being done to support rhinos?

The World Wildlife Fund plays a vital role in the fight to protect rhinos. With nearly 60 years of experience, WWF knows that successful rhino conservation requires a comprehensive approach that brings together the world’s leading experts to develop global strategies to save and recover these species.

WWF secures and protects rhino populations and establishes new populations through translocations—the process of moving rhinos from parks with significant populations to others that historically held rhinos but currently do not. WWF helps with community-based conservation approaches for people living in and around important rhino habitats.

Additionally, WWF works to curb poaching by implementing innovative technology and building the capacity of government and community rangers on the ground. They also prioritize tackling the illegal trade of—and demand for—rhino horn through advocacy and strengthening of local and international law enforcement to bring trafficking perpetrators to justice.

WWF collaborates closely with government agencies in the US and globally as well as other international and local non-governmental organization partners to broaden support for rhino conservation.

Specifically, WWF has been part of a wonderful success story with the greater one-horned rhino, putting it at the top as one of the greatest conservation success stories in Asia. Today, this rhino population stands at around 3,700 individuals, a significant increase from around 200 remaining at the turn of the 20th century. Strict protection and management action from Indian and Nepalese authorities and their partners are responsible for bringing the species back from the brink. However, the species’ remarkable recovery is constrained by a lack of adequate habitat and the ongoing threat of poaching for their horns. Currently, 85% of all greater one-horned rhinos are concentrated in just two locations in India and Nepal.

To ensure the continued recovery of the greater one-horned rhino, WWF is supporting the establishment of new populations by translocating rhinos to protected areas with suitable habitats within the species’ historic range. Translocating rhinos from the two main populations will allow both groups to expand into new territories and will also decrease densities in crowded parks, leading to increased breeding rates. They are setting up systematic monitoring programs to measure the health and status of resident and newly translocated rhinos, as well as supporting effective protection measures.

To learn more about the projects World Wildlife Fund is doing to protect rhinos, watch below.