The Life and Extinction of the Western Black Rhinoceros

Avatar of Noha Basiouny
Updated on: Educator Review By: Michelle Connolly

Every living being is designed to survive and flourish in its original habitat, where food, shelter, and favourable weather conditions are available. Yet, every living being, too, is designed to fight for survival if any of these conditions are disturbed.

Whether the change is temporary or permanent, organisms survive it either by immigration, hibernation or evolution. Yet, when they fail to get through that change or if it happens to be sudden, catastrophic, or persistently prolonged, organisms sadly go extinct.

For a long time, nature was mostly to blame for the extinction of many species. Climate change may have caused some prehistoric animals, such as the mammoth, to disappear. Inevitable catastrophes can also lead to extinction. For instance, scientists attribute the sudden disappearance of dinosaurs after millions of years of survival on Earth to a super large asteroid impact that completely wiped them out.

Yet, we, too, share the responsibility for eradicating several species. In the 17th century, Dutch sailors completely destroyed the dodo bird when they colonised the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, to which the dodo was native.

And that is not the only example.

Back in late 2011, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN, declared the western black rhino, or the west African black rhino, extinct. The poor animal was already facing alarming dangers for the entire past century, on top of which was the illegal mass killing by humans.

As its numbers continued to decline at a faster pace during the second half of the 20th century, the western black rhino was listed as ‘critically endangered‘ in 2006. It is even said that it was last reportedly sighted in 2003. The search for extant individuals went on until 2011, and when none were spotted, the western black rhino was announced extinct.

So how did this happen? Why did humans kill the western black rhino? And what kind of animal was it in the first place? Were there other factors that contributed to its disappearance?

Well, that is precisely what we are tackling in today’s article. 

So let’s hop into it.

Black Rhinoceros - Namibia
The rare Black Rhinoceros drinking at a waterhole in Etosha National Park in Namibia

Western black rhino

To know what kind of animal the western black rhino was, we must first learn a few things about rhinos in general.

Rhinoceros, or rhinos for short, are a diverse family of super large hooved, horned animals that appeared on Earth millions of years ago. There are five different species of rhinoceros. Two of them are native to Africa, while the remaining three are originally from Asia.

The two African rhino species are the white rhino and the black rhino. Interestingly, none of these two species is either white or black. Both of them are different hues of grey. But what sets them apart is the body size, skull structure, forehead length, and lip shape, which are distinct because of their different eating habits.

The black rhinos are further classified into eight subspecies. The western black rhino, the one we are concerned about today, is one of those subspecies that emerged about seven or eight million years ago. It is also referred to as the west African black rhino. Unfortunately, this subspecies, along with two others, are now extinct.

Before it went extinct, the western black rhino used to live in southeast Africa, precisely in Angola, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, and many others.

And before they went extinct, too, western black rhinos used to have a lifespan of 35-50 years.


The western black rhino was a giant.

On average, it measured 3.4 m long, 1.6 m tall, and weighed between 900 and 1,400 kg. Despite this heavy weight, the western black rhino could run at 55 km/h.

One thing that distinguished the western black rhino was its two horns, which eventually pushed it over the verge of extinction, as we will see later. Such horns were not made of bones but rather of keratin. Keratin is a protein that also makes up hair, nails, hoofs, and claws.

The front horn was longer, measuring between 0.5 cm and 1.3 cm, while the rear one was shorter, with a maximum length of 55 cm. Both horns may have weighed three kg on average.

Another distinct characteristic of the western black rhino was its obviously thick, dark grey, multi-layer skin. It protected the body, especially against injuries, for it was too thick to easily cut.

Speaking of senses, the western black rhino was quite lucky. Apart from its fairly good vision, it enjoyed a perfect hearing ability. Thanks to its tubular ears that could rotate in all directions, the western black rhino could detect sounds at long distances. It also had a perfect sense of smell, which might have been its most important asset in detecting the presence of dangers.

Scientists usually classify animals that have no natural predators as apex predators. Those are on top of the food chain. They are meat-eaters, so they feed on other animals, but no other animal feeds on them.

That said, the western black rhino had no natural predators. Yet, it was not an apex predator, nor was it a meat eater. And despite its reportedly aggressive nature, it did not attack other animals. So we can pretty much classify it as neither predator nor prey. 


Like their other African rhino relatives, western black rhinos were herbivores. They fed on plants by browsing, not grazing. That means they lifted their heads to pick up and eat leaves from tree branches instead of leaning down to the grass on the ground.

Interestingly, the western black rhino had a lot of food preferences. The varieties of the plants it fed on were as many as 220! Yet, just because it ate many things does not mean it ate anything. The western black rhino apparently preferred high-quality plants over low-quality ones, even if the latter were abundant.

As flexible as they could be, western black rhinos also altered their diet if they had to compete with elephants over food. If elephants were around, western black rhinos would typically avoid the plants that they, the elephants, consumed.

Typically, western black rhinos foraged in the morning and evening, usually when the weather was cool. When the Sun was up in the sky, the large mammal used to rest in the shadow, shower in a nearby lake, or wallow in the mud.


Western black rhino males and females, known as bulls and cows, were mature enough to mate at the age of seven and between five and seven years old, respectively. Mating could happen at any time of the year.

Usually, several males would be interested in one female. But she would only pick whoever could prove he was worthy of her.

Such a thing often happened through fighting. Males used to aggressively combat each other to prove to the female they were the strongest and therefore win her heart. Unfortunately, such fights sometimes ended with the death of one of the competing males.

A female western black rhino used to stay pregnant for 13 to 14 months. Then she would give birth to a single calf weighing 35 and 50 kg. Calves were the full responsibility of their mothers. They could walk and move around only a few days after delivery, and they nursed for around two years.

After that, mothers would start introducing their calves to solid food, plants, which they soon permanently turned to.


Western black rhinos did not seem to have a defined society like many other animals. In fact, they were quite solitary. Males typically lived on their own, and they did not get in contact with females unless for mating.

Mothers took full care of calves. When they, the calves, grew older, they tended to move away from their mothers, especially if they were males. Female calves were found to stay longer with their mothers.

Western black rhinos were somewhat territorial. Adults, whether males or females, used to declare certain areas as their homes. Usually, these were the places they foraged in. 

If food was abundant, territories were usually small. But when food got scarce, rhinos had to wander further to look for something to eat. That was when their territories got larger.

Interestingly, if a female was taking care of a calf, her territory would typically be larger than that of a single male.

That said, western black rhinos did not seem very strict with the borders of their territories. Sometimes, territories overlapped, and different individuals might have entered others’ homes. But that was not a big problem for the western black rhinos. Despite their aggressive nature, they did not seem to care much about that.

One way western black rhinos identified themselves and probably their territories as well was by scent marking. They used to leave their scents on the trees and bushes to let others know about their presence.

Surprisingly, western black rhinos could tell a lot about an individual only from their scents. They could determine who they were, their age, and whether they were males or females.

Close up of a Black rhino head in the Kruger.
Close up of a Black rhino head in the Kruger National Park, South Africa.

Population decline

Although the western black rhino survived on Earth for about eight million years despite the dangers and natural catastrophes it must have encountered, the population witnessed a drastic decline that led to extinction only during the last 100 years.

So what happened exactly?

For the most part, poaching, which is the illegal killing of animals, is to blame for the disappearance of the western black rhino. Ever since the beginning of the 20th century, the western black rhino was hunted in large numbers.

At the time, its population was nearly a million individuals, precisely 850,000. Then, poachers started killing the animal to take advantage of its horns which were thought to have healing powers in some eastern Asian cultures!

In China, for instance, the rhino’s horn powder was believed to cure many diseases as well as hangovers. In Vietnam, traditional doctors believed it could cure cancer. That said, there is no actual laboratory evidence for that.

Soon enough, the western black rhino numbers started to decline.

Though multiple African countries took many conservation actions and temporarily stopped the population from declining, poaching severed even more that no preservation efforts seemed to work after that.

By 1980, only 100 western black rhinos were left. By the end of the 20th century, there were only 10 individuals left, which dropped to five by the following year. The last western black rhino was sighted in Cameroon in 2006. That is when it was declared critically endangered.

The IUCN does not typically change the status of a species to ‘extinct’ until five years later. That means, for five years, expeditions were set out to look for western black rhinos in their habitat. However, no sightings were made. Eventually, it was declared extinct in 2011.

Other factors

Despite poaching taking most of the blame for eliminating the western black rhino, it seems like other factors also led to that inevitable fate. All of them are related to the animal’s very own nature.

Western black rhinos did have a low reproductive rate that was lowered even more as many individuals disappeared. 

As mentioned, a female could not mate until she was seven years old. She stayed pregnant for over a year. She was also unable to mate again until three years after giving birth. If the female was poached during any of the periods, not only did the number of breeding females decrease, but the abandoned baby rhino was also put at risk.

Another point that may have pushed the western black rhino toward extinction is its aggressiveness. Males did not just fight for females, but they, and females as well, did fight for other reasons too. Half the time, injuries from these fights led to death.

Conservation attempts

It is not like the western black rhino was left alone to face poaching until it was eventually eliminated. But several conservation attempts were indeed made to save the animal, some of which did work for a period of time. However, nothing could eventually keep up with the high pace at which the western black rhino population was declining.

One way to save the animal was to breed it, whether naturally or artificially. Yet, neither of these two seemed to work. Several western black rhinos were kept captive to protect them from poachers and breed them. But the animals showed a different attitude in captivity.

For instance, western black rhinos seemed stressed while kept captive. It was much more challenging to feed them than in the wild. It also seemed hard to encourage them to mate. And when scientists tried to artificially fertilise females, the attempt mostly failed.


And here comes the end of today’s adventure, in which we explored the life of the western black rhino and why it went extinct.

In this article, we learned about the western black rhino by following its lineage back to its first ancestor. We studied what it looked like as well as its most notable characteristics. We learned a little about its feeding habits and how often it reproduced.

Then we discussed the western black rhino’s behaviour. We understood that males and females were both solitary except when females cared for calves. We also discussed how individuals identified themselves and why they got into fights with each other.

After that, we looked into the main reasons why the western black rhino population started to decline. While humans take most of the blame for illegally killing it, the fact that the western black rhino had a low reproductive rate and that many individuals were killed in combat also contributed to their inevitable extinction.

Finally, we explored some conservation attempts that were initiated to save the western black rhino. Keeping individuals captive and trying to breed them, whether naturally or artificially, was more challenging than expected and could not help stop the rhinos’ numbers from declining.

We hope you liked this article as much as we loved writing it for you. You can still learn a lot about other extant or extinct animals, as well as many other interesting topics, here on our website. So make sure you always come back to it.

And until another adventure, keep learning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *