Why is the White Rhino called White

wide mouth white rhino

Why is the White Rhino called White

Most people are familiar with African animals and their common names, but sometimes searching for the origins and meanings of these names can be a fun and rewarding exercise. Some keen naturalists prefer to use the Latin/scientific names, as it sets a standard and avoids confusion, but the common names in some of our native African languages can be very descriptive and usually conveys a story and a deep understanding of the animal.

Sometimes as humans if we are not able to find the true origins of a name, which can be very hard to trace, we may be inclined to create our own story or ‘truths’. As time goes by and these names and stories enter the realm of common knowledge that everyone accepts, the true origins are lost and its validity is never really questioned again.

So how did the White Rhino get it's Name?

One such story or ‘truth’ is the age old tale of how the White rhinoceros received its name. On most safari vehicles or in many guide books you will find a commonly repeated explanation of where the ‘white’ in the White Rhinos name comes from. The story has a few variations but it basically states that the early Dutch settlers referred to this rhino as having a “wijde lip” or wide lip. The English mistook the word “wijde” (meaning wide) for “white” and so assumed that they were being called white rhinos by the Dutch. It’s such a nice story, and although there is no literature to support it, most guides and authors will defend it emphatically. There is a flaw in this though, anyone who is familiar or has studied Middle Dutch (spoken in the 17th century), will know that the word “wijde” in its adjective form could not be used to indicate the body part of an animal or human. The word “breed” or “breede” is used for that purpose, as “wijd” or “weit” in modern German is used to describe distance between places.

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There is however hunting journals dating back to 1690 with “witte rhinoster” being among the described hunted beasts. So the question is, why white? Well two plausible explanations come to mind. Early writings of the infamous Captain William Cornwallis Harris, a captain in the East India company who spent two years from 1836-1838 pursuing his passion for hunting and depicting wildlife, describes the White rhino as being a shade or two lighter than its “olive brown” counterpart (Black Rhino) when viewed in its true complexion (as Rhinos are often covered in mud or dust), often approaching a creamy color according to him. Was this color difference enough to be used for name differentiation?

Another hypothesis sprouts from the fact that William Burchell, a famous English naturalist, who in 1812 shot his first specimen(s) of White Rhino in the Kuruman area of the Northern Cape. This is an area where many a hunter prior to this has hunted them. That area of the Cape is dotted with calcrete pans, and after a wallow or dust bath in these pans, an animal may very well be seen as decidedly white! Thus a version of the story supported by history could be that early settlers in the Cape, who soon encountered the Black Rhino (African Rhinoceros as they named it) would only decades later cross the Cape fold mountains to the North, travel over the dry Nama-Karoo biome to reach the southern Kalahari Thornveld Savannah. In this area littered with white salt/limestone pans, they would have observed or ‘collected’ a much paler looking Rhinoceros to its already known counterpart further south, hence their description as a “witte” - white Rhinoceros in their recorded writings of the beasts that were hunted. These are merely possible reasons for the naming of this magnificent animal and it still is and will be largely up for debate for some time to come.

Some More Names Discussed

Some animal names are derived from their Latin or scientific names, such as Hippopotamus which literally translates into ‘river horse’ (Hippopotamus amphibious) or “sea cow” in Afrikaans, but not many of us are familiar with the derivation of African names. South Africa is a culturally diverse place, and with many different spoken languages it has many great descriptions for the beasts that roam its plains. Being based here in Zululand in Northern Kwa-Zulu Natal, the local vernacular is isiZulu. So let’s look at some examples of Zulu names for the animals found in this area.

Lion for example in Zulu is ‘ingonyame’ which means ‘master of all flesh’, derived from the word,ngo, meaning very high, and nyama, meaning ‘flesh’ or ‘meat’. Another name for the king of beasts in Zulu is ‘ibubesi’, derived from the verb bhubeza which means ‘to make the final decision’.

African people have a deep reverence for the Elephant, and the Zulu, Tswana and Tsonga names for the Elephant all mean ‘the unstoppable one’. In Zulu it is called ‘iNdlovu’, from the verb dlovu, which means ‘to crash through’.

Another descriptive name is given to the Hyena; in Zulu it is called ‘iMpisi’, which literally means ‘the cleaner/purifier’, ‘the one who makes things orderly’. This describes the ecological role of Hyenas as it feeds on carcasses in the bush, reducing the spread of disease and in essence purifying it.

These are merely a few examples of the many great names given to animals here in South Africa. So after all there is always more to a name than meets the eye, a greater meaning perhaps or a funny story of people getting lost in translation. So if you are a keen naturalist or you just want to learn more about the animals you might encounter on safari, then learning about the true meaning of an animal’s name might be a good starting point. It will give you a deeper appreciation and understanding about the animal itself. Speak to the locals and get their take on the matter, you’ll be sure to hear some wonderful stories, as it is after all about the enjoyment of it all and not about who is right and who is wrong.

jons blog by Jonathan Webster

Rhino Facts & Information

Black & White Rhino's

Why is the White Rhino called White

Scientific Name: Rhinocerotidae

Weight: White: 2300 kg Black Rhino: 1400 kg

Status: Black Rhino Critically Endangered


The White Rhino or Square Lipped Rhino is the largest of the 5 Rhino species. The large square lipped mouth is used to graze. They are also the most social of all rhino species. Originally mistranslated from dutch to English the wide rhino was named white rhino. Commonly known as a crash of Rhino's. Female become sexually mature at the age of 6 years. Males 10 to 12 years. Gestation of 16 months.

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park has the largest population of White Rhino in the world. Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is also world renown for it's safe the Rhino campaign where Rhinos where saved from near extinction. Methods and techniques developed in Hluhluwe are still in use today for game capture. Visit the centenary center where can still today witness some of the artifacts used. Rhino's can be seen wallowing in mud which is done to cool them down. White Rhino's can run very fast considering their size upto 40 km/h in short bursts.

White Rhino scientific name: Ceratotherium simum

Learn More

about the incredible wildlife within the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park

The African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus), also known as the Cape Hunting Dog or Painted Wolf, is one of the most special animals one can be privileged enough to see on safari.

So what exactly causes Lions to Climb Trees  and When does this Occur ?It is speculated that Lions Climb Trees to escape the warm weather conditions being experienced and therefore it is not witnessed in all parks.

In Africa, the term African Big 5 refers to the African Lion, Leopard, Elephant,Rhino and Buffalo. The Term "Big 5 or African Big 5" was realized by Big game hunters and refers to the most difficult 5 animals to Hunt by Foot.

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first photographic course held may 2017 hluhluwe-imfolozi park




jonathan kingdon with heritage tours & safaris


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