Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis)

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Indian rhinoceros covered in mud, with mynah birds (Acridotheres sp) along back
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Indian rhinoceros fact file

Indian rhinoceros description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderPerissodactyla
FamilyRhinocerotidae
GenusRhinoceros (1)

The Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) is the largest of the three Asian rhino species (2), and has a single horn which can grow to approximately 60 centimetres in length (4) (5). Like all rhino horns, it is composed of keratin, a protein also found in human hair and nails, rather than bone (2).

The hairless skin of the Indian rhinoceros is grey or greyish-brown (2) (5), and has many loose folds as well as lumps, known as tubercles, giving this species an armour-plated appearance (2) (4). The male Indian rhino, which is generally bigger than the female (2), has large, sharp incisors that may be used in fights over females during the breeding season (4).

The Indian rhino is often accompanied by egrets and various species of ‘tick birds’, including myna birds, that ride on its back and are thought to feed on parasites between the folds of the rhino’s skin (2).

Also known as
Asian one-horned rhinoceros, great Indian one-horned rhinoceros, greater one-horned rhinoceros.
French
Rhinocéros Unicorne De L'Inde.
Spanish
Rinoceronte Unicornio Índico.
Size
Head-body length of male: 368 - 380 cm (2)
Head-body length of female: 310 - 340 cm (2)
Shoulder height of male: 170 - 186 cm (2)
Shoulder height of female: 148 - 173 cm (2)
Weight of male: c. 2,200 kg (2)
Weight of female: c. 1,600 kg (2)
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Indian rhinoceros biology

Except for females with young (5), Indian rhinos are mostly solitary animals (2) (5). An adult male will loosely defend a territory (4) (5), which is marked by dung piles that may reach heights of up to one metre (4). During the breeding season, male Indian rhinos use their tusk-like lower incisors to fight each other, sometimes to the death, to gain access to females (4).

The female Indian rhinoceros reaches sexual maturity between five and seven years old, whereas the male matures later at approximately ten years of age (5). After a 16-month gestation period (2) (4) (5), the female Indian rhino gives birth to a relatively small calf, which usually weighs about 65 kilograms (2). The calf will remain with the female until just before the birth of the next offspring one or two years later, at which time the female will drive away the young rhinoceros (2).

Feeding mostly in the twilight hours (4), the Indian rhino is generally a grazer (1) (2) (5), and tends to feed on tall grasses such as Saccharum species (2). However, it is also known to eat other vegetation (5), including fruit, leaves, cultivated crops, and shrub branches (1). Woody browse typically comprises about 20 percent of this species’ diet in the winter (2). The Indian rhino uses its semi-prehensile upper lip to gather long grasses and leaves (5), and can tuck the tip of the lip away when feeding on shorter grasses (2). This species is also known to regularly use mineral licks (1).

The Indian rhino is more aquatic than most other rhinoceros species (5), readily swimming and wading (4). It sometimes feeds on aquatic grass-like plants when it is immersed in water (5).

The Indian rhinoceros has rather poor vision, but what it lacks in sight, it makes up for with its good hearing and strong sense of smell (2) (4).

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Indian rhinoceros range

Previously found throughout the northern Indian subcontinent, the Indian rhinoceros now occurs only in scattered populations in India and Nepal (1).

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Indian rhinoceros habitat

The Indian rhinoceros preferentially inhabits floodplain grasslands, but has also been known to occur in adjacent swamps and forests (1) (5). Recent habitat loss has forced the Indian rhino onto more cultivated land (1).

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Indian rhinoceros status

The Indian rhinoceros is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1) and is listed on Appendix I of CITES (3).

IUCN Red List species status – Vulnerable

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Indian rhinoceros threats

Much of the Indian rhinoceros population had vanished by the beginning of the 20th century, primarily due to the conversion of its preferred grassland habitat to cultivated fields (1). Hunting, for sport and as pest control, was also a factor in the decimation of the population (4).

Despite protection measures, poaching for horns and other body parts remains a serious threat today (4). There is a high demand for rhino horn in traditional Chinese medicine (1), making it an expensive commodity; in 2011 it was reported that a kilogram of rhino horn was worth approximately £60,000 (US$92,500), making it twice as valuable as gold (6)

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Indian rhinoceros conservation

At the turn of the century, the population of Indian rhinos had decreased drastically to about 20 individuals. However, through strict protection in India and Nepal, this species has since been brought back from the brink of extinction, with more than 2,800 individuals existing today (5).

The Indian rhinoceros is listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that trade in this species is only permitted under exceptional circumstances (3).

An Asian Rhino Action Plan has been put in place, with a key goal being to develop and maintain a total wild population of at least 3,000 Indian rhinos by the year 2020 (1) (7). To achieve this goal, priorities for the Indian rhino’s conservation include habitat improvement and extension, public education and an increase in rhinoceros population security and anti-poaching measures (1) (5) (7).

Managed breeding is a successful tool in India, and translocations undertaken in order to spread the rhino population out more evenly across the multiple national parks have proven to be successful (7). These translocations are important, as more than 85 percent of the Indian rhino population is found in just one protected area, which means that a single catastrophic event, such as the outbreak of disease, could lead to another serious decline in the population (5).

Further recommended conservation measures for the Indian rhinoceros include reducing the number of human-wildlife conflicts, improving water management and availability, involving local people in rhino conservation, and training staff in specific rhino conservation techniques (1).

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.
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Find out more

Find out more about the Indian rhinoceros: 

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Authentication

Authenticated (04/04/05) by Peter Grubb, Natural History Museum, London.

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Glossary

Gestation
The state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
Incisors
The front or cutting teeth.
Keratin
A group of fibrous proteins that form the basis of hair, nails, wool etc in animals.
Parasite
An organism that derives its food from, and lives in or on, another living organism at the host’s expense.
Prehensile
Capable of grasping.
Territory
An area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a group.
Translocation
When individual living organisms from one area are transferred and released or planted in another area.
Tubercle
A small, rounded, wart-like bump on the skin or on a bone.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (January, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Macdonald, D. (2001) The New Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  3. CITES (January, 2012)
    http://www.cites.org/
  4. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  5. International Rhino Foundation (January, 2012)
    http://www.rhinos-irf.org/
  6. Metcalf, S. (2011) Rhino horn thefts rise as price rockets. Reuters, 8 July. Available at:
    http://uk.reuters.com/article/2011/07/08/uk-britain-rhinos-idUKTRE76732620110708
  7. Foose, T.J. and Van Strien, N. (1997) Asian Rhino Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, U.K. Available at:
    http://www.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/1997-005.pdf
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Image credit

Indian rhinoceros covered in mud, with mynah birds (Acridotheres sp) along back  
Indian rhinoceros covered in mud, with mynah birds (Acridotheres sp) along back

© Matthew Maran / naturepl.com

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