Rhinos are generally gentle and keep to themselves, but they are definitely not pacifists. If they are threatened, they’ll move their bodies into an attack stance and often charge in an attempt to get rid of the perceived threat. To understand what to do, however, it’s important to look at their physiology and what behaviors may indicate their intent to attack.
First, rhinos are the largest land mammals behind the African and Asian elephants. Their massive muscled bodies have both thick skin and big horns to protect them from predators on the grasslands. Possibly as a consequence of having these remarkable ways of protecting themselves, which deter most would-be predators, they don’t have or need great eyesight.
In studies of rhino eyes, it seems that a rhino has a hard time distinguishing different humans from only 30 feet away. Beyond 100 meters, it’s almost impossible for them to recognize a human silhouette. Their eyesight is considered one of the worst in the animal kingdom – up there with bats and moles.
What they lack in eyesight, they seem to make up for with keen auditory (hearing) and olfactory (smell) senses. In fact, the largest part of a rhino brain is dedicated to their sense of smell. This has big implications for how we treat them and how we can stay safe near them.
Here is a short video showing a compilation of rhinos charging and attacking things – just so you can visualize what we’re dealing with.
Scenarios to Avoid with Rhinos
- Don’t surprise a rhino. Their first instinct is to charge a threat whether or not it is actually a threat.
- Don’t mess with a mother or baby rhino. They’re very protective of their young and will fend off threats.
- Approaching a rhino is never a good idea, and it’s even worse of an idea in an open habitat with no clear place to hide.
The Most Dangerous Rhinos
Black Rhinos are known to be much more aggressive than the other rhino species. White rhinos, however, because they are about four times as numerous, have had more human deaths associated with them.
How to Survive a Rhino Charge or Attack?
If for some reason you’ve not taken the best advice – which is to never approach a rhino – and you’re now face to face with the fourth largest land animal on Earth, let’s walk through a few ways to try and stay alive.
- Stay fairly still. Remember – rhinos can’t see well, so if you’re fairly still and don’t seem to be a threat, they may mistake you for a tree and keep grazing.
- Stay downwind of the rhino. Like other animals, they sense you mainly via smell. If you’re downwind they can’t smell you.
- Climb a tree if there is one nearby. They can’t climb, and if you can get up a few feet they’re probably not going to pursue. If you can’t get up the tree, standing behind it is a good approach.
- Run for the scrub if that’s the only option. Sometimes it’s dry and desert-like in Africa, but there are spiny shrubs all over. It’s rare that the rhino will pursue you into these bushes. A few cuts from thorns is better than being gored to death, right? Right.
- Run for a rock or vehicle if that’s possible. Rhino’s can tip over vehicles, but you’re much better off inside than exposed.
- Shouting and Yelling might work to stop an attack if there is no option of cover. Make sounds that are unfamiliar to a rhino. This includes singing, shouting and clapping. This is a great reason to have your favorite song in mind when you are adventuring in Africa.
- Running in a zig-zag pattern is recommended. You can definitely turn faster than a rhino. If the rhino misses while it is chasing you one way, turn and run in the opposite direction. They rarely continue an attack again in the opposite direction.
- Distract the rhino with a bag or shirt – If the charge is imminent and you can’t find anything to hide behind, know that right before contact, the rhino will put its head down. At this stage you might be able to throw a backpack, shirt or other object up to distract the rhino and get to safety.
Fun rhino facts:
- The horn of a white rhino can be as long as 62 inches!
- Rhino horn, despite the rumor, does nothing medically. Yet, because of this superstition, rhino horn is worth more than its weight in gold. This has given fuel to poachers, who have driven populations to near extinction.
- The extinct rhino Paraceratherium was one of the largest mammals to have walked Earth. It stood 16’ at the shoulders and weighed over 20 tons. That’s a good 50 percent larger than modern elephants.
If you’d rather listen to this article about rhino safety, I’ve recorded it here to make it as accessible as possible.