The white rhinoceros is not actually white, but light grey. The name was derived from the Afrikaans word wyt, so perhaps it would more properly be called "square-lipped rhinoceros: because wyt refers to the wide, square muzzle that is so well suited to grazing on grass, the abundant food in its grassland habitat.
The white rhinoceros can weigh up to 3.6 t (4 tn.). So large and powerful are these animals, they must give way only to the elephant; nevertheless, their young sometimes fall victim to lions or hyenas. Among land mammals only the elephant is larger, and the hippopotamus heavier.
The two horns are positioned one behind the other and its thick hide is relatively smooth. Horns are made of compressed hair. Like most rhinoceroses, the young are quite hairy but adults are hairless except for their ear rims, tail tip and eyelashes.
The white rhinoceros is more placid and sociable than other species, often forming into small groups. Rhinoceroses in general have poor vision but a keen sense of smell.
The white rhinoceros once occurred extensively south of the Sahara. The northern subspecies is close to extinction. The southern subspecies came close to extinction in the late-1800s but it responded to conservation measures and populations have increased greatly.
Although legally protected, the survival of all species of rhinoceros is threatened, primarily by the activities of humans. Habitat is destroyed by the expansion of settlement, and great numbers of the animals are poached for their horns, which are prized in some Asian countries for their supposed value as an aphrodisiac.