After years of writing about wildlife, we've learned a lot of fascinating things about how species have sex: from frisky grey sharks and the failed exploits of overambitious hyenas to falcons that made sweet love to a falconer's waffle-hat. And why stop now? Get ready, here comes 107 seconds of cringeworthy rhino sex (NSFW):

While those copulation-confirming close-ups are probably best left unseen (especially if a co-worker happens to stroll past your desk at just the wrong moment), rhino reproduction is a cause for celebration: between January to the end of June this year, 249 of these animals have been illegally killed in South Africa.* According to estimates made in 2013, the death rate may exceed the birth rate by 2026, which would put the species at major risk of dying out.

So keep romping, rhinos, you have our full support (just watch your backs while you're doing it).

These behemoth lovers were captured on camera by safari guide Bernhard Bekker, who described the sighting as one in a million. "Because of the build-up to the mating, I can seriously consider myself lucky to have been in the right place at the right time," Bekker told Latest Sightings.

Bekker was lucky, but certainly not the only lucky videographer to film rhinos mating: a quick YouTube search will get you plenty of pachyderm procreation, from white rhinos getting it onblack rhinos making whoopee like nobody's watching and even two critically endangered northern white rhinos in the throes of passion (complete with a disturbingly uplifting soundtrack).

However, catching these encounters at their, er, climax, certainly is rare. White rhino courtship is a lengthy affair that involves some carefully orchestrated groundwork and romancing before the final big bang. So here's how it goes down:

Investing in a starter home

For bulls to have the most success in their rhino relations, they must first prove their reproductive worth by laying claim to some territory. This usually involves a lot of urine-spraying and poop-flinging. White rhinos make use of dungheaps (known as middens) to communicate olfactory messages about age, sex, general health and reproductive status to other individuals in the same area (think of it like a stinky version of WhatsApp).

Rhino dung is mostly just desiccated grass (plus twigs and leaves in the case of black rhinos). Image: Roo Reynolds

Although the poop piles are used as communal ablutions by a number of different rhinos, territorial males perform a more intricate scent-marking ceremony that usually involves kicking with their rear legs immediately before and after defecation and spray-urination, as well as scraping their rear feet across the ground to really spread their scent. This odorous warning sends a message to any potential rivals: enter at own risk.

Of course, some males (usually younger bachelors) prefer to play the field for a while before settling down. These mavericks live non-territorial lifestyles, sauntering their way through existing rhino ranges in the hope of making it with females that haven't already settled for alpha males. Rhinos reach sexual maturity before they are fully grown, so it's thought that adolescent males opt for more of a nomadic lifestyle in their younger years before they build up the brawn to take on the alphas.

Fight for your right

Although there is no specific breeding season for rhinos, females often enter oestrus early in the rainy season, triggering the bulls into a courtship pursuit that can last several days. Receptive females will drift through a number of male territories, dropping whiffy messages in middens along the way to signal their reproductive readiness.

That's when the brawls break out. Although these fights are rarely witnessed, it's not uncommon for bulls to clash horns for mating rights. If bulls meet at the intersection of their territories, the standard procedure is to engage your rival in a horn-to-horn staring contest (border wars are usually not very dramatic). The face-off is sometimes accompanied by some equally non-engaging ground swiping and, if you're lucky, a brief horn-clashing session. These encounters usually don't end in injury, however.

Territorial male rhinos will sometimes charge at rivals to see them off their turf.

Serious fights may break out if a male puts up a challenge for territory (rather than simply staring and backing off), or tries to stop a female in oestrus from making it onto rival turf. In these instances, males have been known to battle to the bitter end. Mess with the territorial bull and you get the proverbial horns.

Sealing the deal

Rhino cows like to play hard to get. Once a territorial bull has secured a mate, it can take him anywhere from five to 20 days to complete his sexual conquest, during which time he shows "remarkable restraint", according to biologist Dr Richard Estes. Bulls kick things off with some hic-throbbing sounds to signal their intentions (basically the rhino equivalent of Joey Tribbiani's How YOU doin'?). For their part, females usually mock charge their suitors in response. Aside from occasionally approaching the female to chase her back into his territory, the bull keeps a respectful distance (typically 5-30 metres) until the cow comes into full oestrus.

Next comes the crooning. Stimulated by the female's urine, the bull approaches while bellowing out his love song – an advance that is typically answered with a threatening charge from the cow. Eventually, however, she'll give in: allowing the resilient male to rest his chin on her rump. For rhinos, rump-resting is a precursor to romping.

The female will now tolerate a mounting, but it takes several attempts and a whole lot of awkward probing before the male gets it right and the two merge into a hefty grey embrace for several minutes. And then ...


Rinse and Repeat

The courtship procedure can continue for two to five days after the deed is done and bulls may mate with the female again during this time (she may even go behind his back and sneak a quickie with a rival). Then, sixteen months later, the world welcomes a new baby rhino. 


Let it be noted that real baby rhinos only superficially resemble Jim Carey.

* Editor's Note: This figure was updated on November 12, 2021 to reflect current poaching statistics. The article originally quoted figures from 2017.