If any mammal could be called the flesh-and-blood embodiment of a tank, it'd be one of the bigger rhinoceroses, and none fulfils the role quite like the biggest of them all, Africa's white rhino. This gargantuan grazer – one of the true titans of Africa, along with bush and forest elephants, and the common hippo – may weigh over two tons, considerably more than its hook-lipped cousin, the black rhino.

Given its proportions, its armoured hide and its impressive horn, a full-grown white rhino doesn't have much to worry about in terms of predation: even a pride of lions would have its paws full tangling with this megaherbivore.

Its small size and underdeveloped armature, though, makes a white-rhino calf significantly more vulnerable to lions or spotted hyenas. Significantly more vulnerable, that is, if it weren't for the fact that such a youngster typically comes warded by the handy 1,600-kilogram tank that is a mother rhino.

A piece of footage in South Africa shows just how well-defended your average baby rhino is.

The video shows a rhino cow and her small calf trundling along through a gusty shrubland, passing by a well-concealed crouching lion. The big cat, a stocky young male with a scruffy mane, senses – perhaps naively – an opportunity, and trots after the pair through the blowing scrub.

Catching up to the lagging calf, the lion makes a quick grab. Watch for the immediate wheel of the mother rhino at its offspring's squeal (a typical distress call for a rhino calf). The lion doesn't take any chances: the moment the cow swings around, he's already running in the opposite direction. Rather than pursue the cat, the rhino cow runs after her charge, and the stymied lion can only watch them go.

The calf-first, cow-second flight shown here, incidentally, is typical of white rhinos, and contrasts with the reverse formation seen in black rhinos, where calves usually trail their mothers when fleeing.

Records of successful lion predation on white rhinos are pretty sparse. Meanwhile, here's a white rhino routing a couple of snoozing lions, to demonstrate the more usual interaction:

Smaller than the white rhino as it might be, meanwhile, the black rhino is still a big, formidable beast that, as an adult, is also mostly off-limits to carnivores; it also tends to be feistier and all-around more "charge-y" than the white. (Lions may take black-rhino calves and the occasional subadult. This report on three separate lion kills of three- to four-year-old black rhinos in Namibia’s Etosha National Park includes a doozy of a line: "The rhinoceros took ~40 min to die [screaming all the time], during which the lioness started feeding from between the rhinoceros’s back legs." Ah, Mother Nature…)

Despite their overall immunity to four-legged predators, of course, rhinos have mortal enemies to spare in the form of human beings. Poaching, which has driven the northern white rhino subspecies to the very brink of extinction, remains a dire threat for both African rhinos across their diminished range. Demand for horns is so extreme that earlier this year poachers actually broke into a French zoo and killed a captive white rhino, and a few months later a hand-reared rhino in a South African park was also slaughtered.

Well, let's end on a brighter – or at least racier – note: on the subject of baby white rhinos, we'll respectfully put the spotlight back on this video we recently shared that demonstrates (in rather intricate detail) the process of making them. And, yes, we might bring this classic out again for World Rhino Day on September 22, so just be prepared.



Top header image: Ray Muzyka/Flickr