Herbivores of the Pilanesberg National Park III Megaherbivores


In this article, Herbivores of the Pilanesberg National Park III, I will discuss the so-called mega herbivores, viz. elephant, white and black rhino, giraffe and hippo. I've included the African buffalo as well, although not technically a "megaherbivore" (weighing more than 1000 kg).

(In Herbivores of the Pilanesberg National Park I I discussed the browsers of this park, and in Herbivores of the Pilanesberg National Park II I discussed the grazers.)

African elephant 

Distinguishing features

Weighing anything from 3500 to 6800 kilograms the African Elephant is the largest living terrestrial mammal and without a shadow of doubt one of the most impressive animals on earth.

The Elephant's muscular trunk, an extension of the upper lip and nose, serves as a nose, hand, extra foot, signaling device and a tool for gathering food, siphoning water, dusting, digging and a variety of other functions.

Tusks - large modified incisors that grow throughout an elephant's lifetime -occur in both males and females. They are used in fights and protecting themselves and for marking, feeding, and digging.

The other notable feature of this species is their large ears (those of Asian elephants are distinctly smaller), which allow them to radiate excess heat.

The Pilanesberg Game Reserve is situated in the North-Western Province of South Africa, about 150 kilometers northwest of the Gauteng metropolis, only twenty minutes from the world-renowned Sun City Resort and exotic Lost City. Do you want to check out the lodges and booking right now?

Social structures of the African elephant 

Elephants are generally gregarious and form family herds comprising a number of families, the whole group being led by an older matriarch.

Adult males, on the other hand, spend most of their time in the "bull areas". This is an area where elephant bulls spend much of their leisure time building up strength and sorting out the bull hierarchy.

When a bull comes into "musth", he leaves the bull area in search of the herds and any mating opportunities.
For more information on the phenomenon of "musth", please consult the article Musth and elephant Society, by dr. Rob Slothow.

More intersting facts on the African elephant 

  1. Eating habits: An adult elephant can consume up to 136 kg of food in a single day, including roots, grasses, fruit, and bark. They can be extremely destructive in their feeding habits by pushing over trees, pulling them up by their roots or breaking off branches.
  2. People are right or left handed; elephants are "right or left tusked"! They use the favoured tusk more than the other one as a tool, shortening it from constant wear.
  3. The tusks weigh from 22-45 kg and can be up to 2.4 m long.
  4. Unlike Asian elephants, both African elephant bulls and cows have tusks.
  5. Elephants seem to be fascinated with the tusks and bones of dead elephants, fondling and examining them.
  6. The trunk of the African elephant has two finger-like opposing extensions at its end:

    The Asian elephant, on the other hand, only has one.

Clash of the Titans: Pilanesberg elephants vs rhinos 

In 1979 a group of African elephants were introduced in 1979 into the Pilanesberg National Park, among which a few young orphan male elephants. In the absence of dominant adult bulls, these youngsters eventually became sexually mature and remained in "musth" for longer periods natural for young bulls. They disturbed the peace in the family herd, showed aggression towards tourist vehicles and killed as many as 40 rhinos over time.

The problem was rectified with the introduction of six adult bulls in 1998.

For more detail on this matter, please consult the article "Clash of the Titans".

Elephant-back safari at Pilanesberg! 

Treat yourselve to a memorable experience and explore the African bush from the back of an African elephant!
Scheduled elephant-back safaris run daily. Scheduled trips leave from the Welcome Desk, Sun City. Guests are transferred to the "Elephant Wallow" where they are met by experienced Elephant Guides, who will host them on their safari.
Elephant-back Safari and find out more.

Do you want to check out the accommodation options right now?


In the Pilanesberg National Park you will without any doubt have the priviledge to see both white and black rhino even on a short visit: Pilanesberg boasts a big white rhino population of 300 and black rhino of 90.

Let's first get the confusion about the names out of the way. The "white" in "white rhino" ("ceratotherium simum") has nothing to do with the colour white at all. Originally the broad shape of their mouth was described as "wyd"(original Afrikaans), meaning "wide", which was gradually replaced by "wit" (Afrikaans) and "white", since these words sound quite the same.

The mistake became even more comical when the other species of rhino in the area, "diceros bicornis", was commonly named "black" rhino, as opposed to the "white" one. As you guessed, the "black rhino" is not black at all. The white rhino is light grey in colour and the black rhino dark grey.

The best way of distinguishing between the two species, is to compare them in terms of some features. This will now be discussed.

Comparing the white and black rhino 

  1. Size: The white rhino is considerably bigger than the black rhino:
    Weight: White: 1800-2700 kg.; Black: 800-1500 kg.
  2. Horns: The front horn of the white rhino can be huge: can reach 200 cm, but is generally 90+cm; the rear horn is shorter, but could get as long as 55 cm; the front horn of the black rhino varies between 50 and 130 cm, whereas the rear horn could be as long as 55 cm.
  3. Mouth: The most apparent difference between the two species is the form of the mouth. The white rhino has a distinctive wide and square mouth:

    The black rhino, on the other hand, has a hooked, triangular (prehensile) lip.

  4. General disposition: The white rhino has a mild and inoffensive personality compared to the black rhino. Sometimes a mock charge will take place to scare off intruders. Unlike the white rhino, the black rhino has a reputation for being extremely aggressive. They attack out of fear, confusion and panic. Due to their very poor eyesight they will charge if they sense a threat. They have even been observed to charge tree trunks and termite mounds.
  5. Social behaviour: White rhinos live in family groups of up to 14 members, but dominant males tend to be solitary and live in clearly defined territories that they vigorously defend against other neighboring males.
    Black rhinos are solitary and only come together for mating, but mothers and calfs will sometimes congregate in small groups for short periods of time.

    A newborn white rhino will follow his mother, but after a few weeks it will run ahead. The calf of a black rhino will always run behind the mother, so that the mother can face danger in the thicket first, but that makes them vulnerable against lions.
  6. Habitats and food: White rhinos are grazers and are found on savanna grasslands and in the savanna woodlands that have interspersed grassy clearings. The distinctive wide and square mouth is adapted to feed on short grass in open areas. Access to water is important because they prefer to drink daily.

    Black rhinos are browsers and have various habitats, but mainly areas with dense, woody vegetation. Its hooked, triangular lip is adapted to feed on leaves, twigs, shoots and fruit. The black rhino also bites off thick, woody sticks. It is tolerant to thorns and natural chemicals of poisonous plants.

Rhinos: More interesting facts 

  1. Both species have bad eyesight, but acute hearing and smell.
  2. The horns are actually hair-like structures with no bones and continues to grow. Both species have two horns, the front one being bigger than the rear one in both cases.
  3. Rhinos also like to rub themselves on trees and boulders to help remove external parasites. In the African bush a particular log or boulder might serve as a favorite rubbing post and will be worn smooth and shiny with repeated use.
  4. If a large group of white rhinos are alarmed, they stand with their behinds together in a circle so that their heads point outward in all directions.
  5. The black rhino is extremely fast and agile although it looks heavy and slow. They can make sharp turns even when running at their top speed of more than 50 km/hr.


The hippopotamus is recognizable for its barrel-shaped torso, enormous mouth and teeth, hairless body, stubby legs and tremendous size.
It is similar in size to the white rhinoceros; only elephants are consistently heavier.

Interesting facts concerning hippos 

  1. It stays in the water to cool down and when it is exposed to the sun, their skin secretes a natural sunscreen substance which is red-coloured.
  2. Hippos leave the water at dusk and travel inland, sometimes up to 8 kilometres, to graze on short grass, their main source of food. They spend four to five hours grazing and can consume 68 kilograms of grass each night.
    There are other reports of meat-eating; some time ago the Discovery Channel broadcast footage of a hippo eating a wildebeest. However, the stomach anatomy of a hippo is not suited to carnivory, and meat-eating is likely caused by aberrant behavior or nutritional stress.
  3. Despite its stocky shape and short legs, it can easily outrun a human. Hippos have been clocked at 48 km/h while running short distances, faster than an Olympic sprinter.
  4. Hippos are very violent tempered animals. Adult hippos are hostile toward crocodiles, which often live in the same pools and rivers as hippos. Hippos are very aggressive towards humans, and it is often claimed that hippos are the deadliest animal in Africa, killing up to 500 people each year.


The giraffe is an African mammal, the tallest of all land-living animal species, and the largest ruminant. Males can be 4.8 to 5.5 metres tall and weigh up to 1,700 kilograms. Females are generally slightly shorter, and weigh less than the males do.(Wikopedia)

Giraffes are browsers and browse more than 100 tree species, their favourite being thorn-trees (acacia). They drink large quantities of water and, as a result, they can spend long periods of time in dry, arid areas.

Even though giraffes have very long necks, they possess, just like humans, only seven (elongated) vertebrae in the neck.

A giraffe's heart, which can weigh up to 10 kg, has to generate around double the normal blood pressure for an average large mammal in order to maintain blood flow to the brain against gravity. In the upper neck, a complex pressure-regulation system prevents excess blood flow to the brain when the giraffe lowers its head to drink.
Conversely, the blood vessels in the lower legs are under great pressure; however, giraffes have a very tight sheath of thick skin over their lower limbs which maintains high extravascular pressure in exactly the same way as a pilot's g-suit.

Giraffes are difficult and dangerous prey and when attacked. The giraffe defends itself by kicking with great force. A single well-placed kick from an adult giraffe can shatter a lion's skull or break its spine.
The following video from Youtube clearly illustrates this point, but it's not viewing material for sensitive viewers:
Lions hunt giraffe.

For a discussion of the carnivores of the Pilanesberg National Park, please click HERE.

And if you consider buying a binoculars, you could consult my article on the matter. Click HERE.

The phenomenon of necking among giraffes 

Males often engage in necking, which has been described as having various functions. One of these is fighting for dominance. A giraffe can land a powerful blow with his head - occasionally knocking a male opponent to the ground. These fights rarely last more than a few minutes or end in physical harm, but cases of severe injuries or even death have been reported.

Currently the hot debate concerning necking deals with the other function of necking: to express affection and as part of a sexual ritual.
The problem is that this happens more frequently between two males than between males and females. Two males will caress each other with necking and this eventually ends up in mounting and climax. The proportion of same sex courtships among males varies between 30 and 75% (Wikopedia).

The question is: Can this same-sex activity be ragarded as "homosexual" activity or is it purely an expression of dominance? Or is there another way to explain this?

You will have the opportunity to state your view in the next module.

The following video is an example of aggressive necking. It is disturbing, so it's not advised for sensitive viewers.
Click HERE.

African buffalo 

The African buffalo is up to 1.7 metres high and weighs 500-900 kg. Males are larger than females.

There's only 150 buffalos in the Pilanesberg National Park, but they are TB-free and very sought after.

The trademark of the African buffalo is the impressive pair of horns of the adult male buffalo, as can clearly be seen in the photo above.

The "war" between lions and buffalos has virtually reached legendary status. Lions do kill and eat buffalo regularly, but usually it takes a number of lions to bring down a single adult buffalo.

On the other hand, many instances have been recorded of fleeing buffalos turning back to protect one in trouble, chasing off the attackers and sometimes even killing one.
More than 36 million people (August 2008) worldwide have already watched the video "Battle at Kruger", confirming the fact that lions not always have it their way.
If you haven't watched it yet, treat yourself and
watch this amazing video. Click HERE.


The Gauteng metropolis being only two hours away, you could break away for a weekend and see more wild animals you could imagine in a short space of time in the Pilanesberg National Park. This include the megaherbivores.

You could stay at Sun City and visit the park from there, or you could stay in one of the 6 lodges in the park. Click HERE to see what is available.

A number of books are also available, covering Southern African mammals in general and Pilanesberg in particular. For all the details, please go to
my article on the Pilanesberg National Park.


Come August each year, everybody in South Africa and many people around the world know that one of the biggest spectacles in Nature is about to happen: The transformation of an arid, desert-like area of about 200,000 sq. kilometres, known as Namaqualand, into an awe-inspiring, dazzling, spectacular mass-display of wild flowers arguably unequalled on the planet.

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Thinking about nature reserves in South Africa, the Kruger National Park immediately springs to the mind, but people tend to forget - or simply do not know - that South Africa boasts a number of other world-class reserves, among which the Pilanesberg National Park/Game Reserve, the fourth biggest in South Africa. In this article I would like to show why it would be worth your while to visit this superb national park in Pilanesberg.

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