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Rhinos are vast herbivores who depend on various plants for nourishment; however, human development and agricultural expansion threaten this diversity.
Browsers in a grassland ecosystem refer to animals that graze on leaves and fruit from woody plants with soft shoots. Conversely, grazers primarily feed on grass and vegetation below ground level. Examples of browsers in this habitat are goats (Saharan and Alpine ibex, klipspringers, wild goats, and the West Caucasian markhor), cattle, as iconic white rhinos with their unique grazing habits that allow short grass lawns to develop, providing shelter for smaller species that otherwise couldn’t survive in wooded or long grass ecosystems.
Long-term, browsing and grazing accelerate nutrient cycling by quickly adding decomposable waste products like urine or dung to the soil, shifting communities towards easier-digestible species and towards dominant ones that digest faster. However, recent research indicates their impact on grass functional community composition is less than anticipated.
Many factors determine whether an animal falls under the category of browser or grazer, but its mouth shape is the key deciding factor. Wide upper lips enable grazers to consume large quantities of grass, while browsers have pointed and prehensile upper lips for clipping leaves or fruit from trees and stripping bark off surfaces like ground surfaces.
Browsers like steenbok, impala, and elephant feed on higher-quality browse than grasses, typically on leaves, twigs, and fruits that grow above ground. They reach these plants using their prehensile lips – similar to pruning shears – allowing them to access them more quickly than grasses. Browsers also can reach thorny branches that produce toxic chemicals like Euphorbia, which have poisonous compounds.
This study was conducted in Addo Elephant National Park (33deg31’S, 25deg45’E), South Africa. Each site had different habitat types and browser communities: grassy lawns (3 meters tall) and woody habitats with high tree canopy cover (>9 meters).
Grass height habitat type significantly predicted dung deposition by steenbok, impala, and duiker species but not by elephant or kudu browser species. As browsing intensified, more grass was consumed in their diet than ever before, suggesting an increasing proportion of grass being part of their diet.
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Human activities are shrinking the available habitat for wildlife, leading to competition between different animals and plants for limited resources – this phenomenon is known as inter-species competition.
Human intrusion can also result in habitat fragmentation when roads, buildings, or agricultural and forestry operations divide large tracts of land into multiple smaller parcels by roads, buildings, or processes such as agriculture or forestry (Gandiwa et al., 2014). Habitat islands form where these fragmentations occur, severely impacting wildlife (Gandiwa et al.).
Impacts on rhinoceros habitat have contributed to their declining populations. Poaching remains the most significant threat, while the government’s “shoot-to-kill policy” further compounds this issue by creating distrust between local people and conservationists and creating an atmosphere conducive to reproducing historical inequalities and alienating residents – an element that often precedes criminal behavior (Fynn 2020).
Ujung Kulon’s overabundance of Arenga obtusifolia palm species also contributes to this reduction in food plants for rhinoceroses, one of the primary reasons behind IUCN downgrading its conservation status to “Vulnerable.” To overcome these difficulties, various strategies have been proposed, such as medium-scale Arenga eradication trials and improving food plant development within Ujung Kulon Park; such measures aim to reduce local people’s dependence on rhinoceros horn while also mitigating the effects of poaching as well as human-wildlife conflicts.
As large animals go, rhinos spend most of their lives eating. Being grazers themselves, rhinos devour grasses before supplementing them with foliage from trees in their environment and consume dung to fertilize the soil with its fertilizing properties. Their powerful jaws allow them to snatch up larger branches effortlessly for consumption.
Diets of different species of rhinoceros vary, yet all are herbivores. Indian rhinos feed on short grasses, while black and Javan rhinos are browsers who browse leaves, twigs, and tree branches for sustenance. Because these animals require so much food daily, they consume several pounds daily.
Their stomachs are specifically designed to process all the different plant parts they consume, from foliage to grass seeds and nuts. Once finished, these plant materials move through a digestive tract into a hindquarter chamber, where microorganisms break them down further into nutrients for energy use by microbes in their hindquarter chamber. Its stomach is a fantastic piece of machinery for such an enormous creature!
As for water consumption, rhinos drink when available but may go several days without in arid environments. Rhinos spend half their time grazing and sipping, using their wide mouth and short legs combined with side-to-side head movements to gather grass, which they then swallow whole.