A Natural History of the Rhinoceros

Kate Sutherland


A nose-horned beast,
strange and never seen in our country,
a very wonderful creature
entirely different from what we fancied.

In its fifth month, not much bigger than a large dog.
At two years, no taller than a young heifer
but broader, thicker, jutting out at the sides
like a cow with calf.
Large as a horse, not much larger
than the bounding oryx, bigger than a bull.
Equal to an elephant in length but
lower to the ground. Like a wild boar
in outward form and proportion, especially its mouth.
A mouth not unlike the proboscis of an elephant,
the underlip like that of an ox, the upper like that of a horse,
tongue soft and smooth as a dog’s.
Piglike head, eyes the shape of a hog’s, ears like a donkey’s.
Skin the colour of an elephant’s, two girdles hanging down
like dragons’ wings.

Dark red head, blue eyes, white body;
on its back, dense spots showing darkly;
purple spots upon a yellow ground;
red hairs on its forehead, yellowish brows.
Skin the colour of box-wood:
mouse-grey, grey-brown, blackish brown,
dirty brown, dark brown, dark ash,
the colour of a toad,
the colour of a speckled turtle.

It fears neither the claws of the tiger
nor the weapons of the huntsman,
its hide impervious to darts
so thick as to be impenetrable by a Japanese dagger.
Lead musket balls flatten on impact.
It does not feel the sting of flies.
Dry, hard skin, four fingers thick;
studded with scales, like a coat of mail, loricated like armor,
covered in calluses resembling clothes buttons.
Extravagant skin, loose like so much coach leather
lying upon the body in folds. Between the folds
smooth and soft as silk.

The horn stands upon the nose of the animal
as upon a hill, rises dread and sharp,
as hard as iron, a little curved up,
sometimes three and a half feet long.
The base is purest white; the sharp point,
flaming crimson; the middle, black.
The colour of the horn is various:
black, white, sometimes ash-coloured.
Commonly these horns are brown or olive-colour
yet some are grey and even white.

There is another horn not upon the nose
but upon the withers.

Small piercing eyes, red eyes,
dull, sleepy eyes
that seldom open completely;
eyes in the very center of the cheeks;
eyes placed as low down as the jaws;
eyes so small, placed so low, and so obliquely,
they have little vivacity and motion;
eyes that only see sideways;
eyes that only see straight ahead.

Teeth broad and deep in its throat,
teeth so sharp, they cut straw and tree branches
like a pair of scissors:
two strong incisive teeth to each jaw,
twenty-four smaller teeth,
six on each side of each jaw.

It will kill with licking
and by the roughness of its tongue
lay bare the bones.
No animal near its size has so soft a tongue;
it feels like passing the hand over velvet.

Strong legs as big around as a man’s waist;
massive legs terminating in large feet,
each foot divided into three great claws.

Sprouting from its slender, inconsiderable tail,
black, shining hairs a foot long
the thickness of shoemaker’s thread,
not round like other hair, but flattish
like little pieces of whalebone.

All the breed are males
and a female is never seen.
The penis is an extraordinary shape.
The female is the same in all respects
except the sex. The female has two teats
and an udder. The female brings forth
but one young. The male horn is harder
and sharper than the female’s.
The male has a small extra horn
on its back right shoulder.

It never attacks men unless provoked
but then becomes formidable.
If it meets a man in a red coat, it will rush him
and throw him over its head with such violence
the fall alone is fatal.

It can reach an age of a hundred years.
It is probable that it lives as a man, seventy or eighty years.
It seldom lives beyond twenty.

No creature that pursues it can overtake it.
It falls asleep before virgins and then
can easily be taken and carried away.
Attack it during hot weather when it is lying in the marsh.
Cover a pit with green branches on the path
from the forest to the riverside.
Destroy the old ones with firearms. If there happens to be a cub
seize and tame it.
Take it by gunfire.



[Note: Fragments of text borrowed from: Ctesius, Ancient India; Oppian, Kynegetika; Pliny, The Natural History; Kosmas Indikopleustes, De Mundo; Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo; Valentin Ferdinand, Letter; Edward Topsell, History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents; James Bontius, An Account of the Diseases, Natural History, and Medicines of the East Indies; John Evelyn, The Diary of John Evelyn; I. Parsons, A Letter from Dr. Parsons to Martin Folkes, President of the Royal Society, containing the Natural History of the Rhinoceros; L’Abbe Ladvocat, Letter on the Rhinoceros to a Member of the Royal Society of London; Comte de Buffon, Natural History; Oliver Goldsmith, A History of the Earth and Animated Nature.]