To mark this year’s Endangered Species Day on 19 May 2023, we celebrate and pay tribute to four of Africa’s most endangered animals: the rhino, pangolin, cheetah and painted dog.  These are such interesting and special animals, with their own unique traits and characteristics, each of them playing an important part in nature.

©  Chad Cocking & Drew Abrahamson

They have been around for generations, but are now facing serious difficulties in the wild.  We must act now before it is too late.  Sadly “too late” isn’t so far away.  We can’t bear to imagine a future without them.

Black & White Rhino

Rhinos are a great symbol and icon of Africa, with their striking horns and sheer size.  They are one of the oldest groups of mammals, considered to be a virtual “living fossil”.  It is said that seeing a rhino is a good omen – a sign that you are strong.  Rhinos are also a sign of good luck and health.  Black rhinos are a symbol of strength and power, and white rhinos are a symbol of African ecology and spiritual strength.

A crash of rhinos  ©  Chad Cocking

Historically, they roamed throughout Europe, Asia and Africa and were depicted in early European cave paintings.  In the early 1900s there were 500,000 across Africa and Asia.  That number had dropped significantly to only 70,000 by 1970, and today there are reported to be only 22,137 rhinos in the wild in Africa –  6,195 black and 15,942 white.  Ninety-eight percent of black rhinos live in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya, with 40% of these in South Africa.  The black rhino is critically endangered, with the white rhino being classified as near threatened.

Young rhino  ©  Corlette Wessels

Black and white rhinos, whilst similar in many ways, are opposites in others.  They are both herbivores, known as “natural pruners”, which helps the vegetation of the savannahs they inhabit.  This then helps other animals with food including elephants, zebras, buffalo and antelopes.  They have excellent hearing but poor eyesight, and can run quickly despite their size.

Black rhino  ©  Corlette Wessels

Black rhinos are said to be aggressive and territorial, whereas white rhinos are calmer and more peaceful.  Black rhinos eat leaves and branches and are known as “browsers”, and white rhinos eat grasses and are known as “grazers”, affectionately referred to as “mowing machines”.  The shape of their mouths is their most distinguishing feature, with black rhinos having a smaller, pointed mouth and white rhinos having a wider, flatter mouth.

White rhino  ©  Corlette Wessels

An old African tale tells the story of how the rhino’s skin became grey.  Animals had to teach humans how to survive, and whilst the rhino knew how to make a fire, he pretended he didn’t.  This meant that every time he lied, his horn would itch.  Without hands to scratch his horn, he used a tree to rub his itching horn, which would set the tree on fire.  The tale goes that this happened many times when humans asked the rhino about fire.  This meant that over a long time, the grey ashes of the burning trees stained his hide grey and made his eyesight very weak.

Rhino  ©  Chad Cocking

Rhinos are one of the “Big 5” and are popular animals to see on safari drives.  They have a special place in Africa, with both locals and tourists alike.  Through the tourism industry, they contribute to economic growth and sustainable development, which benefits local communities living alongside them.

Unfortunately, the horns of these icons are a symbol of wealth and stature in Asia, leading to their destruction.  Rhinos are also slaughtered for their horns for traditional medicine, despite them having no medicinal qualities.  This multi-million-dollar industry is challenging to overcome, but many organisations are working tirelessly across the world to fight the insidious poaching of our rhinos.

Crash of Rhinos  ©  Corlette Wessels

We are proud to play our part in the protection of rhinos by providing K9 patrols and security at the Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary.  The sanctuary rescues orphaned and injured rhinos, with the goal of ultimately releasing them back into the wild, and is doing incredible work.

Rhinos  ©  Corlette Wessels


Pangolins are Africa’s most elusive and mysterious animal, with many people never having seen one or knowing much about them. There are four species of pangolins in Africa: the ground pangolin, white-bellied pangolin, giant pangolin, and the black-bellied pangolin. Their scientific categorisation “Manis” is derived from Latin meaning “ghost” or “spirit of the dead”.

Pangolin  ©  Beverly Joubert

They are considered to be sacred and a symbol of good luck.  In Zimbabwe it is believed that when seeing a pangolin, the number of steps it takes before it disappears is the number of good years the person will live.  It is also believed that killing one is a taboo act which invites bad luck.  In African folklore it is said that pangolins fell to earth from the sky, sent by the spirits.  The pangolin is also a symbol of hope that even the unhappiness of not being able to have children may be overcome.

Pangolins are such interesting animals, being the only mammals to have scales, which are able to inflict serious wounds on anything attacking them due to their ability to move in a cutting motion.  They can also roll up into a ball for protection.  Pangolin mothers will roll around their baby to protect them when sleeping or if threatened.  Baby pangolins, called pango-pups, ride on the base of their mother’s tail while she forages for insects.

Long pangolin tail  ©  Drew Abrahamson

They love to eat ants and will investigate stumps and holes, digging vigorously when they find something to eat.  They have incredibly long, muscular and sticky tongues which reach into termite mounts to catch ants.  They are able to dig their own burrows but seem to prefer abandoned porcupine, aardvark or warthog burrows.  They have special muscles to seal their nostrils and ears to protect them from attacking insects, as well as muscles in their mouths to prevent ants and termites from escaping.

Pangolin on the move  ©  Drew Abrahamson

The most striking and colourful of the pangolin species is the black-bellied pangolin.  Their scales are a rich ochre colour with dark borders, which contrasts against their black skin.  They are the smallest of the African pangolins and are capable climbers,  using their claws and tails to grip bark.  They are even known to sleep in trees.

Pangolins have been around for 85 million years, but they are now in serious danger, being the most trafficked mammal on earth.  They range from vulnerable to endangered.  They are poached for their scales which, like rhino horns, are used in traditional medicines, despite being made of keratin like our hair and fingernails.

Pangolin  ©  Chad Cocking

Our Pangolin Reference Sample Collection Research Program works with the Temminck’s ground pangolin, which is the most prominent of the pangolin species.  They are predominantly nocturnal and are solitary animals.  As their name suggests, they remain ground-based and do not climb, although pangolins are capable of swimming.

Our program involves three of our K9s tracking pangolins in the wild for scat collection.  The samples will be sent to our project partner, Professor Sam Wasser of the Center for Environmental Science at the University of Washington, for DNA analysis and research.  This will enable the key illicit wildlife product trafficking routes to be determined to help identify the involvement of specific transnational organised crime syndicates.  The goal of this research is to establish intervention programs at priority ports in an effort to reduce poaching.

Pangolin  ©  Drew Abrahamson

The Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary is working in collaboration with Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital and the African Pangolin Working Group to support a young pangolin rescued from the illegal trade.  They are walking and caring for him so that, when he is ready, he can be released into an undisclosed and protected site for continued rewilding and monitoring.  A video about this pangolin can be seen here.

Elusive pangolin  ©  Great Plains Conservation


The cheetah is known as the fastest land animal on earth, but what is lesser known is that they are the most endangered of Africa’s big cats. Their name comes from the Hindi word “chita”, meaning “spotted one”. They have around 2,000 spots, with a unique pattern on each animal.

Male cheetahs  ©  Chad Cocking

Cheetahs have a remarkable history, dating back seven million years, and spanning most continents.  The Ancient Egyptians highly regarded the great cats of Africa, with one of Tutankhamun’s treasures being a gilded figure of a cheetah with its “tear” mark.  It is devastating to learn that these animals have survived for seven million years, until the last 100 of those years, which have seen humans decimate them.

There are five species of cheetah – the Asiatic cheetah, Northwest African cheetah, South African cheetah, Sudan cheetah and the Tanzanian cheetah.

They are a symbol of power, speed, grace, and divine guidance.  They are a good omen and are thought to bring luck, power, and good fortune.  In many cultures the cheetah is seen as a symbol of strength, speed, and agility.

Cheetah  ©  Corlette Wessels

One of the cheetah’s most distinguishing features is its “tear marks” down its face.  These are said to represent the love of a mother cheetah for her cubs, according to African folklore.  The old story talks about a hunter marvelling at a cheetah’s hunting ability, wishing he could have his own cheetah to hunt for him.  This cheetah had three young cubs, which she left under a tree while she was hunting an impala.  The hunter stole them and when she returned to where her cubs had been and discovered they were gone, she cried for hours.  An old man saw the crying cheetah and discovered her cubs had been stolen by one of his villagers, so he retrieved them and returned them to their distraught mother.  She was very grateful for their return, but her face was permanently stained from crying over her lost cubs.

Cheetah’s “tear marks”  ©  Corlette Wessels

Scientifically speaking, these markings are important for cheetahs as they reflect the glare of the sun while they hunt, particularly in open plains.  This allows them to remain focused on moving prey during their high-speed chases.

Cheetahs can reach speeds of up to 120km/h, but only for short bursts.  They have incredible acceleration, going from 0-100km/h in just three seconds.  They are lightweight, lean and aerodynamic.  They have semi-retractable claws and hard foot pads which help with traction, and their long tails are used to stabilise and steer their body.  There has been nothing man-made that can achieve the speed and efficiency of the cheetah.

Yawning cheetah  ©  Corlette Wessels

Female cheetahs are solitary, other than with their cubs, whereas male cheetahs can form small coalitions, usually with their brothers, to defend as much land as possible.  Unlike other big cats, cheetahs cannot roar, but they are able to make other sounds.  Males make a “stuttering” noise when trying to impress females.  They can growl and hiss when threatened and can yelp as a warning signal.

Cheetah coalition  ©  Chad Cocking

A special characteristic of cheetah cubs is their light-coloured long fur across their backs, called a mantle, making them look extra fluffy.  They lose this layer of fur as they grow up.

Unlike other big cats, cheetahs hunt at dusk and dawn.  It is believed this is to avoid them having to compete for prey with lions, leopards and hyenas.  Mothers spend a lot of time training their offspring in hunting, and will provide their cubs with small live antelopes so they can learn to chase and catch them.

Cheetah cub  ©  Drew Abrahamson

Before the 20th century, there were 100,000 cheetahs in Africa and Asia.  In the 1970s, European settlers saw them as vermin so their numbers were significantly reduced.  Today, they are only found in about 10 percent of their historic range.  There are only around 6,700 remaining, with the world’s largest cheetah population being found in Namibia.  Cheetahs are generally classified as vulnerable, with the Asiatic and Northwest African cheetahs being critically endangered.

The main issues facing cheetahs are human-wildlife conflict, loss of habitat and prey, poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking of cubs for smuggling into the exotic pet trade.  With cheetahs doing poorly in wildlife reserves, about 90% of them live outside of protected lands on private farmlands, which sees them come into conflict with people.  Farmers will then retaliate by trapping or shooting cheetahs that threaten their livestock due to a decline in their natural prey.  Organisations are working with local communities to build boma enclosures for their livestock to protect them from big cats in an effort to reduce retaliatory killings.

Cheetahs on the move  ©  Corlette Wessels

Human encroachment is destroying habitats for cheetahs and other big cats.  What were once open grasslands are being transferred into roads, settlements and agriculture, as human populations expand.  Communities are being engaged with to create sustainable solutions to allow farmers and cheetahs the space they need to live without encroaching on each another.

Cheetahs are viewed as status symbols and although cheetah ownership is illegal in many countries, there is still a high demand for them as pets.  This sees cubs being illegally captured in the wild, transported into captivity and sold, with only one in six surviving.  Cheetahs are also poached for their skin.

Cheetah having a roll  ©  Corlette Wessels

Painted Dog

African painted dogs are also known as wild dogs or African hunting dogs. They are highly social animals and are led by a dominant alpha breeding pair. There is a specific hierarchy within the pack, and it is the females who leave the pack at maturity, with the males staying in the group.

Painted dog  ©  Chad Cocking

The dogs have a distinctive fur pattern, hence the name “painted” dogs, and their markings are individual to each dog, with no two alike.  Their scientific name “Lycaon pictus” translates into “painted wolf”.

They are a symbol of family, community, and a positive attitude.  The dogs were respected by the ancient Egyptians and were found depicted on their cosmetic palates.  It is believed they symbolised order over chaos.  The San people of Botswana see wild dogs as the embodiment of the ultimate hunter.

Painted dog pack  ©  Corlette Wessels

These dogs are said to be the best of all the hunters with an 80% success rate.  It is believed that this is because they have a high level of communication and pre-planning within their pack, and hunt in groups of six to twenty dogs.  They have a unique “voting” system in relation to pack decisions.  Before a hunt, the dogs will hold a “rally” of sorts.  By a sneeze-like motion they will express whether they want to join.  If either of the alpha pair sneezes, it requires three other sneezes from pack members, whereas if a non-dominant dog sneezes, it takes ten others to agree before initiating the hunt.

Painted dog pack  ©  Corlette Wessels

Unlike other predators, painted dogs rarely fight amongst themselves, and are known to care for their fellow pack members.  If a dog becomes ill, injured or loses their ability to hunt, the rest of the pack will care for and feed them, even regurgitating food for them.  A report from Botswana highlights this character trait, when an alpha female lost one of her front legs in a hunt.  Normally this would have led to the death of other predators, but this dog remained the alpha female and continued to breed and raise puppies while being looked after by her pack.

Painted dog puppy  ©  Chad Cocking

Painted dogs are listed as endangered in the wild, with only 6,500 left across Africa – less than 5% of their original population.  In South Africa, there are less than 500 left.  The dogs are now found in only 10-25 countries, a significant reduction on the 40 countries they used to inhabit.  The largest populations are in southern Africa, Tanzania and northern Mozambique.

Painted dog having a drink  ©  Chad Cocking

One of their biggest threats is snares – nasty wire contraptions that trap the dogs, causing serious injury and death.  In a positive move, there are various snare art programs across Africa, including Down2theWire in South Africa, which see these wire snares being retrieved from the bush and given to local artists to produce creative pieces of art and jewellery for sale.  This helps to raise funds for anti-snare programs, and educate and raise awareness about snares and the damage they cause to wild animals.  The money provided to the artists helps their community and encourages them to become involved in sustainable and ethical business instead of potentially needing to turn to poaching to survive.

Snare art  ©  Jane Alexander

The dogs are also hunted and killed by farmers, much like cheetahs and other predators, and suffer from similar habitat issues.  They are often the victims of road accidents, as well as disease from domestic dogs.  This can wipe out entire packs with ease due to their close nature.  If one animal becomes sick with rabies or another disease, it will quickly pass it onto other pack members, having a devastating effect.

Painted Dog Conservation, based in Zimbabwe, is working towards protecting the local dog population with anti-poaching units, a rehabilitation facility which enables them to care for sick and injured dogs before being released back into the wild, and monitoring and tracking dogs to assist with research and education.

Painted dog  ©  Chad Cocking

It is a tragedy that magnificent animals such as these highlighted, along with so many others across the African continent, are facing such difficult futures due to human interference.  We must do everything we can to save them, including education, raising awareness, fundraising and work on the ground.  We thank all of the incredible people and organisations across the world who are working to give these animals a chance.  We must have wildlife for our future.