The white rhinoceros ( Ceratotherium simum ) has a discontinuous African distribution, which is limited by the extent of sub-Saharan grasslands. The southern population (SWR) declined to its lowest number around the turn of the nineteenth century, but recovered to become the world"s most numerous rhinoceros. In contrast, the northern population (NWR) was common during much of the twentieth century, declining rapidly since the 1970s, and now only two post-reproductive individuals remain. Despite this species"s conservation status, it lacks a genetic assessment of its demographic history. We therefore sampled 232 individuals from extant and museum sources and analysed ten microsatellite loci and the mtDNA control region. Both marker types reliably partitioned the species into SWR and NWR, with moderate nuclear genetic diversity and only three mtDNA haplotypes for the species, including historical samples. We detected ancient interglacial demographic declines in both populations. Both populations may also have been affected by recent declines associated with the colonial expansion for the SWR, and with the much earlier Bantu migrations for the NWR. Finally, we detected post-divergence secondary contact between NWR and SWR, possibly occurring as recently as the last glacial maximum. These results suggest the species was subjected to regular periods of fragmentation and low genetic diversity, which may have been replenished upon secondary contact during glacial periods. The species"s current situation thus reflects prehistoric declines that were exacerbated by anthropogenic pressure associated with the rise of late Holocene technological advancement in Africa. Importantly, secondary contact suggests a potentially positive outcome for a hybrid rescue conservation strategy, although further genome-wide data are desirable to corroborate these results.