The Rhinoceros

Rhinos are holdovers from an early era in the Age of Mammals. Though they have survived millions of years, their greatest challenge began in the 1970s when poaching accelerated in response to demand for their horns from Arab countries (where the horns are fashioned into expensive dagger handles) and Asia (where the horns are thought to be an aphrodisiac – perhaps Viagra will take some of the pressure off). Although recent efforts and awareness have reduced the poaching, rhino horn remains more precious than gold and an irresistible lure to poachers in the poor areas of Africa.

The horns, despite their exotic uses, are actually made of keratin – the same material as hooves, fingernails and hair. The horns are not attached to the skull, but rather grow out of the skin.

For a while, it was thought that the animals could be saved by cutting off their horns. What value, the thinking went, would the animal have to a poacher without its horns? Aside from the cruelty of depriving a wild beast of its main means of protection, this policy led (of course) to unintended consequences. According to one of our guides in Zimbabwe, poachers still killed the dehorned rhinos, and not just for spite. In Zimbabwe, government anti-poaching squads have the authority to shoot poachers on sight (any other policy would have given the violent and well-armed poachers the upper hand). Accordingly, poaching became a highly risky business. Poachers had to walk great distances under cover of night to reach the rhino areas. In order to avoid detection, they passed the cold nights without a fire or warm food. Tracking a rhino could take several days. If the rhino finally discovered had no horns, all the risk, discomfort and trouble was for naught. How could the poachers make sure they wouldn't waste their time in the future tracking a worthless rhino? Simple – kill it. And so it went.

The rhinos left in Africa today are virtually all in well-protected areas. Two such areas are the Lewa Downs conservancy in Kenya and the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. While in Lewa Downs, I saw the white rhinos pictured here (and others too). White rhinos are the larger of the two African species, weighing 4,500 to 5,000 pounds. They are grazers (grass eaters) and are very docile by nature. Indeed, in a protected area of the Masai Mara, we were able to walk within a few feet of the beasts while the rangers moved them around with sticks as if they were cattle. Aside from its size, the white rhino (which is not white in color) is best identified by its large square mouth, which is well-designed for grazing. While eating, the white rhino moves its head from side to side as it slowly walks forward, munching the grass in its path. After a while, it begins to look almost mechanized. Finding the white rhinos in Lewa Downs was about as difficult as finding cattle in Texas. White rhinos are the more sociable of the two species and they were easily spotted in a small herd out in the open grassland.

Black rhinos are a different story. While they have black rhinos in Lewa Downs, I was never lucky enough to find them (and it wasn't for lack of trying). Black rhinos (which are not black) are browsers (they eat plants and bushes) and have a pointed mouth with a prehensile lip that permits them to munch very selectively. They are smaller (only 2,200 to 3,000 pounds) than white rhinos and are generally considered to be solitary creatures (though there are exceptions in certain areas, such as the Ngorongoro Crater). They are also far more aggressive. Despite their considerable weight and ungainly appearance, they are capable of running up to 30 mph and can turn very quickly. When provoked, they usually charge first and ask questions later (we didn't see anybody attempting to move them around with a stick). Their eyesight is generally poor, but their senses of hearing and smell are excellent. If charged by a rhino, one trick – supposedly – is to pick up a rock and throw it off to one side. The rhino – supposedly – will turn toward the sound giving one a chance to escape. I didn't attempt to test this strategy.

While in South Africa in August, 2002, I visited Djuma Reserve, a private game reserve near Kruger National Park. A few weeks prior to my visit, a white rhino in the area had given birth. After giving mother and baby a couple of weeks on their own to get adapted, visitors were once again permitted to see them (if you could find them). Over two days, our ranger and tracker made a valiant effort and we were at last rewarded with a glimpse of mother, an adolescent a few years old and the newest arrival. Unfortunately, the mother was still being very protective and kept to the dense underbrush, making visibility (and photographs) almost impossible. The few photos I did manage to get are not very good, but do demonstrate how well these large animals can blend into their natural habitat.