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Saturday
May062017

Rhino

The Rhinoceros is what we call an odd toed ungulate (Perissodactyia) this means that they have an odd number of toes and simple stomachs. This group of animals includes members of the horse family (Equidae) Zebra, horses & donkeys and the Tapirs (Tapiridae). Even though they look very different they are recognized as related families. Their simple stomach is not very efficient and hence their intestine needs to be quite long (85 feet in horses) so the animals themselves have to be large. There are five surviving members of the Rhinoceros family (2 in Africa and 3 in Southern Asia) and they are one of the world’s few remaining Megafauna. The two African species are the Black (Hooked Lipped Rhino) and the White (Wide mouthed Rhino). They are the same color (the name white comes from the Dutch word Wijd for wide).
The White Rhino is a larger animal and has a wide mouth for eating grass - like a big lawn mower if you will. The Black Rhino has a hooked lip designed for feeding on leaves and branches. The White Rhino is less aggressive and lives in a more open habitat.
The Black Rhino lives in dense woodland, they have poor eye sight but good hearing and a very good sense of smell. They also have a reputation for being notoriously bad tempered and charge on the slightest provocation!!
In the mid 90s I worked at a safari lodge that specialized in Rhino tracking. We would wake up and have breakfast while waiting for news from the game scouts who where already out looking for fresh Rhino tracks. Once a good track was located we would drive out to join up with the tracking team that consisted of two Shangaan trackers. The Shangaan take their name from their first King Soshangana who was a famous general of Shaka Zulu. They live in a region that creates the borders of modern day Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa. Today they are famous for their tracking and hunting skills. Once on the track of a Rhino, we would expect a walk of any where from one hour to four or five. Tracking a mega herbivore like a black rhino is a very special experience as all your senses are heightened with the anticipation of what lies ahead. 
One morning I was guiding two young couples from the UK. We were following the tracks of a male rhino that had drunk water from a water hole the night before and was moving back to his territory feeding as he went. It was a glorious warm and sunny August morning following a dry river bed lined with riverine trees. We came across a large herd of elephant which we were down wind of and we were able to easily avoid. After about 3 hours of hard walking we came across the rhino who was sleeping under a bush as they often do in the middle of the day. I could not have been happier! We had little cover where we were, so the trackers and I started moving the 4 guests across to a termite mound where they could still have a good view of the sleeping animal while being afforded the protection of the high ground. 
Now the most important thing to be aware of when you are close to a sleeping black rhino is the direction of the wind. We do this by shaking a cotton bag filled with the white ash from the burned wood of a lead wood tree. I did this a few times on arrival and was happy with the wind direction as it was blowing directly from the rhino to us - just what we wanted. I failed to pay attention to the time of day as the wind can swirl at midday in August and sure enough this happened as the last guest was moving to the termite mound. The wind carried our sent right to the sleeping Rhino who saw the movement of the young English lady who was under my care. Our tranquil sleeping Rhino exploded into a furry of dust as he erupted straight at my guest. 
Seeing what was happening I experienced something I had never experienced before and have never experienced again. As I shouted to distract the rhino from its target the whole world around me slowed down as if I was in a slow motion movie. I watched as the rhino adopted me as its new target, now only about 10 feet away, he was charging directly towards me leading with the sharp point of his 2 foot long horn aimed at my soft belly! I had to make a split second decision - do i shoot a black rhino, one of the world’s rarest animals (there were only about 2000 left in the whole of africa at the time) or do I break the cardinal rule of guiding ”never fire a warning shot” (we do not do this as if the warning shot fails you do not have time to reload and are left at the mercy of the enraged animal). I opted to fire the warning shot, which I did over the head of the Rhino, who by this time was only about 3 feet in front of me. I distinctly remember seeing the rhino’s eyes close and his head turn as he veered to my right and passed me by about 1 foot, so close that I could feel the rush of the wind as he charged past me, crashing away into the undergrowth. Time sped up as I felt a huge relief watching the southern end of a northern bound rhinoceros!!
I looked back to see the ashen white faces of my 4 guests and the grinning faces of the 2 Shangaan trackers who had seen it all before! 
Sadly most of the African bush has lost this ancient animal. We have lost over 6000 rhino since 2008 alone. The Black Rhino population today is 4% of what it was in 1970 and South Africa is losing about about 3 rhino a day. A Rhino horn is worth about $30 thousand for a pound and one horn can easily weigh 10 pounds. The horn is in demand in the for use as medicine, ornamental knife handles and aphrodisiacs in Asia. The demand for rhino horn as well as other wildlife products such as ivory has dramatically accelerated with the tremendous growth of the Chinese middle classes, as their economic wealth grows so does the demand for traditional animal medicines. 
Even rhino in zoos have been targeted as was recently reported in a French Zoo.
Many dedicated people are fighting today to protect animals such as rhino and elephant and in cases giving their own lives. If anyone would like more information or to learn how they can help we work with many reputable organizations and people on the ground putting their lives on the front line every day.

 

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