I have been blessed. I have seen the African rhinoceros in the wild. My passion for the rhino was awakened the first time I saw one. It wooed me with its magnificent and extraordinary shape and size. Like the elephant and giraffe, it stands alone in my imagination. A remarkable presence with its unique horns, leathered and scaly skin and an evolutionary history of walking this planet for centuries, it is difficult not to get swept away when you meet your first rhino.
Rhino horn is NOT medicine
It can be difficult to wrap your head around the numbers and create a meaningful connection with an endangered species — especially one that lives a great distance away from most of us. The black market in animal trafficking is a steadily growing business, and a good portion of this multimillion dollar trade is made up of poached rhino horn originating in Africa. Destined for the east, particularly Vietnam, rhino horn is used as a detoxifying agent and body-rejuvenating tonic. Over the last five years, the death tolls for rhinos in South Africa alone, a haven for poachers, has dramatically risen from 13 in 2007 to 333 in 2010 to 448 last year. Halfway through 2012 the picture is not improving. (Source)
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At the beginning of the 20th century, estimates had it that there were approximately half a million rhinoceros walking the Earth. Today, based on figures released by the IUCN, there are closer to 29,000 animals between the five species that wander the African and Asian continents. (Source)
Perhaps the African black rhino, more than any other mammal on the planet, could be considered the poster child for conservation distress. It represents the single biggest assault on a species worldwide. Save the Rhino
estimates the black rhinoceros population dropping 96 percent from 1970-1992 when fewer than 2300 were left. Tremendous efforts in east and southern Africa in the last 10 years have greatly improved the numbers, (largely from conservancies that include Ol’ Pejeta and Lewa Wildlife in Kenya,) but few rhinos now survive in the wild outside protected areas. Today the IUCN estimates the black rhinoceros population, which is slowly regaining numbers, at about 4,800 animals.
The first time...
You always remember your first, and mine was on the Phinda Reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal province of South Africa. Late in the day we came upon a large, white female rhino standing on top of a termite mound, the late-day backlighting exaggerating her prehistoric silhouette. Even at a distance you could sense how formidable she was. The following afternoon, braving an ominous dark sky and distant storms, we were rewarded with a second sighting; this time we sided up to a pair of black rhinos. For over an hour we watched them linger in the long, golden grass, a photographer’s pot of gold at the end of a distant rainbow.
Close encounters of the rhinoceros kind
It is one thing to see one of these great mammals off at a distance, it is quite another to be close enough to almost smell their breath. (I say ‘almost’ because one actually can’t smell a thing when holding one’s own breath...) Sitting alone up in the third bench of our Range Rover, we stopped to watch a trio of white rhinos grazing just off to the side of the road. They were calm and relaxed and ambling slowly through the tall grass. Suddenly one massive male turned and slowly started to make his way towards the truck. Our ranger was quite confident we were in no danger and so we sat, wide-eyed and still. As he approached, this 5,000-pound fellow seemed to only have eyes for me. The rhino has very poor eyesight and is mostly guided by its tremendous sense of smell. He wandered closer and paused within about six feet of my boot perched on the side rail. He calmly sniffed the air between the two of us, looking right up at me. I was transfixed — a difficult state in which to operate a camera shutter! After a moment or two, and satisfied I had bathed, he hung his head and slowly wandered back towards the buffet line. I believed he had given me his blessing.
New life at Lewa
On a 2010 visit to Kenya, I spent time on the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy; 55,000 acres of protected land dedicated to conserving the rhinoceros. Lewa is home to more than 50 of the 300 white rhinos that live in Kenya and of the approximately 600 black rhinos living in the country, 74 live on Lewa. The current growth rate for the smaller black rhinos is averaging 10 percent, which is higher than the national average of 6 percent. One reason for this is that they have a good number of breeding individuals living in this protected area.
Rhinoceros give birth to one calf and gestation is between 15-16 months. Birth intervals can be up to four years, a challenge for rebuilding the population. Females reach sexual maturity between 4 and 7 years and can live in the wild upwards of 35 years. These protected conservancies are critical to rebuilding the continents populations. While southern Africa introduced me to both the black and white rhinos, Lewa’s dense population and manageable terrain allowed me to get very close to these animals and provided my first opportunity to photograph young calves! These miniature versions of their parents seemed inquisitive and stood their ground, heads held high — with a noticeable bump starting to appear at the end of their snout.
A mud-covered white rhino mother and calf. Photo:©njwight.com
Make some noise
If the slaughter of these magnificent animals in Africa and Asia is going to be stopped, the level of education world-wide has to be increased. Cultural differences must be respected while medicinal myths are dismantled. Economics have to be understood — organized crime is infusing cash into the black market for endangered animal parts because profits continue to soar. Wildlife organizations, conservancies and rangers are not adequately funded (or armed) to protect against highly organized poaching rings with high-powered firearms.
More resources must flow into these protective agencies and collectively across the planet we must make noise for rhinos
The rhinoceros is an uneven toed ungulate and this one could use a pedicure. Photo:©njwight.com
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