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Rhinos-Learning by Seeing

Thursday, February 3, 2011

I devoured the rhinos with my eyes and camera. I was like a blind person, wanting to feel them all over, to try to figure out what I had in front of me.

A rare look at the udder of a female, lounging briefly on her side. She wasn't nursing.

This one was.

Sun through the sparse hairs of a rhino tail.

A moment of repose, resting a head so heavy. I wonder if they wish they were impala sometimes.

The great folds of skin and fat, the scooped hollow ear. All warm and soft where things have to bend and move; armored and hard where they don't. But warm all over, like sun-heated concrete.

So much bone in that massive head, protecting the brain. The horn, for defense, surely, but also to part the thorn scrub where they live, to let them through.

Rhinos are huge, powerful, but with almost unimaginable gentleness for a beast so weighty. I still marvel that they can be trusted with our eggshell skulls and frail hands, but they just seem to know that we are breakable. 
Would that we had been so considerate of them.

The rhino's horn, which is made of fused hair, has long been thought to have medicinal properties; powdered down, it was the Viagra of the early 20th century. In addition, ceremonial sword hilts, much in demand in the Middle East, were carved from rhino horn (mostly that of black rhinos). In South Africa, southern white rhinos have been terribly persecuted by farmers and trophy hunters. They very nearly vanished by the beginning of the 20th century--down to less than 200 animals. 

Concerted efforts to breed them in captivity and protect the remaining animals (anyone else remember the National Geographic photos of rhinos, each with its own personal armed guard?) allowed them to rebound. The world population now stands around 14,530. There are now more individual southern whites than there are individuals of all other rhino species combined.

Poachers still take them, and almost all of them live in South Africa in parks and game reserves. They're vulnerable, any way you look at it. 

I enjoyed seeing them in the wild in 1994. At Hluhluwe Reserve in South Africa, I remember seeing a huge female with a very long, thin horn. "That's The Witch," my guide, Peter Lawson, told us. "She's infamous for damaging vehicles." And indeed, this female ambled toward our vehicle, intending to scratch her huge bottom on its side, thoroughly scratching its paint and denting it. Peter sped out of the way.

I loved knowing that she could do whatever she wanted, ambling up to unsuspecting drivers, charming them with her proximity, then wrecking their paint jobs. And there wasn't a darn thing they could do about it, either. The Witch was Endangered, and she seemed to know it.

Smile for the camera, sweet rhino boy.

Now a nice profile. 

I don't need to tell you to be gentle with my babies. You know how to do that. 


Oh, I'm late in coming to your Rhino love fest! I, too, love them and felt very privileged to see black Rhinos in the wild in 1996 in Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater. Their population in the crater went from over a hundred in the 1960s to less then 15 when I was there. They were so threatened that each Rhino had its own security detail, seriously!

I have many wonderful photos of them but my favorite is one rhino perfectly centered in the photo looking at me while standing in a hazy field of purple wild flowers. I had it enlarged and my sister had it framed, calling it "Monet with Rhino".

What ancient-looking creatures the Rhinos are. These photos are priceless. I especially like the ones of her udders. The skin down there looks so surprisingly soft.

Thank you for sharing these!

Hi Julie:

Your lines about what rhino horns were used for kicked this memory:

We have a few specimens of horns from the recently extinct woolly rhinos (the only other rhino species with a wide lip). The front horn is flattened from side to side. The thought is that they used that horn to sweep snow away. We know about these details mostly from two specimens that were preserved basically intact in brine in Poland.

Modern rhinos tend to use their horns for intraspecific combat. Interestingly, Indian rhinos are more feared for their bite than for their horns. And Indian rhinos usually flay people they kill, literally licking their skin off for the salt content.

Bruce, this is a comment what am a comment. I can see a wooly rhinoceros snowplowing away. And my experience with captive Indian one-horned rhinos (to come) is congruent with your somewhat alarming comment! Very, very mouthy beasties.

Christine, I'm a two-rhino gal. I was determined to see a black rhino on my South African trip--they are still so very rare there. So while everyone was eating lunch at Hluhluwe I stood and scanned the hills over and over. Came up with a female black rhino and calf...the only ones of the trip. Yessss.

Kimberly, I'm glad you appreciate rhino udders. I do, too.

How does their brain/body weight ratio compare to other animals? From your descriptions, they're obviously intelligent.

When i worked at Lincoln Park Zoo I loved our Eastern Black Rhino. Although they are usually more aggressive than white rhinos he was quite friendly and very curious- his big ears were constantly rotating around. Once Top Chef filmed at the zoo and they had to use the food that we fed the animals in various enclosures. The chefs said that the diet we fed the rhino was the easiest for creating good dishes.:-) They are especially fond of bananas.

I loved this post and also that you recently met one of my favorite blog friends-FC. I am looking forward to saying hello to you at New River in May!

I would like rhino ears. I would sit and swivel.

Pure Florida sent me and I am glad he did. Think I will do some back reading here.

Sadly, rhino poaching in South Africa has skyrocketed in the last few years, rising from 13 poached animals in 2007 to 333 in 2010 (10 of which were highly endangered black rhinos). The highly sophisticated operation is run by criminal networks and uses helicopters, night-vision equipment, silencers and veterinary tranquilizers.

In desperation, some private game farmers are now injecting their rhinos' horns with a toxic ectoparasitacide (normally used to kill ticks) plus an indelible dye. The hope is to persuade the Asian medicinal market that rhino horn is bad for one's health.

It's awful that one of the world's greatest conservation success stories should be turned around like this. Your lovely captive animals may yet have a role to play in conserving this species.

I am sorry to hear, that in this day and age, that we cannot do a better job at catching these criminals that are trying to wipe out such a beautiful species. They look like they walked with the dinosaurs, but they are gentle giants, too! What I wouldn't give to feel that tail hair swish gently on my cheek! (The one on my face!) Love the narrative, Julie!

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