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.