By T. Dietz
South African winter – 2009. Africa, the continent of adventure, exploration, and of beginnings. We shared a story a while back about influential books from our lives and one of those was “Wildlife in South Africa” 1947 by Col. J. Stevenson-Hamilton (Late Warden, Kruger National Park beginning in 1902). I was finally here, on the continent, for an adventure that touched deeply my long desire for experiencing this storied and at times enigmatic land.
Our landing pad for this adventure was the private Sabi Sand Game Reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park. An incredibly well-preserved wilderness that has been in the Bailes family since 1926 but only open outside the family since 1993. Our mini lodge was unlike the moving tent safaris of British fame but offered an un-paralleled base camp experience. This trip had many moments of downright natural magic as anyone who’s been to Africa can attest. Here, I highlight the rhinoceros (of Greek origin, rhino-nose and keras-horn) from the trip.
The White or square-lipped rhinoceros, Certotherium simum (Burchell 1817) is not white but gray, similar in color to the black or hooked-lipped rhinoceros, Diceros bicornis (Linnaeus 1758, Gray 1821). There is a much-repeated story that the origins of the White Rhino’s name emerged from an anglicized pronunciation of the Dutch word whyde or wijd (amongst other spellings) – the term used by African Dutch settlers to describe these square mouthed beasts. However, there is no definitive account. According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Species Survival Programme, the African rhinoceros was first shot and described by Anders Sparrman in 1775 although these ungulates were observed and described during the time of the Dutch East India Company’s settlement of Cape Town beginning in 1652. Burchell was also credited with discovering the white rhinoceros in 1817 and named it Rhinoceros siumus and not giving it a common name. John Barrow, a private secretary to the South African Governor George Macartney, spent from 1797-1803 in S. A. and published in 1801 his description of the white rhinoceros from observations taken in 1798. Several academic publications attempt to decipher the history of southern African rhinoceros classification, distribution and naming but historical and chronological gaps remain.
The black rhinoceros name derivation is believed to have occurred as a way to distinguish it from the white rhinoceros and possibly from covering itself with mud from dark local soils. However, the most noticeable difference is the black rhinoceros’ prehensile lip providing it with the ability to feed on leaves and twigs from trees and bushes unlike the white rhinoceros whose mouth is adapted to feeding on grasses. Black and white rhinoceros can interbreed and produce reproductively competent offspring.
The rhinoceros is the second largest land mammal behind the elephant. Many folks might not realize that there are five species of rhinoceros and that not only Africa has or have had them but also North America, Europe and Asia. The total global count of the five species is now less than 30,000. Contrast this with counts over 500,000 at the beginning of the 20th century (IUCN YE2015 estimates).
White rhinoceros (Certotherium simum, Burchell 1817); Africa; two horns; approximately 20,000 of the Southern White sub species which I saw C. simum simum but only 3 of the Northern White sub species C. sumum cottoni (all three are in captivity 2 females and one male)
Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis, Linnaeus 1758, Gray 1821); Africa; two horns; approximately 5,000
Indian rhinoceros or Greater One-Horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis, Linnaeus 1758); Nepal and northeastern India; one horn; approximately 3,500
Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis, Fischer 1814); Borneo and Sumatra; two horns; furry and the smallest species – their coat helps them in high altitudes; approximately 100
Javan rhinoceros or Lesser One-Horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus, Desmarest 1822); Java; one horn; rarest of all rhinoceros species and one of the rarest larger mammals on earth; approximately 60
Our Ranger explained that Krueger is a special place for rhinoceros. The National Park has played a pivotal role in the recovery efforts of the species. White rhinoceros were extinct in the Nwatimhiri bush of Krueger by 1895 and the last one in the Lowveld (low field country) of Krueger by around 1896. The white rhino was relocated back to Kruger in 1961. The last black rhino in Kruger was seen in 1936 but reintroduced in 1971 (Environmental Affairs Dept of the Republic of South Africa).
Krueger and the surrounding wilderness areas, including Sabi Sands, has very little rain in the winter allowing for better wildlife viewing through sparser vegetation. The Land rover pulled up to a local watering hole so we could observe a pride of lions taking rest and refreshment. This was the first encounter with lions as well but I’ll save that for another time except to say it was mesmerizing to be so close to these fantastic animals. The lions were lazing around the watering hole when you could see a young male become instantly alert.
There, coming through the bush, was a large female white rhino and her calf. I’ve seen lions and rhinoceros at zoos before but nothing can really prepare you for seeing them in their natural setting and you sitting feet from them out in the open. Almost instantly, the male lion’s alertness passed along to the many females in the pride. And then just as quickly, the lions returned to a seemingly uncaring state. We had been expecting to the see the lions as the guide informed us that they had been at this spot for several days. But the unexpected appearance of the rhino mother-calf pair added to the excitement. They were however, not in full view but rather half camouflaged by bushes. The pair appeared to ignore the presence of the pride about 50 feet off to their side as they approached the watering hole.
Rhinoceros have poor vision but impressive olfactory and auditory capabilities. One can easily observe their constantly changing ear direction in order to pick up potential threats. African rhinoceros have no real natural predators other than man, however, they must protect their young from lions, hyenas, crocodiles, dogs and the like, and this is where their keen sense of smell is important as well as for understanding competitive rhino territory. Also in the rhinoceros predator alert arsenal is their symbiotic relationship with the Red-billed oxpecker (Buphagus erythrorhynchus, Stanley 1814). A bird that eats ticks off of the rhino and is hyper alert to danger. Unfortunately, we saw no oxpeckers during the encounters we had with the white rhino.
The mother and calf were present at the watering hole for only a short time before disappearing back into the bush. It’s not surprising to see different wildlife sharing a watering hole. The mother rhino clearly believed she could protect her calf in the presence of the lions. Rhinoceros hydration requirements are high and they must have access to water within their territory – which can range to around 5 square miles.
The next day we came upon a herd or “crash” of rhinoceros, several males, females and calves. The bush and trees were a bit more crowed in the area we were observing from but, despite pushing ever slowly through the thicker bush with the Land rover for a better vantage point, we did not appear to disturb these magnificent creatures. Now that we were in a clearer area, we could easily see the rhinos milling around several trees and with limited bush cover. The animals ranged from about 30 to 100 feet away.
Then, something other than our rover caught their attention and fast. In a choreography of sorts, they began quickly backing rearward toward each other with the calves at the center. Later at camp, our ranger discussed the rhino encounter and explained that the white rhino is known to circle up around their calves, facing outward to protect them. The crash stood there in their hub and spoke formation snorting and kicking up a bit of dirt for at least 20 minutes. I only have an initial photo of the formation as I went to film mode for the remainder of the encounter. We stayed and observed the tense behavior until they relaxed and tried to identify the root cause – to no avail.
Back out on safari, we came across two different rhino settings. The first of the day was another mother-calf pair that moved gracefully around a grass grazing area. There was lots of nuzzling of the calf and lots of curiosity towards us from the calf. As we pulled within 50 feet of the pair, the calf became curious of our rover. It took several back and forth trips before it chose to wander closer and closer and within 10 feet or so of the us. And then with its closest visit it returned quickly to its mother and chose not wander off again. The mother rhino showed no sign of interest in us nor of her calf venturing near. Rhino young have better eyesight than their adult members but it appeared the calf was very much trying to scent us.
The white rhino is the largest of all the rhino species and they can move fast and with agility. When disturbed we saw not only the protection circle formed but burst of speed that kicked up quite a dust storm. The white rhino can reach speeds of up to 40mph. In a more heavily bushed area we came upon about half a dozen rhino that became extremely agitated by the presence of a new comer (on left in the photo) to the group. It elicited an interesting reaction of several of the group running hard and kicking up dirt in a broad circle and returning to face the new entrant to the area. And just as quickly as all the excitement ensued it ended with heads down and grazing resumed.
Rhinos obviously use their horns for self-defense against not only predators but for dominance fighting during mating season. We were not to see a male on male or female on female fight but watching the charging around one could easily see how things could turn deadly and quickly. A rhino will charge hard at objects it feels are a threat. It’s been reported that among the black rhino population almost half of males and one third of females die from fighting each other.
In each encounter with not only the rhinoceros but with the other species observed I never once wanted to move on to see what’s next. I’d have stayed all day observing, photographing, filming, drawing whatever animal we were near. I was grateful for each next encounter but leaving each one left a terrible feeling like I’d never see something so perfect again.
I had not really given any thought as to why people on safari that ride in the trucks are not attacked by the predatory wildlife until we drove up very close to so much dangerous wildlife. It is interesting that in all of our encounters we were effectively ignored by the vast majority of the animals – I’d say the elephants were the most attentive to our presence. It turns out that as a unit of people and vehicle the animal sees us as an entity so much larger than its usual prey or predatory threat it just ignores the object. It also fits with making yourself look larger when confronted with say a mountain lion in the States. So, as they say, stay in the truck!
Finally, it’s wrong when speaking of the majestic rhinoceros to not at least mention their decimation at the hands of man – for their horns. A substance made up primarily of keratin just like in your fingernails and hair, and to have been proven to have no medicinal value. I mention above the severe decline in the worldwide rhino population over the last 100 plus years.
The demand worldwide remains incredibly high for the myth of magical and medicinal qualities from the horn. On the black-market rhino horns sell for more than gold by weight peaking several years ago at roughly $65,000/kilogram and believed now to have fallen to lower levels based upon the rhinoceros plight. The demand is still great as amply demonstrated by a brazen killing of a rhinoceros for its horns by criminals at a Paris zoo in early 2017. It has been illegal to buy or sell rhino horn within South Africa since 2009.