I love animals and the opportunity to go on multiple game drives in Africa was a once in a lifetime experience I’ll never forget. The fun and excitement turned serious though when I found myself a couple of feet from the elusive and endangered Black Rhino, an animal not to mess around with but one that is at the same time so delicate.
Here’s the hard part of this post, I can’t tell you where I was. Yeah, I know what use is this as a travel blog if I can’t tell you where to go and what to see; yeah, I get that. But the nature preserve in question has asked me not to share the location of the black rhino encounters because of poachers. Black rhinos aren’t just endangered you see, their time on this planet may already have ended because of us.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Black rhinos were everywhere in Africa, several hundred thousand by some estimates. But just one hundred years later this number had plummeted to a shocking 4,200. In West Africa they are even considered extinct. What caused this? Of course, it was man. But it wasn’t from loss of habitat, it was from poaching; the willful hunting and systematic elimination of this beautiful animal. I was surprised to learn that there are two main reasons for poaching. In the 1970s poachers went after them for their horns to make ceremonial daggers popular in the Middle East. The horn is also popular in Chinese medicine and is mainly used for male sexual virility. Because of poachers the black rhino population declined by 96% in twenty years. That fact both shocks and sickens me.
That is also why I have to be careful describing some of the fantastic conservation efforts underway throughout Africa to try to save these gorgeous animals. The one I visited in particular works very hard at preserving their small but growing population of black rhinos.
The sun had almost set by the time we entered the forest on the game reserve. The late afternoon photo safari had already been amazing. We saw zebras, elephants and countless deer and antelope with names I can barely pronounce much less remember. But our guide was intent to show us some rhinos if at all possible. They had been introduced to the game preserve just a few years ago and already they had a couple of young rhinos as a result. One was very young, a baby really, and our guide made a point to tell us that meant the mother would be off protecting him somewhere. If there’s one thing you don’t want to encounter in the wild, it’s an over protective mother rhino.
We drove slowly through the dense scrub and bush, when our guide raised his hand and motioned in front of us. There, happily munching away on some leaves were three black rhinos; I could scarcely believe it. The jeep slowly approached not wanting to scare them away until we were just a few feet from these majestic creatures. Although it’s not usually advised to be that close, there we were anyway listening to the husky sounds of their eating. Rhinos are so unusual they seem prehistoric; leftovers that somehow survived the millennia. To be there, watching them not in a zoo but in the lands where they were meant to live was an honor and one I don’t ever want to forget.
On the way back to the lodge the guide explained how they try to protect these rare animals. There are of course security officers always on guard, alert to any sign of forcible intrusion through Jurassic Park style gates and fences. They also cut off a large part of the rhino’s horn periodically. This is done to protect him ultimately, since if he doesn’t have a horn then there’s nothing worth poaching in theory. It’s a controversial step without a doubt, but one which the head biologist believes is necessary in ensuring their survival. They also bribe the rhinos by offering treat troughs for them. That way they get to see them pretty often and make sure they’re still ok. Even with these security measures he fears for the future of the species. It may be too little too late he explained, but at least they’re trying.
The next day on the final game drive we once again ran into the family of rhinos, sans the mother and infant of course. Unlike many of the other animals they weren’t curious and nor were they overly fearful of us. In fact they gloriously ignored the giant jeep with camera toting foreigners, an act that gave me a lot of pleasure. That means that they’re behaving naturally and hopefully it is those natural instincts which will help them survive well into the future.