I first went to the reserve on a university field trip in 2015, two weeks that introduced me into the challenging world of rhino conservation. A few months later, while I was studying hard in my final year of the degree, the reserve was hit by poachers. They ended up losing five rhinos to the attack and it changed the lives of those affected forever. The reserve put out a request for people to help them in their anti-poaching operations. I jumped at the opportunity, and soon after graduating found myself flying back out to South Africa.
It was during those three months that I really fell in love with rhinos. My role was mix of patrolling the reserve, deploying the anti-poaching unit, and monitoring the rhino’s locations. It involved tough hours and I took one day off during the whole time. Towards the end of that period an Earthwatch project was set up to research the impacts of dehorning on rhino behaviour. My dissertation supervisor from university was leading it, and to my delight I was offered to do a masters degree as part of the project. It took me all of around five seconds to accept.
It was half way through my three-month stint as a rhino monitor that I got to witness some truly exciting behaviour. That afternoon was when my fascination with the species really began to grow. When that offer of the masters came a few weeks later I jumped at the opportunity to study their social behaviour.
It was a windy afternoon. The long grass was being hammered flat, clouds of dust kicked up in to the air. I was out on patrol in the south, when I spotted a small grouping of rhinos in an opening. I immediately saw that there was some interesting social activity going on. I got out of the vehicle and trained my binoculars on the action. The female was Nkombi, the oldest rhino on the reserve and mother and grandmother to 11 of the others. Her son Phoenix, a 6-month old calf, was so-named as he was the first rhino born on the reserve after the poaching. Two males were accompanying them. Luke, at almost 10 years old, was just approaching sexual maturity and becoming a dominant bull. Sweet Chilli was only five and half, but already much-loved by staff on the reserve. After the poaching he had fostered his little sister Charlie when their mother was brutally killed. When she sadly died, Sweet Chilli was distraught, refusing to leave her body. There have been many stories of rhinos forming bonds with humans and other animals while in captivity or orphanages. The same is true in the wild with other rhinos.
The four rhinos are milling around in an open patch of dry grassland framed by some acacia trees. I was a good 200 metres away, but stayed put for not wanting to disturb them. I set up my tri-pod and camera and hit record.
When playfully socialised rhinos often engage in ‘horn-wrestling’. This is where young rhinos learn how to use their horns in combat, often with an older counterpart for practice. They also seem to just enjoy it for the sake of it. Sweet Chilli especially seemed to like it, horn wrestling the three other rhinos in succession. When it came to Nkombi, the close contact clearly excited the young male (so hard to resist inserting a ‘horny’ pun). As she turns away from him he follows, raising his chin onto her rump – a clear signal that he wants some action. She pointedly ignores his advances and strolls over towards Luke, the sexually active bull over the frisky teenager.
Phoenix is watching this develop with almost palpable indignation. He bounces over towards his mother, forcing Sweet Chilli to turn and face him. Phoenix does a U-turn and gallops away from Chilli with that bouncing lope that makes young rhinos so cute. Chilli accepts the invitation and gives chase.
Phoenix eventually builds up his courage and turns to face his pursuer. Wham, bam, he strikes at Chilli as the larger rhino pushes him backwards. The two of them playfully horn wrestle, with little Phoenix trying his best to show Chilli how tough he is. While filming I take my eyes off the screen to watch what Luke and Nkombi are doing. As I glance back at it I notice that Chilli and Phoenix have strayed from the shot. I quickly pan back to them just in time to catch Phoenix break off and run back towards his mum. Chilli gives chase again, only this time Nkombi cuts him off.
Chilli skids to a halt and takes a few steps back. They go nose-to-nose again, pushing each other backwards and forwards. Phoenix runs back once more to watch. He then strolls over to the massive bull who’s calmly grazing away from the action. Luke ignores the calf and carries on mowing the lawn. Phoenix turns from him to watch his mum and Chilli approach. They’ve broken off from their horn wrestling and Chilli is tossing his head into the air, a clear sign of excitement. Once again he places his chin on Nkombi’s rump and lifts a front leg in an attempt to mount her. She turns back towards him and the ritual continues.
Phoenix is obviously trying to make sense of these shenanigans and keeps darting between the flirting couple and Luke. Chilli tosses his head a few more times, still reading more into Nkombi’s behaviour than is intended by her.
This cycle of behaviour continues for ten minutes: horn-wrestling, head-tossing, chin-mounting. The three of them end up by Luke, who has been ignoring the situation up to now. As Phoenix and Chilli mock fight a little more, Luke decides to turn his attention towards Nkombi, maybe in an attempt to show Chilli how real males court females. Although this time Nkombi knows she is not dealing with a frisky teenager, but a sexually-active, dominant male bull. Twice she mock-charges Luke, forcing him to back pedal, kicking dust up in the air. The switch in her body language towards aggression is clear.
She turns away from Luke, leaving the massive bull standing. Chilli decides to move in on her again, causing little Phoenix to thrust his tiny horn into his flanks. Play time is over for Nkombi though, and she assertively pushes the teenager away. She moves off, with Luke shifting out of the way to give her space. Social time is over.
Phoenix is hesitant to follow, trotting off to stand by Chilli. The older rhino seems to know that Phoenix should follow his mother, even nudging the calf in her direction. The two males follow the mother and calf as they move off towards a thicket. The wind really starts to pick up and rain starts to lash down from the side. Nkombi and Phoenix break into a gallop and disappear out of sight.
Six months later I was out in the field following the Naughty 6. The group had just visited a water hole for a hearty drink and spa session. Wallowing in mud is when rhinos appear at their most content. Competition for the best spots can become fierce leading to conflict.
As I’m observing this fascinating behaviour I spot movements in a thicket nearby. The Naughty 6 begin to clamber out of the mud and move onto the grass. Nkombi and Phoenix emerge from the thicket.
Phoenix is over a year old now and twice as big. He appears self-assured and displays confidence. While Nkombi scans the group of sub-adults, Phoenix makes a bee-line for one rhino in particular. Sweet Chilli steps out from the group to greet his old friend. They approach and touch noses, the equivalent of a rhino handshake. For the next few minutes they horn-wrestle and chase each other through the group of rhinos, ignoring the rest as they play.
Friendship is an interesting notion when applied to a species such as rhinos. They clearly form bonds over time, building friendly relationships with certain individuals. The reverse also happens where some rhinos are actively disliked by others. Plenty more of these dramas would reveal themselves during the research season.