One of the most interesting behavioural sessions of the field season happened in my first week of observations. It was early morning and the day was already hot. I was out in the south and had located Sweet Chilli, Logan, Dougie and Reine, a sub-adult group nicknamed the ‘Naughty 4. The group was calmly grazing in the long grass as I watched from downwind. 250 metres to the east I spot three rhinos approaching fast – Mish leading Courtney and Willis. The four were about to become a seven, leading to some fascinating social dynamics.
Most people don’t view white rhinos as being social. Adult bulls are solitary, and mothers normally just wander around with their latest calf. Usually you have to be lucky enough to witness a confrontation to see any exciting behaviour. If you want to observe social behaviour then you need to hang out with the teenagers. These sub-adult rhino groupings are where you get an insight into their relationships.
The ‘Naughty 4’ was a group of three males and a female. Being the only female in the gang, Reine seemed to be the leader. The boys followed her around, probably viewing her a proxy mother. Dougie was the oldest and biggest of the group. At around 8 years old he was on the cusp of becoming a sexually mature bull. He liked to think he was in charge of the group, but it was obvious the others deferred to Reine rather than him. Sweet Chilli is the probably the most loved rhino on the reserve. After his mother was slaughtered by poachers he took his little sister Charlie into his care. If people want to know whether rhinos have hearts, then they should get to know Sweet Chilli. You may be wandering why he’s named after a bottle of sauce you may have on your dining table? Well when the guys who named him were eating dinner one night…, well you can see where this leads…. But the name rings true. He is ever so sweet, yet has a touch of fire in his belly. Logan, the youngest of the gang (named after a visiting professor’s son), is a quiet, unassuming rhino. Not a particularly big personality, he gets along with the others and can display an independent streak. At times he’ll leave the group for a few days, go hang out with Nkombi and Phoenix, before returning to the gang.
With Mish due to give birth soon Courtney and Willis would have to leave her side. While they could survive on their own, young rhinos will usually seek out other sub-adults, or another mother-calf, to group with. While the obvious reason for this is safety in numbers, it is also thought that group living also enables the transfer of knowledge in relation to grazing and water access. With a gang of four sub-adults already roaming the reserve, it was expected that Courtney and Willis would swell their ranks.
It was almost as if Mish was thinking the same thing. She was leading the two boys straight at the Naughty 4, apparently keen for Courtney and Willis to spend some time with the others.
The Naughty 4 stopped their grazing and raised their heads towards the approaching rhinos. Noses went up in the air, sniffing familiar scents. Due their poor eyesight, rhinos primarily rely on scent to communicate. Dropping dung in strategic places is their version of posting on a message board.
The seven rhinos came together and touched noses in greeting.
Sweet Chilli and Dougie both decided it was a good time to dump some dung. Dougie scraped his with his back feet, breaking the grape-size lumps up and scattering them among the grass, a behaviour usually displayed by dominant bulls.
For the next couple of hours the group grazed their way into the reserve. They spread out and Mish drifted away at times. The day was getting hotter so I found a nice acacia to shelter myself from the sun under. There was a slight northerly breeze so I positioned myself to the south of the group. Everyone, the rhinos and myself, were relaxed. After being on my feet for a few hours I sat under the tree, my clip board and data sheet in front of my crossed legs. I had all seven rhinos ahead of me and in view. I got comfortable and dug out the video camera:
Now with the ‘researcher avoids being trampled by study species’ part of the story out of the way, let us get back to the rhinos. Once they had recovered from their surprise, the real interesting behaviour began. The group grazed uneasily for a short while before laying down under a couple of trees. Half an hour passes before they start getting up to feed again. The last one to do so was Dougie, and it seemed that he was having some nice dreams.
Rhinos are obviously very large mammals, and with that come very large appendages. It was impossible to miss the metre long, pink erection sprouting from between his legs. Even so I still had to peer through my binoculars to confirm that I wasn’t seeing things. This seemed to spur a change of attitude towards Dougie from the other young males around him.
Courtney decided to grab some shade when Dougie approached him. From the further distance I was now observing from, it looked like Dougie wanted to move the younger male out the way and steal his shade. Courtney reacted by getting up, running at Dougie, thrusting him with his horn, before walking way. About 10 seconds later Willis, perhaps emboldened by Courtney’s actions, goes for Dougie too. Moments later, Mish joins the fray and runs at both Willis and Dougie, causing the boys to scatter in different directions.
Three minutes later I see two rhinos head-to-head, one advancing, the other retreating. I hear the sound of horns clashing, followed by grunting and growling. Wandering who it could be this time, I zoom in on their ear-notches to ID the perpetrators. This time it was the small, unassuming Logan being the aggressor. And the victim? You’ve guessed it - Dougie!
This type of behaviour went on it was clear the young males were ganging up and bullying Dougie. None of this was overtly violent, rather posturing for position. Unless it is two dominant bulls fighting over females or territory, these ‘agonistic social interactions’ are quick and relatively harmless. The most typical are what we termed ‘advancing steps’. This action would involve the aggressor making a short rapid run towards the recipient, usually accompanied by growls, sometimes concluded with a quick horn jab. I managed to at least capture one of these interactions in the following video. The smaller rhino to the left is Willis, again going for Dougie who backs away. You can almost see Dougie thinking ‘why am I taking this crap from Willis?’ as he then gives Willis the same treatment back. At this point you’ll also notice Willis’ ears back against his head - a sign of submission.
When the rhinos split into two groups and moved back to the shade, I thought the action was over. But Willis had one more surprise left in store. He was standing right next to Dougie, the two males appearing calm. Reine was just off to one side, casually chewing some grass. A pair of cattle egrets stood behind the trio, waiting for insects to be disturbed by the massive grazers. It was midday, the sun hot and high. After following the group the almost five hours I was ready for some lunch and a rest too.
There it was, a nice, peaceful scene in the South African bushvelt. Then Willis takes a step forward, hooks his blunt horn under Dougie’s front-left armpit, and lifts. Caught completely off-guard, and now off-balance, the big males shrieks and comically tries to hop and spin away from his little tormentor. In shock and surprise I whip out my camera hoping to catch a reaction from Dougie. But no, one by one the three rhinos settle down on the ground. Sweet Chilli then wanders over looking to join them in the shade. And who decides to shoo him away? That’s right, our little guy Willis.
After that things actually settle down. Willis walks back to the shade after chasing Sweet Chilli away, and proceeds to rest his chin on Reines rump. This is an odd behaviour I’ve seen in rhinos, and appears to be affectionate. Reine is the only rhino of the group to have not been involved in any of the rowdiness of the morning. Willis lies back down next to her as Sweet Chilli returns and rests his chin on the back of the rhino that chased him off moments before. He then moves off and settles under his own tree alone.
The whole morning had been fascinating and frankly bizarre. There were complex social dynamics at play, bonds being formed and rivalries made. The way the young males picked on Dougie after his moment with the erection was strange. It’s impossible to say if these two events were linked, yet it seems unlikely they were coincidental. The fact that Reine was also pregnant at the time may have had something to do with it.
Two weeks later Mish would have her own baby, chasing off Courtney and Willis so she could look after her new-born. They would join up with the Naughty 4, thus forming the Naughty 6. Willis would go back to being picked on, leading up to that day months later when Dougie forced him to do a handstand. It was as if the morning’s behaviour I had just witnessed was Willis trying to prove himself in front of the gang he was about to join. Still, seeing him stand up for himself like that made me root for him even more. Some of my favourite sessions would be following the Naughty 6, keenly awaiting the next little dramas to unfold.