Welcome to The Rhino Diaries
Poor Little Willis. He is being bullied again. From where I’m standing, I can see his hind legs dangling in the air. It appears he’s doing a handstand.
How is this possible? I have only been researching them for a couple of months here in South Africa, but I know rhinos are not supposed to do handstands. I whip up my binoculars and peer towards the action on a rocky area under some acacia trees. Willis’ back legs were still hanging in space, either side of Dougie’s head. The larger male had come up behind the youngster and lifted his back-end over a metre off the ground.
An incredible demonstration of rhino strength—they’re not classed as megafauna for nothing. But what got me thinking was: would Dougie have done the same if he still had his full horn? If he had done that with an uncut, pointed horn, then Willis would have been skewered. Are dehorned rhinos aware that their horn stumps are no longer as lethal to other rhinos? The question fed right into my research here at a private wildlife reserve on the effects of dehorning on southern white rhino social behaviour.
Rhino conservation is on a knife’s edge. The practice of dehorning is a management technique in response to the poaching crisis that threatens rhinos with extinction. Demand for rhino horn from the growing middle-classes of Asia has led to it becoming the most valuable black market commodity in the world. Since 2008, the war being fought over the two species of African rhinos has put South Africa, the last rhino stronghold on Earth, on the front-line. Dehorning is drastic, extreme, difficult to watch—and I’ve taken part in the operation working with the reserve's small herd of rhinos—but in most cases absolutely necessary. This is the high stakes world rhinos live in, under 24-hour security living in national parks and on private game reserves like this one.
It’s not the Lion King around here: 35% of all white rhinos now live on private reserves in South Africa, a model of wildlife ownership that has seen large mammal numbers boom. This model works on the principles of ‘Sustainable Utilization’ of wildlife. Land that was otherwise neglected or mismanaged is now worth far more as wildlife habitat. Many people in the West struggle with the idea that rhinos have to be “managed”: “Why can’t they just be left to roam free?” Release a rhino from a fenced reserve to “roam free,” and it will not last a day. Either deliberately, or by accident, humans will kill it. Rhino management comes in the form of electrified fences, anti-poaching units, artificial water points, managed burning of grasslands, a healthy bank account—and a lot of hard work and dedication.
Rhinos are not the most naturally endearing of creatures. You can’t call them cute, as you would other furrier mammals. They resemble something far more pre-historic. Their grazing behaviour is what you are most likely to witness if you’re lucky enough to encounter one on safari. You take your photos, watch for maybe ten minutes, tick the species off your Big-5 list, and then drive off to find the lions and the elephants. For over 90% of their waking time white rhinos eat grass. It’s the other, less seen or known, 10% that is the most interesting.
During my time in the field with rhinos, what I found was that they have some big personalities, from the caring and friendly young male named Sweet Chilli to the stately Nkombi, the grandmother of the reserve. As teenagers they form delinquent gangs and get in to trouble, such as the stubborn group we nick-named the Naughty 6. During the night they are just as active as they are in the day. They even form bonds and engage in complex social behaviour, which once understood, might even explain why poor little Willis was being bullied by Dougie.
Unlike other iconic species such as the lions and elephants—which have a multitude of documentaries and features dedicated to them—I’ve realized that the public have never had much of an intimate window into the lives of rhinos. For people to act for rhinos, they must care about them. For people to care about rhinos, they must know them. And for people to know rhinos, they need to hear their stories. ….
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