I’ve been travelling the same route down to the bush, several times a year, for more than three decades. I could have given you directions when I was 12; Pretoria. Bronkhorstspruit. Witbank. Belfast. Dullstroom. Lydenburg. Ohrigstad, Hoedspruit. Then we’d head out for Bushbuckridge and turn left into the bush. Halfway down the road the tar would run out and it was an hour of bone-shaking corrugations before we pulled up at the gate of our place.
Things have changed over the years. Witbank is now Emalahleni. Lydenburg is now Mashishing. The road through the charming little town of Dullstroom has been turned into a strip mall where Jo’burg day trippers in Land Cruisers and Porche Cayennes can buy rustic pancakes and designer trout-killing gear. The even littler and far less charming Hoedspruit has grown bigger and more charming.
But it’s the road into the bush that has changed the most. It used to rattle along between two lines of game fence, often bent flat by the elephants that churlishly ignored the boundaries we tried so hard to impose on them. Then, as the 80’s drew to a close, the fences along the road came down, as did the fence around the Kruger Park. The elephants could do as they pleased, as could everything else. The road was tarred and a toll gate was set up to collect money to pay for its upkeep.
It’s actually quite a sophisticated operation.
And then the controls came. Another gate was set up, with retractable spikes and a uniformed guard. And the toll gate turned into something like the entrance to the villain’s lair in a Bond movie, complete with a security force in camo fatigues, with sniffer dogs and assault rifles.
The place names changed because of politics. Hoedspruit and Dullstroom grew because of tourism. The tarred road was about progress, I suppose.
And the heavily armed security force? That’s all about rhinos.
There’s something prehistoric about rhinos. They’re huge, relics of a time when the Earth was crowded with giants like mammoths and glyptodons and giant ground sloths. White rhinos are the third largest land animal after elephants, with the males weighing in at over 2 tons, while the black rhinos can get up to a ton and a half.
Apart from their size, the easiest way to tell the difference between the two is by looking at their colour. White rhinos are grey while black rhinos are a distinct grey colour. Yup. There’s no difference. No one really knows why they’re called that. The most commonly floated answer is that the white of the white rhino is a corruption of the Dutch word “wijd”, meaning wide, in reference to the shape of their mouths. Which, like most folk etymology, sounds perfectly reasonable. The only problem is that there is absolutely no historical evidence for it. And it doesn’t really explain why the other guys are called black.
Confronted by this curious state of affairs, the clever people decided it was far more sensible to call the white rhino the square lipped rhino and the black rhino the hook lipped rhino, because that really is a significant difference between the two. Square lipped rhinos eat grass. They carry their heads low to the ground and have wide, squared off mouths like lawnmowers. Hook lipped rhinos are browsers, and have sharp, turtle beak shaped mouths like garden clippers for picking out the tastiest twigs and leaves.
Clipper. If you squint. And have had enough vodka.
Happily, we stupid people looked at this idea, found it all far too sensible, and cheerfully carried on calling them white and black for absolutely no reason at all. We’ve done the same with wild dogs, which the clever people wanted us to call painted dogs.
Us stupid people know a painted do when we see one.
There are a couple of other differences. Black rhino calves travel behind their mothers, while white rhino calves follow their mothers from in front. Don’t ask me how they do this; no one has ever bothered to explain it to me. Maybe their mothers are whistling at them subsonically, like deep voiced versions of shepherds whistling at their dogs.
White rhinos look noticeably more prehistoric, with huge, elongated heads and massive humped shoulders. Black rhinos are more tidily put together.
White rhinos live out on more or less open grassland, while black rhinos live in thick bush.
White rhinos have a reputation for being grumpy and dangerous. Black rhinos are grumpier and dangerouser.
There’s a reason for this. Rhinos have very bad eyes.
All animals have a series of imaginary circles around them. The outer circle is one in which the animal is aware of an intruder (we’ll call the intruder “you” because I don’t want to type out “intruder” 17 times), but essentially doesn’t care. Then there’s another, smaller circle within which the animal will start paying attention to you. It might just stop and watch you, it might move off, or it might send a half-hearted threat your way, but it will give you some sort of response. Then there’s the final, inner circle. That’s where stuff gets real, because that’s the circle within which you trigger the animal’s flight or fight response.
The size of those circles varies, depending on the temperament of the animal, its mood, who approached whom, and so on. So here’s me and my son chilling with an elephant. Everyone is relaxed. He knew we were there and approached us, so even though he’s close enough to spit on, we’re outside that inner circle.
And he’s outside ours because us men of the wild know that elephants suck at jumping
And here’s another elephant going on a vicious and terrifying rampage after we surprised him by stepping out of the door inside his inner circle (we didn’t know he was there. Elephants are small and unobtrusive and easy to miss).
It’s a miracle we made it out alive. I still can’t wear those pants without breaking down in tears.
Now imagine an animal that can’t see very well. If the wind is right, and you move quietly, you can get within 15 metres of white rhinos on foot without their even being aware of you. Which is nice, right up ‘til the moment that the wind turns or you step on a branch and the rhino suddenly becomes aware of a bunch of people standing well within it inner circle. That’s when you remember that the buggers weigh over 2 tons and can run at over 50 km/h (just for reference, Usain Bolt can only do 44 km/h). If the rhino decides to fight, you’re in very real trouble, but even if it decides on flight, you’re not safe. People have been badly injured just by happening to be in the direction they are fleeing in.
I don’t think this one is fleeing so much as offering a measured critique of that paint job
That’s white rhinos. Black rhinos are even more dangerous. Not only are they grumpier, they also live in thick bush, so you can stumble over them without even knowing they’re there. And vice versa. That whole “them approaching you” thing only counts if they know you’re there.
But that’s all just the stuff about rhinos themselves. The bigger story is about what’s happening to them. We’re killing them all. Again. For the bundles of hair they have stupidly decided to carry around on their noses. I won’t go into too much detail about rhino poaching, because you could fill a whole book, and I don’t know enough to avoid the pitfalls of misinformation that surround the subject. I’ll just rush through it and then tell you a bit about how the rhino crisis affects our little corner of the bush.
When I was younger, the story was simple. Rhinos were poached because the horns were used for making dagger handles in Yemen and aphrodisiacs in China. It was all so obvious. Swallowing bits of a big, stiff horn would surely give you the same. It was also wrong. Rhino horn was never used as an aphrodisiac. It was used in traditional Asian medicine to treat fevers, headaches, and other minor maladies. Of late it’s also being touted as a cure for cancer.
Luckily scientists have recently discovered an artificial substitute for rhino horn
It doesn’t work. At all. But before you get all judgey about the naivety of other people far away, pop into your local crystal shop and ask them if they have anything that will help with your headache. They won’t laugh at you. They’ll sell you a stone. And then they’ll sell you another one to help you align your chakras.
The truth is that it doesn’t really matter what people think it does. A vast criminal network spanning continents and generating millions of dollars doesn’t exist because someone in Vietnam has a headache. To understand what is happening with rhino horn, it helps to understand these;
That’s a Rolex Daytona. You can pick up a new one for half a million Rand. If you’re feeling flush can pick up a slightly fancier one for FIVE MILLION RAND!!!
Whatever you may think when glancing at one, a Rolex Daytona is not a watch. A watch is something you use to tell the time. This is a watch.
It costs R500, and is handy for checking the date as well as the time.
Of course a Rolex Daytona tells the time, too. It even does so quite deep underwater. But no one is spending FIVE MILLION RAND!!! to avoid being late for meetings. No. A Rolex Daytona is a machine for showing people how rich you are. It’s a shot of adrenaline for the sort of people who get a kick out of having things. A Rolex is not a watch, beluga caviar is not salty fish eggs, and a Louis Vuitton bag is not a handy place to keep five almost finished-lipsticks, an expired parking card, and a crumbly handful of those sweets they give you with the bill at restaurants. What these things are is status symbols
And rhino horn isn’t being used to treat fevers. It’s become a status symbol too. Rhino horn is worth more than its weight in gold. China and Vietnam have both seen a rapid growth in the number of rich people. People who suddenly feel a keen desire to tell the time quite deep underwater. People who need somewhere breathtakingly expensive to keep their individually wrapped peppermints. People who want to show the world that they’ve made it.
Ah, the sweet smell of success.
And that’s all I have to say about that. Except for this. It’s kinda hard to stop someone willing to spend FIVE MILLION RAND!!! on a watch.
So what does this all mean for our little corner of the world? It doesn’t stop with the sniffer dogs at the control gate. When I was younger, you often used to see workers walking up and down that corrugated dirt road, heading out to work or visiting friends on neighbouring farms. You still see people walking, though. Armed anti-poaching units, complete with weapons and tracker dogs. They are essentially soldiers, complete with paramilitary training. There’s a private army out there, fighting a little talked about war in the place where the rest of us go on holiday. And it really is a war; their opposition are, by their very nature, armed. There are casualties. A couple of years ago, the remains of a poacher were found on the farm next door to us. He’d been killed and eaten by lions.
Our behaviour has been affected, too. Up at the ranger station on our place there’s a sighting book and a map full of colour co-ordinated pins where we can all share our sightings. Red for lions, green for leopards, blue for elephants, and so on. There are no pins for rhinos, though, and we aren’t allowed to write them up in the book. The wrong person might be watching. Our rhinos are a secret.
One should always dress appropriately for rhino watching
It doesn’t end there. All of us have CB’s in our vehicles. It’s not really my thing, but lots of people have great fun with them, calling out to the rest of us about fresh lion tracks or leopard kills or hyena dens. No calls about rhinos, though. The wrong person might be listening. It’s quite fun listening to people trying to get around this. People will call their friends out at arbitrary times to meet for drinks in arbitrary places or radio in sightings of other animals with secret code-words worked into the announcements.
It wasn’t always like this. When we were kids, people never used to call in about rhinos for a very different reason. There were no pins for rhinos back then, either. Because there weren’t any rhinos.
That’s the greatest tragedy lurking behind all of this. Rhinos are actually a fantastic conservation success story. Halfway through the last century, there were no rhinos left in the Lowveld. None. In the case of the white rhinos, there were hardly any of them left on the planet.
A rare photograph of all the rhinos in the Lowveld, circa 1950
By the 1950’s, there were only about a hundred of them left in the country. A bunch of conservationists in Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park in Kwazulu Natal decided they weren’t giving up without a fight, and protected the hell out of their rhinos. The rhinos did so well that soon they were able to start translocating surplus animals to other reserves and selling them to private landowners. In the 60’s, white rhinos were reintroduced to the Lowveld, followed by black rhinos in the 70’s.
It turns out that when we stop killing them all the time, rhinos actually do pretty well for themselves. By 2010, we had 17 000 white rhinos and 5000 black rhinos in the country.
We watched it happen. As I said, when we first started going down to the bush there were no rhinos on our little patch. There hadn’t been for a hundred years. Then, while the fences were up along that corrugated dirt road, we started to spot the odd one brought in by private landowners on our way down to our place. Then the fences came down. We began to come across the odd track while out driving.
An odd track.
Occasionally, someone would catch a glimpse of one. Occasionally turned to regularly. Four years ago, while sleeping out on the caged in stoep down at our place, I was woken up by a weird thumping noise. I sat up and glanced across the dry river bed in front of our house. Less than 50 metres away was a tiny white rhino calf, prancing around his mother like an excited Labrador puppy. The rhinos were well and truly back.
Now all we have to do is stop them from going away again.