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SOS Rhino : In the News : Close quarters with white rhino

Close quarters with white rhino

  The Natal Witness
South Africaís Oldest Newspaper
By Mike Reid
21 February 2003

"I hope we are going to walk into some Rhino tomorrow," one large farmer was saying to no one in particular as he gazed deeply into the glowing umThombothi coals. Everyone was staring into the fire, each a little uncertain about what to expect. They had heard all the stories, though - people being chased by charging black rhino or buffalo, elephants coming into the camp at night while everyone was asleep and breaking branches onto the tents, lions crouching in the glow of the firelight, while everyone held their breath, or leopard grunting right outside the tents.

Listening to the endless flow of stories, it seemed very few people ever experienced a wilderness trail without some sort of high drama thrown in. Some of the stories were quite impressive. Yet I knew from leading about 100 trails that life-threatening action wasn't the norm -unless you went out looking for it.

"Not so fast, Jack!" One of the women took off quickly from where the farmer had left off. "I have no desire to be completely annihilated by a snorting, bounding rhino. Mike, you will make sure the rhinos stay away from us, won't you? I mean, that is why you carry that huge rifle, isn't it?"

"Well, not really," I smiled slightly as I answered. "The rifle is actually there to protect the animals and shoot the trailists if they get in the animals' way. They are endangered, you do know, don't you? Our job is to protect wildlife, not people. Oh, you have all signed the indemnities absolving me of any blame, haven't you!"

She looked at me, dumbfounded, and her eyes widened. Then she caught my mischievous grin in the bouncing firelight and she laughed heartily. Everyone joined in.

I immediately dropped my smile, and looked hard at her: "No, I am serious. You don't think I'm joking do you?" She did a double take in mid-laugh and then I quickly joined her laughter:

"No, I'm only kidding!" I said. "So, let's talk about rhino."

I proceeded to go into the briefing on the next day's walk. The ice was broken and by the end of the evening, when everyone was filtering off to bed, there was a general atmosphere of excited anticipation for the next few days that would be spent on foot in the Umfolozi Wilderness area.

Early the following morning, we set off from Mndindini trails base camp, crossed the river and walked through the wilderness, following ancient game tracks and paths. Around midday, as we rounded a corner in a sandy track that led along the edge of the floodplain, I was just thinking of the hot mug of sweet bush-tea that I would enjoy at the lunch stop, when two large white rhino suddenly appeared from behind a bush on the open grass in front of us. There wasn't much time to react and I stopped and tried to warn the trailists behind me.

The man behind me bumped clumsily into my backpack and behind him everyone came shuffling and scraping to an untidy stop.

By this time the rhinos had seen us and had spun quickly into an all-round defence. They were about 40 metres ahead, standing stiffly, facing in opposite directions. They sniffed the air cautiously in turn and shuffled this way and that. Every now and then, one would take a few careful steps forward, lower his head and sniff noisily, then suddenly stiffen as he picked up the faint scent of something in the air he didn't like. He would then lean forward as if about to charge and then shuffle quickly backwards to the security of the other animal. The two rhino took turns in performing these little security checks.

"I often wonder what they have to worry about?" I said quietly to the two people behind me. "They are so huge and don't really have anything to fear."

"Except man, of course," the loud voice of the farmer said behind me.

I looked around to confirm everyone was safely placed and saw that the lady who had spoken the night before had walked up to us carefully. She glanced down at the rifle I held loosely at my side and whispered: "They are so close and you don't look like you are even half ready to defend us with that thing."

"I'm ready," I answered quietly. "We have poachers coming in often and over hundreds of years these poor animals have been mercilessly and indiscriminately shot at, so I'm not under any illusion that they are completely safe to be around here. However, although the rifle does serve a purpose, I have never yet had to use it. And I have had some pretty close scrapes. I'll only use it if I need to. Show them respect, and they will leave us alone. They are just nervous now. They will soon settle."

As I said that, almost on cue, the two rhino turned and bounded away, and I could almost feel the release of tension behind me.

After a few seconds of silence, she spoke again.

"That was special. I can see what you mean. Thanks, Mike, I see these animals differently now."

She turned and as she walked away I knew she meant it.

The wilderness has a wonderful way of speaking for itself and I felt thrilled to be a part of this again. Now, as we walked on, I really looked forward to that hot, sweet bush-tea I would make at the lunch stop.

* Mike Reid is a photo-journalist with KZN Wildlife and leads Umfolozi wilderness trails.



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