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SOS Rhino : In the News : Archived News : April 2001 : Chancing my arm in the rhino's domain

Chancing my arm in the rhino's domain

By Guy Marks
Financial Times (London)
April 28, 2001

It was early morning and soft dappled light filtered through the canopy of acacia woodland. A white rhino moved between the shadows, grazing on a thin carpet of lime green grass. Half a dozen cattle egrets danced before the wide-mouthed mower, snatching insects. They craned their necks and cautiously picked a meal from under the rhino's nose and even from her face. They were chancing their luck, but then, so was I.

I was moving slowly forward, crouching, ever closer. There was hardly a sound and the merest breaking of a twig would have alerted her to my presence. I would not have been welcome.

I crouched behind a tree and clicked off a couple of photos. With the sound of my camera she looked up, but I froze and to her dim eyes my form merged with the shadows and the acacia. She looked down again and carried on with breakfast. I moved a little closer and took another shot. Again she peered in my direction.

At 20 metres, Warwick, my guide, was getting nervous, but I was getting ever more enthralled. I was spellbound by this incredibly beautiful and peaceful sight, as the massive wrinkle-skinned animal picked her way through the tender grass and moved in and out of shafts of light.

I was lost in my own world. Nothing existed beyond the rhino, the egrets and me. Then I ran out of film and jolted myself back to earth. I backtracked to the Land Rover to re-stock and, with a single clumsy move, knocked a metal camera case clattering to the floor.

I was far enough away not to be a threat which might have caused a charge, but annoying enough for her to turn away and lope off into the woods. My dawn rhino viewing was over, at least for the moment.

The previous evening Gary, head of Ndumo Wilderness Camp, had assured me that it was pretty easy to see rhinos on nearly every game drive. But I became a little sceptical after the first false sighting. Five of us, including Gary armed with a rifle for our protection, had ventured out of the Land Rover to approach a rhino that he'd seen.

All I could see was bushes, but I took his word for it. It was a potentially dangerous situation and I just hoped that my guides had it pinpointed. But they did not.

After a few minutes of peering, stalking and crouching nervously in the long dry grass, Gary turned and asked: "Did anybody see which way it went?" We hadn't. On further deliberation, it turned out that no one had ever seen it in the first place. Gary, with not a little ribbing from the rest of us, had to accept that this rhinoceros was either a shape-shifter or had been a trick of the light.

But as we drove back to camp we really did see a rhino, that is, if you didn't happen to blink. Black rhinos live by the principles of fight or flight. They will either charge you at first sight or, as happened in this case, thunder off into the bush at full speed.

Ndumo Game Reserve is in Maputaland, an area of South Africa incorporating the flood plains and coast of northern KwaZulu Natal, right on the border of Mozambique. The reserve is best known as a bird-watching destination, with about 60 per cent of South Africa's bird species having been recorded there. But to me, it is far more than a twitcher's paradise.

It is a unique environment in a remote wilderness, with an extraordinary mix of different habitats, ranging from open grassland and flooded pans with permanent water, to bush and thick forest. It is precisely because of this range of habitats that it attracts so many different birds, but this also means that it is ideal for both black rhinos and white rhinos. The black feed on leaves from shrubs, trees and bushes while the white graze on grassland, more commonly out in the open. It is unusual to find a park where both species are at home. At Ndumo, there are 28 black rhinos and about 50 white, and I had come to see them.

In spite of the false start, I was now very impressed, having glimpsed the black in the evening and the white with her gathering of egrets just after dawn. Over the next couple of days I discovered that Gary's claims were right. There were rhinos on every drive. We had them blocking the track in groups of four or five at a time. There were family groups, mothers with calves, and small parties of males wandering together through the woods.

Twice more I chanced my luck, leaving the safety of the Land Rover in the hope of a close-up picture. In the long grass at 15 metres we got as close as Warwick dared.

"We need to back off," he whispered in a worried tone, "or they'll walk right over us." Sometimes ignorance is bliss. I was happy with the knowledge that I had mentally marked out a tree, to which I would run if things got nasty. But Warwick knew that a charging rhino at that distance might outmatch my response time, and he didn't want to have to use the rifle.

In the woods, we could get closer as the risks were not the same. There was something captivating about being in the presence of these extraordinary beasts. They look so strange with their elongated faces stretching from the ground to the hump of their shoulders.

It was heart-stopping every time they looked up at my clicking camera and peered at me through disproportionately small eyes past the ill-placed horns on their noses. But when they looked down I was lost again, caught in a scene with creatures left over from a distant era.

I kept pushing to get closer and closer. At 10 metres Warwick declared us close enough. I guess he judged it perfectly as, thankfully, we never had to put our defences to the test.



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