The Animal Under Those Prized Horns
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN SOUTH AFRICA
SUDDENLY, the rhinoceros was charging at full speed. The man flung himself to one side and sprinted toward a small tree nearby. But the rhino spun around with amazing agility, not giving him time to scramble to safety. He was chased around the tree several times before being hooked with its horn and tossed into the air. Down came the poor man, bouncing first onto the rhino’s shoulders before hitting the ground. There he lay, expecting to be trampled or gored to death. As the rhino stepped forward, the man raised his foot, but the rhino merely sniffed it and trotted away!
This is Africa’s black rhino—inquisitive, pugnacious, easily alarmed. If the rhino’s excellent sense of smell or hearing alerts it to something it cannot see (its eyesight being poor), it will excitedly charge toward the source—be it anything from a train to a butterfly! Although standing about five feet [1.5 m] at the shoulder and weighing as much as 2,200 pounds [1,000 kg], it can nonetheless gallop at some 35 miles [55 km] an hour and spin around within its own length!
Sometimes its charge is just bluff or even sheer fun. Yuilleen Kearney, onetime owner of a young black rhino called Rufus, relates that “the more dust there was flying about, the happier Rufus felt.” She fondly recalls an occasion when Rufus came “snorting, puffing and crashing” through the bush, “charging up the garden only to stop dead in front of the veranda, walk solemnly up the steps and lie down by the side of [her] deck-chair.”
This affection for the black rhino is shared by many who have made a study of it. They all agree, though, that personalities differ among rhino just as they do among humans. Beware, then, the really bad-tempered individual! A popular field guide to animals in southern Africa warns that the black rhino “should never be taken on trust, and should be given a reasonably wide berth.” Sadly, human harassment is often the cause of its aggression. Professor Rudolf Schenkel, the survivor of the rhino charge described earlier, laments the fact that man has made himself the only enemy the rhino has.
What about Africa’s other rhino, the white? Its usually placid nature makes it quite a contrast to its blustery cousin. It is also nearly twice the size of the black, being the third-largest land animal in the world. Its huge head is so heavy that it takes four men to lift it! Yet, it is just as agile as its black cousin.
When confronted in the wild by man, the white rhino will usually flee in panic at the sight, sound, or smell of a human. However, in their book Rhino, Daryl and Sharna Balfour caution against taking this for granted. “More injuries have been caused by white rhino than black in recent years,” they write, adding that this has perhaps been due to man’s “lack of respect” for it.
There is a particular love that Africa’s rhino share. It is the love of mud—lots of it! Many will quicken their pace while approaching their favorite mudhole and will utter squeals of delight at the prospect ahead. The Balfours, who often observed this, relate that as the rhino would slowly sink into the mud, “a sigh would then be heard, and the satisfied animal would lie on one side for a few minutes . . . before continuing its ablutions, often rolling right over on to its back, feet kicking skywards.”
Both rhino species will sometimes share the same wallow and will relinquish all dignity in their love of a squelchy pastime. Young Rufus, mentioned above, got so enthusiastic about his mud bath that “he would sometimes jump up before it was over, just to race around the garden, bucking like a bronco, before returning to the pit in order to savour the delight all over again.”
The mud, however, serves also for things other than blissful indulgence. It provides a venue for social gatherings with fellow rhino and other mud-loving animals, relieves the rhino somewhat of irritating fly bites, and cools their bodies from the sun’s heat. It is therefore not surprising that rhino can sometimes be seen to linger in their miry bed for hours on end.
Which Is Which?
How can a person tell which rhino is which? Is the one really black and the other white? No. They are both gray—but different shades of gray—if you can see the gray color at all. What you will actually see is the color of the mud of their last wallow, which is now caked on the skin.
But the shape of the mouth will tell you immediately which is which. The black rhino, being a browser, has a pointed top lip that it uses to curl around or hook leaves and twigs off shrubs. Its more accurate name is therefore hook-lipped rhino. The white rhino, on the other hand, is a grazer. Hence, its snout is straight across, so that it crops grass like a lawn mower. Not surprisingly, its more accurate name is square-lipped rhino. But for some reason the black-or-white distinction, which seems to have originated with early Dutch settlers in southern Africa, has stuck.
Those Prized Horns
The name rhinoceros is from two Greek words meaning “nose-horned.” And what are rhino horns made of? Some people describe them as being agglutinated hair, as they tend to fray near the base. However, they are not true hair, says Dr. Gerrie de Graaff, scientific adviser at South Africa’s National Parks Board, but are “microscopically similar to the hooves of ungulates [hoofed animals].”
The horn keeps growing, just as fingernails do. A famous black rhino named Gertie sported one that was over four and a half feet [1.4 m] long, and a white rhino’s horn grew to six and a half feet [2 m]! And if the horn should break off, as sometimes happens, it will replace itself at the rate of about three inches [8 cm] a year.
Why are rhino horns so prized? Many people use them for medicines, and others enjoy the prestige of possessing a dagger with a rhino-horn handle. So great is the demand, and so lucrative the trade, that thousands of rhino have been slaughtered by those greedy for profit.
The white rhino, once on the verge of extinction, has now reasonably recovered, thanks to strenuous efforts of conservationists. But not so its black cousin. Various schemes afoot to stem the poaching tide include dehorning the animal. But this mammoth task is proving to have limited value. With rhino horns fetching up to $900 a pound [$2,000 per kg], poachers feel that even the stumps of a dehorned rhino are worth gouging out. Hopefully, though, man’s greediness will not win out, so that future generations too will be able to find delight in becoming acquainted with this fascinating animal.
[Blurb on page 27]
How can you tell the difference between the black rhino and the white rhino, since they are both gray?
[Picture on page 26]
White rhino and her baby
National Parks Board of South Africa