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Encountering Rhinos

  • Wednesday, October 1, 1997

For three weeks earlier this year, AWF President R. Michael Wright and Mark R. Stanley Price, director of AWF's African operations, visited South Africa to talk with experts involved in conservation efforts there. One item on their agenda was to meet with representatives of numerous other African countries on the status of the rhinos. What was less expected was their encounter with the rhinos themselves. From Wright's notes:

THERE WE WERE with 25 of the world's top experts on rhino conservation, our meeting delayed as five southern white rhinos blocked our entrance into the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Reserve in Kwa Zulu-Natal Province along South Africa's eastern coast. Eventually, in their own time, and with red-billed oxpeckers commuting on to the bushes and we proceeded to our discussions of their care and protection.

It is a rare and wonderful experience to be stymied by a herd of rhinos -- something that in this day and age can happen almost nowhere else in Africa.

In one of the great miracles of modern conservation, the Natal Parks Board, a provincial entity, has brought the endangered southern white rhino back from the brink of extinction, from 10 to 20 animals in 1920 to some 2,400 today in Hluhluwe-Umfolozi alone. Operation Rhino has distributed 5,100 southern white rhinos from Umfolozi stock throughout South Africa and the rest of the continent and sent 640 rhinos overseas.

IN A TOUR OF THE PARK, our group walked through dense habitat in the blazing heat of a February summer. Despite record rains that produced thick vegetation and tall waving grass, we could still see wallows lumpy with white rhinos. Upwind, the creatures can be approached with ease, demonstrating their vulnerability to humans.

We discovered that the black rhino is feistier. (Both black and white rhinos are in fact gray, the misnomer said to have emerged from the Dutch word "weit," or wide, and refers to the white rhino's square-lipped muzzle.) As we gazed from a ridge top upon watering holes filled with rhino, a startling explosion occurred nearby. An earless mother with her calf bolted out of the brush. Although almost diminutive compared to the white rhino, the black rhino's 2,000 or 3,000 pounds at full speed is nevertheless intimidating -- enough to drive us all up into thorn trees. The rhino and her baby veered off into the brush, leaving us to meander on through the heat, flushing out a cape buffalo at rest and briefly disturbing the sloppy bliss of warthogs in their mudholes.

Hluhluwe-Umfolozi, established in 1895, stands as a monument to the efficiency of the Natal Parks Board -- unquestionably the best state or provincial park organization in the world. But its reputation has been earned at a cost. At Hluhluwe-Umfolozi alone, Natal spends more than $2,000 per square mile on a system of protection and intelligence gathering.

Every foot of the 96-mile fence line is patrolled daily by pairs of guards assigned by radio code. Even their colleagues in other sectors do not know their routes or destinations. This level of security reflects the lesson learned elsewhere -- that rhino poaching is often the result of insider leaks of information.

My colleagues and I were concerned such protection is necessary, as it cannot be matched in other parts of Africa -- the financial and political commitment is enormous. Nonetheless, the comeback of the southern white rhino offers hope to its 30 cousins in Zaire's Garamba National Park, the highly endangered and only remaining northern white rhinos.

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