Rhino have always seemed to be elusive, other-worldly beings. On the rare occasions I have seen a rhinoceros, in South Africa and Tanzania, I haven’t felt the emotional reaction I get when I see elephant, the big cats or even giraffe and zebra.
The rhino’s pre-historic coats of armor haven’t inspired warm and cuddly feelings in me.
Not until recently.
After reading Daphne Sheldrick’s book I visited her elephant orphanage in Kenya. I stood near a barn-like stall, intimidated by the size and bulk of a one-and-a-half-ton orphan. A rhinoceros, with two lethal looking projections on the front of his head, walked straight towards me.
PETTING A HAPPY RHINO
As he positioned himself sideways against me with only a piece of wood separating us, it seemed obvious he wanted to be pet.
I obliged, scratching the side of his belly, doubting he could sense my touch through rhino skin that felt like dry, gritty rubber.
His eyes closed and his head sunk incrementally lower and lower toward the ground as his muscles gave way to my massage.
I rubbed around his face, ears and cheeks.
And then I heard it: A long low sigh– a sound that seemed to come from somewhere deep inside, and long ago.
Was he crying?
Found blind and motherless, Maxwell was brought to the elephant orphanage at the start of 2007.
I kept stroking him, and then I started to cry.
Crying for my lack of understanding of this magnificent animal, and for all the pain inflicted on his species.
The news is full of rhino poaching stories, especially in South Africa where rhino populations are the highest- an estimated 18,000- and the poaching there has gone up from 13 in 2007 to hundreds each year since.
Recent poachings have a mafia like level of sophistication, and the prices fetched ($133 per gram of powdered horn) equal profits rivaled in drug and sex trafficking.
The rhino’s horns are brutally hacked off their faces (fatally wounding the animals) and then shipped to Laos, China and Vietnam where the horns are used as high level gifts by governmental officials and other wealthy business people.
The situation is so dire that South African rangers have been experimenting with purposely (but humanely) cutting off the rhino’s horns before the poachers get to them. Or injecting the horns with poison. Other efforts (by 2 NGO’s) are airlifting rhinos from South Africa to protected areas in Botswana.
The crazy thing is, the horns are made of keratin, the same substance of our finger and toenails.
When I told Max’s caretakers at the orphanage that Max seemed to be crying while I caressed him, they replied, “No, no, he wasn’t crying, he was happy. He loves to be touched and he especially loves to be tickled.”
Who knew? Rhinos love to be tickled.
So many of the anti-poaching efforts are either not a practical solution (poisoning and cutting off the horns), or are not working.
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