Did you know that Rhinos cry? And that they like to be tickled?
Rhinos 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.
While visiting Daphne Sheldrick’s orphanage in Kenya last month, I stood near a barn-like stall, intimidated by the size and bulk of the one-and-a-half-ton rhinoceros with two lethal looking projections on the front of his head, walking straight towards me.
PETTING A RHINO
As he positioned himself sideways against me with only a piece of wood separating us, it seemed obvious he wanted to be petted. I obliged, scratching the side of his belly, doubting he could sense my touch through 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 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.
This past September 22nd was the third annual World Rhino Day, and the news is full of rhino poaching stories, especially in South Africa where rhino populations are the highest- 21,000- and the poaching there has gone up from 13 in 2007 to 381 so far this year. 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 they believe the rhino’s main defense mechanism is medicinal for humans.
The situation is so dire that South African rangers are now experimenting with purposely (but humanely) cutting off the rhino’s horns before the poachers get to them.
The crazy thing is, the horns are made of keratin, the same substance of our finger and toenails.
When I mentioned to the keepers at the orphanage the sound Max made while I was caressing him resembled crying, they said,
“No, no, he wasn’t crying, he was happy. He loves to be touched and he especially loves to be tickled.”
HOW CAN WE HELP?
So many of the anti-poaching efforts are either not a practical solution (poisoning and cutting off the horns), or are not working. It’s difficult to know how to help.
To learn more about the immediate crisis, a good starting point is the Stop Rhino Poaching site. For a longer-term solution, Africa Inside’s Bush School Programs are working to change attitudes toward conserving and protecting all of Africa’s wildlife.
As always, I love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.