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Cape Town - Black rhinos once ranged as far north as Sudan and as far south as Cape Agulhas. According to Clive Walker in his excellent book The Rhino Keepers, at the turn of the 19th century there “were probably several hundred thousand living throughout their range”.
But then colonial hunters arrived and shot most of them. More recently, increasing demand for rhino horn as traditional medicine in China and Vietnam has wrought tragedy on rhino species everywhere.
Today, there are fewer than 5 000 black rhinos in the African wild. More than 95 percent of these are conserved in just four African countries: SA, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya. One of their last strongholds is in the dense thickets of the Eastern Cape interior (precise location deliberately undisclosed).
Encountering one of these ancient creatures in their natural habitat is a quintessential African experience; amid all the doom and gloom about rhino poaching, there’s nothing like getting up close and personal with a real live one. But there are several rules to tracking black rhino, especially in the impenetrable spekboom veld that grows all over in this part of the country.
First, make sure there is a tree big enough to climb in case the deceptively agile behemoth charges.
Second, although black rhinos don’t have good eyesight, they have excellent smell and hearing. So make sure you’re walking towards them with the wind at your face. Tread lightly on the earth, to avoid making any noise.
Third, make sure you’re walking with someone who knows what they’re doing. It’s impossible to see more than a few metres because of the compact thicket. A rhino could be standing on the other side of the bush, waiting to surprise you with a sharp horn, backed up by more than a ton of charging muscles and bone. An expert guide is mandatory.
Fortunately, I was walking with two experts: rangers Buyisile Mkulungu and Siyanda Mgidlana. For a few days I accompanied them on their patrols, as they sought out the black rhino that survive here. Their job is to identify and document one of the larger regional populations of black rhino left on earth.
Generally, our excursions went like this: we drove to a vantage point that gave good views over the valleys below, and Mkulungu would spend at least half an hour scanning the landscape with his binoculars. Sometimes it was an hour.
Finding a rhino in the vastness of thicket is like looking for an old golf ball in an overgrown soccer field. To complicate things further, the rhino tend to feed in the bushes, appearing only momentarily in one of the clearings.
But without fail, Mkulungu always managed to find a rhino. And when he did, it was with minimal fanfare. “Rhino”, he’d murmur nonchalantly under his breath, pointing with his finger to some nondescript grey speck in the distance. His rhino sleuthing remains one of the most impressive things I’ve witnessed.
From there, we’d drive a bit closer, bumping along rocky tracks towards the area where Mkulungu had seen the rhino. Then we’d start walking, sometimes for hours.
When we were in the general location of the animal, inevitably it was obscured by thick bush. Mkulungu would find me a tree, point to it, and say, “This is your tree.”
I got the message. Encountering a black rhino on foot quickly sets your priorities straight.
Any hubris evaporates. Respect for the hulking creature is uppermost in your mind.
But there are very few trees which you can potentially climb in this part of the Eastern Cape. Most are agonisingly fragile and grow low to the ground.
A rhino would have no problem smashing one. On several occasions I tried to find the largest spekboom to hide behind, not that the rubbery plant would be much of an obstacle to a charging black rhino. It gave me a sense of security, albeit a false one.
Once Mkulungu had identified the rhino by the unique notches in the ears, he’d beckon to me to get a bit closer. Sometimes we’d get within about 10m of the rhino, as it sniffed the air intently and pointed its large ears in our direction, unsure of our exact position. It’s a peculiar feeling, being on foot and in full view of earth’s third-largest land animal; exciting, but not necessarily enjoyable.
On our last patrol we spent a few hours tracking a rhino without luck. As night approached, we were heading back to the bakkie when the rhino stuck its head out of the bush in front of us, about 5m away. “Here we go” I thought. Mgidlana and I backtracked quickly, while Mkulungu stood still, composed.
The rhino stared at us, its horn raised high. After a few interminable seconds, the beast turned and trotted off, rumbling across the stony ground like a minor earthquake.
It seems that rhinos – even the reputedly ill-tempered black rhino – are still more afraid of us than we are of them. - Cape Times
l Photojournalist Ramsay is travelling for a year to 31 of SA’s most special nature reserves, including all the national parks. See www.yearinthewild.com. For Eastern Cape Parks, see www.ecparks.co.za