Durban - A Durban North mother on a game walk in KwaZulu-Natal escaped with grazes and bruises after a juvenile rhino rammed into her and tossed her into the air.
A ranger at Hluhluwe Game Reserve has been hailed as the hero of Vanessa Maitland’s encounter, saving her from a goring by distracting the animal.
Sabelo Mdlalose, a senior tour guide at Hill Camp, was within his rights to shoot the animal, but instead chose the non-lethal route because, “it was a baby and we had lost so many rhinos already”.
Mdlalose also believes no lives were lost that day because moments before the drama unfolded, the walking party rescued a tortoise, which was stuck in the mud.
Maitland had the scrape with the white rhino last week, on a morning walk with her family.
The four-year-old charged from behind, rammed her, scooped her off the ground and flung her into the air. The impact concussed her.
Maitland, a maritime archaeologist, shared Mdlalose’s views. She said their walk came to a halt when her 14-year-old daughter, Courtney, spotted a tortoise stuck in the mud, about 150m from a waterhole where a group of rhinos were gathered.
“The rhinos didn’t hurt us because we saved the tortoise,” she said.
“While Mdlalose helped Courtney with the tortoise, he kept warning us that the rhinos at the waterhole were known to be slightly aggressive,” she said.
Maitland said Mdlalose asked them to move upwind, so that their scent would be carried to the rhinos and they would leave.
“We saw three rhinos coming toward us. I didn’t realise something was wrong until Sabelo picked up pieces of wood and threw them at the rhinos. All I heard next was Sabelo shouting, ‘run, people’.
“At this point, the one older rhino and a younger one had veered into the bushes. The remaining one kept coming.”
Maitland’s only concern at that point, she said, was Courtney’s safety. A sense of relief enveloped her when she saw her mother, Charlotte Firbank-King, shielding Courtney in nearby shrubs.
Maitland saw her partner, Colin Donald, make for a tree.
“My brother-in-law, Anthony (Hunneyball), stood very still and at the last minute did a Spanish bullfighter move and dodged the rhino. Sabelo was pointing his gun at the rhino and I kept thinking, ‘don’t shoot, don’t shoot’.”
“I felt the horn go straight through (between) my legs and I was in the air. When I woke up, I saw Colin run over and he was blurry, so I must’ve passed out.
“I’ve jumped out of planes and crashed my bike several times, but this was my greatest adventure,” she said on Thursday.
Firbank-King said she heard Mdlalose tell the animal: “Don’t make me shoot you. When I turned to see where the rhino had gone, I saw Vanessa lying in a foetal position. She was as still as anything.”
Mdlalose, a ranger for six years, said he was charged once before, in 2009, but never hit.
“We learnt that two rhinos were recently killed by poachers in the same area. The rhinos were scared. They saw us and we looked like the people who killed their neighbours, so they charged.”
Maitland and Firbank-King were full of praise for Mdlalose.
“It takes a special type of person to show restraint. If he shot the rhino, not a person would say he had done something wrong. He has such integrity,” Maitland said.
For Mdlalose, the incident emphasised the need to respect one’s surroundings.
“I always think of the universe as a single substance with a single soul. In the spirit of the wild, you have to have a spirit of the heart. I couldn’t shoot. I had to protect the baby,” Mdlalose said.