I heard a thundering rumbling behind me. I looked up and found that I was surrounded by blue skies so it couldn’t be thunder. I turned around and froze. Charging at me like a runaway locomotive was a 3-ton white rhino, our planet’s second largest mammal. Its horn low and aiming for my quarter hind.
I turned and sprinted, my heart and lungs doing there mightiest best to co-operate with my legs, dancing my bare feet between the fallen thorny branches of the acacia trees with the elegance of a drunken Russian ballerina.
White rhinos are quite fast and can reach speeds of 45 K’s an hour.
The ground shook and trembled as it charged closer. I could feel hot breath on my calves. I spotted a tree and shimmied up it to the highest branch. Plonking onto a sturdy branch, I watched the rhino below screech to a halt, snort, circle the base of the tree once, linger and then turn to retreat to where it was munching on short grass.
I panted a sigh of relief and tried to control my breathing when I heard a low growl beside me. I froze and then turned to face the leopard who’s branch I’ve inadvertently found myself sharing.
“Huh?” I snapped out of my daydream as the ranger began to explain the five indications that a rhino might tag you as a threat and decide to charge you:
“First, it will raise its head and hold it up for longer than usual.”
A rhino’s head is its heaviest body part which is why they only eat short grass – 150 kilos of it daily. Saves them from lifting their head any higher than needed – except when it’s about to charge. They’d be quite the eco-lawn mowers in large parks and stadiums. Especially as, unlike elephants who poop everywhere, rhinos pick one spot and they all poop in it.
“And they drink between 60-80 litres of water daily,” continues the ranger.
The second indication? “Its tail will coil up and then it will scratch the earth with one of its forelegs. The fourth indication is when it mock charges you.”
I mean, if something mock charges you it’s pretty much a given that the mock charger – in this case, a full-sized African White Rhino – doesn’t want you around. Sometimes this warning is repeated before the final clue,
“When the rhino fully charges at you. Now,” the ranger grinned, “are we ready to see some rhinos?”
On foot and standing no more than the safety required distance of 30 meters? Sure, after an intro like that, how can one resist?
These pachyderms are, like elephants, short-sighted but have acute hearing and sense of smell. They mature at the age of 8 (females) and 10 (males) and will continue to grow throughout their lifetime – spanning 45 years – a time in which a single white female can produce about 10-12 offspring.
But a White rhino isn’t actually white. You may have noticed that rhinos in general tend to be grey. Even the Black Rhino. So what happened? Well, the Dutch settlers of South Africa rightfully named the White Rhino, Wyd rhino which means, surprisingly, ‘wide’ due to its lips being wider than the pointy, parrot-beak like one of the Black rhino (we’ll get to its naming as well).
Along came the early English settlers of South Africa and mispronounced Wyd for White. I mean, could they not tell that the beast they were looking at is grey? You can see that it’s grey from space. Perhaps because during that time, in the late 19th century, there were only about 20 Wyd Rhinos left in South Africa and so the English probably just assumed their colour was white (I wonder what kind of shock they got when they saw they were actually grey?).
The Black Rhino was named due to it’s enjoyment of wallowing in mud, hence giving it a darker tone. Put through your local car wash, and its the exact same colour as it’s bigger cousin, the Wyd Rhino (the Black Rhino is the smallest of the five remaining rhino species).
Rhinos are highly intelligent and live in social families called a crash (don’t ask). One large dominant male will visit each crash he has spurned. A female will give birth to a 50-kilo calf after a gestation period of 16 months (second longest after the elephant – 22 months). It will then separate her calf from the crash to raise it (perhaps to give it a crash-course on life) until it’s strong enough, usually after three months.
In the 1960s about 700 rhinos roamed Uganda. Enter Idi Amin who ruthlessly dictated over the land until his downfall in the late 70s and today the numbers are just below twenty. Two are in the Entebbe Zoo, the rest at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, located just outside of Nakitoma village (pronounced Na-chi-toma) on the road heading to Masindi.
“We keep all our rhinos under 24/7 watch,” informed the ranger. “They are being poached for their horns which are big in Vietnam where they believe that the horn holds medicinal powers to cure cancer (it doesn’t), hangovers (it doesn’t) and resolve impotency (it doesn’t)”.
Perhaps if the Vietnamese drank less they’d not only suffer from less hangovers but less impotency issues.
Rhino horns are made of keratin, the same substance that creates our hair and nails. Essentially, it’s just a massive dreadlock that can weigh in at 12 kilos (and you thought maintaining your hair was a hassle?). If it had any medicinal value, we’d all be cutting our nails and hairs and having keratin health drinks every time we had a big night out and couldn’t ‘rise’ to the occasion.
The plight of the rhinos is a very serious one. Not only are they one of the most endangered species on earth, they’re also the least researched of our land mammals, a job that the rangers of Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary have undertaken and discovered that, like elephants, a rhino will mourn a fallen member of its crash.
Today there remain five species of rhinoceros (the word comes from the Greek: ‘Rhino’ meaning ‘nose’ and ‘Ceros’ meaning ‘horn’) listed from the biggest to the smallest: The White (Wyd) Rhino, the Indian Rhino (which uses its teeth to defend itself rather than its horn), the Javan Rhino, the Sumatran Rhino and the Black Rhino (as of late last year, 2014, believed to be extinct in the wild).
The Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary has gone to extraordinary lengths along with the Ugandan Wildlife Authority to protect these majestic animals we know so little of. For more information visit their website: