Of all of Africa’s Big Five – so named not because of their size, but, ironically, because they were deemed by European explorers and big game hunters to pose the greatest threat to humans – the most vulnerable must surely be the rhino. This thought first occurred to me at the most unlikely of moments, when, aged 19, I found myself clinging to the bough of a red ivory tree while an irate black rhino searched for me in a clearing below.
I was working in Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa’s North West Province where I managed a tented camp for a private safari company. Part of my weekly routine was to gather enough firewood to keep the two fires beneath our hot water tanks in camp burning permanently. It was a thankless and never-ending task. And despite the presence of elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion and leopard in the area, I invariably became complacent as I set out from camp in my Land Cruiser, once again, a depressingly empty trailer in tow.
On this particular occasion, I had left my rifle in camp and was dragging a large acacia branch – discarded by an elephant some weeks before – through the bush and back towards my vehicle when something in the corner of my eye caught my attention.
Looking up, my gaze was met by that of a male black rhino standing no more than 20 metres away, his enormous horn held aloft, nostrils flaring as he tried to find my scent on the hot, dry breeze. It was one of those surreal moments when a thousand thoughts suddenly converge at once, leaving one’s mind in a fog of helpless indecision. I knew that I needed to act fast, but I couldn’t – I was glued to the spot, my fingers still wrapped tightly around that acacia branch.