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.
After a few very long seconds, the rhino located my scent and took a few purposeful steps in my direction. With an electric surge of adrenaline, every fibre in my body pulsed and, entirely involuntarily, I started to run as fast as I could towards my vehicle as the rhino gave charge.
I have no recollection of clawing my way up that tree, but I do vividly remember the blissful moment when I realised that I was still in one piece. Clinging to that branch some three metres above the ground, my face pressed hard against my knuckles, the sharp scent of red ivory sap filling my nostrils, I remember feeling sorry for that majestic animal.
I was in his territory, he was clearly distressed by my presence and, for the life of him, he couldn’t locate me. There was something pathetic about that. I desperately wanted to leave him in peace, but I couldn’t. I wanted to explain that I meant no harm, but for the next few minutes, all I could do was look on as he just stood there.
Over the past 20 years, I have had a number of encounters with rhinos – thankfully, mainly with the larger and far more docile white variety – and on each occasion, I have always been left with the overwhelming sense that, despite their imposing size and formidable armoury, they need our help. And right now, nothing could be truer, for Southern Africa is once again in the midst of a rhino poaching epidemic. And this time, it’s different.