photo credit: Lavanya Sunkara- black rhino sighting in Nairobi National Park
World Wildlife Fund recently reported that at least five endangered rhinos have been killed in Africa since the beginning of 2011. Poaching has grown more rampant in recent years due to rise in demand for the rhinoceros horns in China and Vietnam.
The horn, which sells for a higher price than gold at approximately $57000 a kilogram on the black market, is used as an ingredient in traditional Asian medicine for its supposed benefits in curing ailments from headaches to impotence despite any proof. Last year, in South Africa’s Krugersdorp Park, the last female rhino was left to die after poachers hacked off her horn, leaving her baby orphaned.
This mother and child reminded me of the duo I encountered in Kenya’s Nairobi National Park (NNP) six years ago. I was a 24 year old with an adventurous streak on a backpacking trip through East Africa. I had no luck seeing the rhino on my Serengeti safari where they’re almost non-existent. I had heard that NNP was my best bet to see the rare black rhino because it was home to fifty at the time that had been relocated from widespread poaching areas.
With only one day left in the country, I hired a guide to take me to these gentle pachyderms in the Park. After an hour of driving and still no hint of the animal, we asked the Maasai tribesmen at a security post. They pointed towards a detour where they’d spotted rhinos earlier. “Let’s go please…” I pleaded with the driver. I didn’t want to leave without a close up, worried that they might not be around the next time I returned.
The illegal horn trade has already decimated 96% of the rhino population since the 70s, bringing the population of 20,000 rhinos down to less than 300 in Kenya by the end of the 20th century. Vanished from other parts of Africa, 98% of the remaining rhinos can only be found in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya.
Eager to have my first sighting, I rolled the windows down and scanned the landscape. The wild African savannah was peacefully quiet. The yellow brown rolling grassland swayed to the mild breeze and hissed as if whispering me its secrets. The warm sunny weather and cloudless sky promised a perfect afternoon in the plains. Half a mile later, I caught a glimpse of the mighty black rhino and gasped. “Look, she’s with her little baby!” I squealed to the guide. “I promised you the rhino sighting,” he beamed, quelling fears I’d had about venturing into the Park alone.
A loud thud and a sudden halt startled me out of my awed stupor. Soon, I saw the driver walking around the vehicle and shaking his head. No longer on the main road, we found ourselves stuck on a rock. I got out to help, only to find that the rhinos I’d admired from a distance had wandered closer to me.
With no barrier for protection, my heart began beating faster as I pushed the four-wheeler to no avail. “Let me go get help from the Maasai we saw earlier,” said the driver and asked me if I wanted to join him on the quest. “I think I better stay in the car.” Inside the safety from the vehicle, I admired the grazing rhinos in their dusty thick skin against a bronzed background. I smiled and waved at them as if they’d acknowledge me.
Suddenly I realized, the windows were down, no keys were in the ignition, no sign of anyone nearby. I was alone. My feeling of peace quickly turned to panic. Five minutes turned to what seemed like fifty. Disturbing thoughts of baboons breaking into the car and prying poachers popped into my head. I’d heard stories of baboons harassing tourists, but the fear of being hurt by poachers percolated through my body. If they could harm these lovely massive animals so mercilessly, they could certainly hurt a lonely gal stuck in their path. Anxiety took over. Not knowing what to do, I moved back and forth between the seats like a caged animal. I wanted out of the car, out of this situation but couldn’t get a squeak out, lest I invite unwanted attention.
Then I heard footsteps. Hunkered down and shivering in the backseat, I closed my eyes and prayed it was my driver coming to my rescue. The Maasai, in his traditional red and blue wrap and plate-like beaded accessories, wielding a spear, came running towards the car. Soon, the driver followed yelling, “Good thing you didn’t join me on that walk!”
Before I could ask him why, I noticed the sweat running down his shirt and the breathlessness in his voice. They had awakened a mother rhino with their footsteps and she took chase to protect her calf. “You wouldn’t have been able to outrun the giant,” said the driver after successfully getting us unstuck with the help of the Maasai and back on the road. Sitting inches away from the spear held by the Maasai as he hitched a ride back to his post, I managed to let out asante sana, thank you in Swahili.
As the road snaked back to the city, the Nairobi skyline appeared in the distance. The setting sun splashed bright colors in the sky that contrasted with the black and white stripes of the zebras playing underneath. The worst was behind me. But was it for the rhinos?
Today, the African rhino continues to struggle for survival, due to the bottomless demand for its horn for superstitious beliefs. Poachers have been using advance technologies such as night-vision equipment, helicopters, veterinary tranquilizers, and silencers to kill these magnificent pachyderms at night where chances of being caught by patrolling officers are less.
The Krugersdorp rhino’s 9 month old calf was rescued by the game reserve, but it didn’t deserve to be orphaned for wealthy folks in search of better health or increased sexual prowess, although studies have proven time and again the lack of medicinal properties in the rhino horn. According to the Kenya Wildlife Service, there are only 600 black rhinos in Kenya today. Not just in Kenya, South Africa, which is known for having the largest rhino population, had 330 rhinos murdered in 2010. With relentless poaching, lack of proper law enforcement and weak penalties for poachers, there is a real danger in seeing the last rhino die hopelessly.
- Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Northern Kenya, where Britain’s Prince William recently got engaged, is famous for its rhino protection work and is viewed as a model wildlife conservancy. Unfortunately, it too had to deal with recent rhino killings, which resulted in higher around the clock surveillance and protection, and involvement of local communities. For more information and ways to help, please visit www.lewa.org.
- David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, located near the main gates of NNP is an animal orphanage where young abandoned rhinos and elephants are nursed back to health. To make a donation, please visit www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org.
- Those interested in going on an expedition to help save the rhinos in Ol Pejeta Conservancy near the foothills of Mt. Kenya, please visit www.earthwatch.org/exped/wahungu.html.
- To learn more about ongoing conservation efforts, please go to www.rhinoconservation.org and www.savingrhinos.org.