The Masai Mara, Kenya, February 6, 2014 and revised 2-28-14.
“The western black rhinoceros is extinct.” Sierra Magazine, March/April 2014.
So I slipped. A woman on an airport shuttle between planes asked me what I had been doing in Africa. “Shooting wild animals,” I said, a little groggy in my thirty-sixth hour of continuous travel.
That got me in hot water fast.
“No, no, not actually shooting animals. Shooting pictures, taking pictures, taking photos of wild animals,” I managed to get in during one of her deep breaths as she informed me on the error of my ways.
The camera is substituted for the rifle. The guide and gun bearers are replaced by an experienced driver-guide. We no longer stalk wild game on foot, but in Toyota vans and Landcruisers equipped with pop-up tops. We’re not allowed out of the vehicle except for a few designated spots.
But the thrill isn’t gone. It may be greater, knowing that some of these magnificent creatures are critically endangered—pressed by encroaching civilization, limited range, poachers and the craven buyers of rhinoceros horn, elephant tusk, and other body parts. These great beasts, such as the rhino, thought to have lived in Africa for over 4 million years, may become extinct in my lifetime.
These great beasts, thought to have lived in Africa for over 4 million years, may become extinct in my lifetime.
Revised 2-28-14: Sierra magazine’s latest issue cites the ICUN Red List as stating that the western black rhinoceros status has changed from critically endangered to probably extinct. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (ICUN) is a highly respected monitor of endangered flora and fauna worldwide. Its Red List cites lack of political will, increased illegal demand for rhino horn, and increased commercial poaching as the main factors.
I have mixed feelings about even being here. In one sense, the presence of tourists and organized game spotting has made animals used to, or at least indifferent to, humans in vehicles. It seems to me that our very presence disrupts a natural rhythm. On the other hand, our payments for visas, transportation and drivers, national park admissions, accommodations and all the other things that go with a photo safari help provide funds to protect the most endangered species and create a business and political force which now works to promote tourism based on the abundance of animal life.
Our very presence disrupts a natural rhythm . . . but helps provide funds to protect the most endangered.
The prior devastation of the rhinoceros has been incredible. Rhinos once roamed most of Sub-Saharan Africa with the exception of the Congo Basin. Hunting for sport and killing by farmers took its toll in the early part of the 20th century and poaching took far more in the latter part. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that from 1970 to 1992 an astounding ninety-six of every one hundred black rhinoceroses in Africa were killed. The estimated African population dropped to just 2475 by 1993.
That’s worth saying again: in 22 years of slaughter, almost 60,000 of the 62,000 rhinos in Africa were killed. Twenty years later number of remaining rhinos has crawled from a remaining population of 2475 up to 4880, and they remain critically endangered.
From 1970 to 1992 an astounding 96 of every 100 rhinoceroses were killed.
In 2012 I’d been lucky enough to see several at a great distance. Now, in 2014, as we drove roads and trails, eyes peeled for wildlife, David, our guide, told me that in his years of guiding in Kenya he has rarely spotted a black rhino closer than 100 yards distant.
And that’s about the distance we were from a big rhino when we spotted him near a tree line, dining on bushes. At 100 yards, in a van, with a wind and others moving about, it’s tough to get a clear, sharp photo. As massive as they are (up to 3000 pounds) they still are a challenge to photograph at that distance, and this one was showing more of his backside than anything.
Eventually, he turned to give us his profile. Then he faced us and began grazing in our direction, drawing 20 yards closer.
And then, the very rare happened. He started ambling towards us in an easy walk, not hurried, not worried by us.
David fired up the van and put it in reverse, giving the rhino plenty of room. This huge beast, which looks so cumbersome, can hit a speed of over 30 miles an hour, can turn quickly, and because of its poor eyesight tends to charge anything it senses as a threat. The rhino kept coming, stepped onto the roadway right in front of us, and walked across to the grassland on the other side. David turned to me, still whispering, and said, “In 20 years, I’ve only seen a rhino this close a couple of times.”
My guide whispered,“In 20 years, I’ve only seen a rhino this close a couple of times.”
As the rhino approached, I had to keep pulling my zoom lens back as he filled more than the frame. This huge beast, the descendant of a once uncountable multitude and one of probably only 600 remaining in all of Kenya, was ready for his closeup.
Ponderous, majestic in his bulk, hailing from an ancient tribe of creatures, he walked on attended by his retinue of birds—tick pickers and egrets. Out of the dark and green tree line and onto the vast grassy, golden plain of the Masai Mara, he was one of the few, but I fervently hope he was not one of the last.
The slaughter still comes from poachers. While the government realizes that there’s more money in protecting endangered species for tourism than selling hunting licenses or looking the other way, money to pay the protectors is in short supply.
Kenya and several other East African governments are doing more to protect their endangered wildlife, but funds are short, corruption often exists, and extreme poverty tempts locals to try poaching. There are a number of independent non-government groups which bring needed technology, expertise and money to the effort.
After seeing this rhino, I made a contribution to the World Wildlife Federation, one of the best known groups. They’ve been well rated by consumer watchdog groups such as the American Institute of Philanthropy, Charity Navigator and the Better Business Bureau’s Better Giving Alliance. Take a moment to click on the WWF link and make your contribution.
I have no connection or affiliation with any of the organizations mentioned.