Rhinos' Journey Part 4: Refugees from the homeland

“I love my mud bath.”
“I love my mud bath.”

[Also check out part 1, part 2, and part 3 of the Rhinos’ Journey.]

Refugees in sanctuary

Ask any survivor of disaster or war, from Houston to Syria, what they are feeling when they reach high ground or a safe space. They will often tell you about the simplest experiences – sipping coffee in a dry place after a flood, hearing the soft whispers of nighttime insects after escaping a war zone. They recall these experiences as great luxuries.

I couldn’t help thinking about these luxuries one sunny day in August as I watched the interactions of four female rhinos at the Nashville Zoo. Their landscape includes grassy hills for grazing and copses of tall, thick brush they can disappear behind. They moved together, grazing here, wandering there. Their path would seem desultory to the brief viewer, but clearly they were following each other.

Before lying down for a nap by the pool, they played. With lowered heads, two rhinos faced each other square on, horn to horn. They used their horns like foils in slow-mo ritual fencing. A nudging feint drew a gentle parry. To my human eye, it looked more like choreography than combat.

If they are lucky, these four young “refugees” will never face real combat such as they might in the wild – over a calf that hyenas or lions have singled out for stalking, over the decision not to mate with an aggressive bull rhino (because sometimes a girl’s just not in the mood). While fatalities due to mating aggression are more common in black rhinos or Sumatran rhinos, there is always some danger in rhino mating where horn fencing is neither slow-motion nor a game.

On a hot afternoon, you may find Nashville Zoo’s rhinos conserving energy, just as their cousins might be doing in the wild, all lying side by side, in that rhino, head-to-tail way, bodies touching. Sporadic clouds of kicked up dust from their tails are the only signs of life. They look as comfy together as a family.

But according to Nashville Zoo president Rick Schwartz, these rhinos, hand selected by Schwartz’s contact in South Africa, came from four different South African ranches. Before leaving South Africa on their journey to Nashville, the four were brought to one ranch and placed together in a single boma, or rhino enclosure. Within managed wild lands, such as ranches or sanctuaries, the boma is where new rhinos would be kept for safety before being introduced to an existing herd (or “crash”). Bomas aid human interventions, such as monitoring and medical treatment for illness or injury. The boma can also become a kind of maternity ward for rearing a calf. There, in a boma on a South African ranch, Modwani, Norma, Kacie and Nandi apparently came to adopt each other as a small crash of rhinos. It helped that the girls were young.

“I wanted younger animals for us because they acclimate better,” Schwartz explained. “They’re unbelievably compatible.” For Nashville zoo keepers and visitors, theirs is a fortuitous friendship.

Life in the homeland

In South Africa, the homeland of Nashville Zoo’s rhinos, poaching is rampant. At their worst, poachers kill the rhino and hack off its horns to feed a voracious black market for rhino horn. If a poacher has good intel, and a dose of corruption from those who would protect the rhino, he can ride in on a Land Rover and make his kill within minutes. While rhinos will charge when they feel threatened, poachers can kill from a safe distance. There is little chance for combat.

While landlocked Botswana, relatively stable Namibia and even neighboring Zimbabwe and Kenya have seen a decrease in rhino poaching recently, South Africa, the urbane economic engine of southern Africa, struggles under the weight of constant poaching. It’s a perfect storm of factors: South Africa is a hub of international travel, tourism, wild game hunting; it hosts a large airport in Johannesburg and is surrounded on three sides by the convergence of two oceans. And it is reportedly riddled with corruption. For environmental agencies and conservationists in South Africa, the war against poaching, trafficking, and black marketeering rages on.

Though white rhinos number in the 20,000s, a veritable success story for conservationists, it can put a conservationist on edge knowing that about 70% of the world’s white rhinos live in South Africa. It’s a dual-edged sword. According to Schwartz, part of the species’ successful recovery is due to the South African government’s push, a generation ago, to encourage rhino ranches. Overseen by ranchers, as livestock might be, rhino numbers grew.

As much as animal lovers like to think of these animals as living in “the wild,” they live mostly in protected areas – in national parks and on private ranches, huge tracts of land, mostly unfenced. South Africa’s Kruger National Park, SANPark’s crowned jewel, is the size of a nation (e.g. the size of Israel).

Whether living on a ranch or in a park, the animals are under constant threat of poaching. It has been estimated that at any given time, there may be as many as 12 poaching pods actively operating within Kruger National Park alone. Depending on policing factors, these poaching pods of two to four humans may take up residence in the park, becoming a dormant cell gathering information or awaiting the right conditions. At other times, as active pods, they sneak to a known rhino watering hole under cover of dark and lie in wait through the night until an early morning rhino comes to drink.

If it’s a female with her calf, and the calf has a horn, the poachers may kill both. Other times they leave the calf an orphan. It’s not uncommon for conservationists, rangers, and ranch owners to find orphaned baby rhinos while patrolling the habitat. This is how Anna Merz, co-founder of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya and author of Rhino: From the Brink of Extinction, found the black rhino calf Samia. Her book tells the story of how she hand fed and raised Samia.

If Nashville Zoo’s rhinos started as orphans…

Is it possible that one of the young Nashville Zoo rhinos was found as a baby roaming alone after its mother was killed for her horn? Even on a private ranch, this is a possibility.

If one of our girls had been orphaned in this way, it means that as a little rhino she received a lot of time, expense, and attention by teams of humans back in South Africa. A baby rhino is a time-intensive creature. After spending 16 months in her mother’s womb, the young rhino will stay close to mom’s side for at least two and often three or more years... unless the mother meets an untimely death.

Even in this case, would-be rescuers must stumble over the orphaned baby pretty quickly because a baby rhino is not likely to survive 10 days without its mother. A newborn rhino must be fed every two hours. One rhino ranch owner reported in a YouTube video that her rhino foundling consumed 5 gallons of milk a day.

Even for the smaller black rhino, keeping the rhino fed is no small feat. A recent captive-born black rhino weighed in at 60 pounds at birth. With white rhinos, the largest of the rhino species, babies can begin life closer to 100 pounds and can grow at a rate of 100 pounds a week on their way to a couple of adult tons (up to 5,000 pounds for an adult male). At Nashville Zoo, the growing rhinos eat about 100 pounds of food each, every day.

Market forces: the costly state of rhino protection

Trying to stay ahead of the sophisticated organized crime syndicates serving the wildlife black market has become increasingly costly. National wildlife parks in countries like South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia train and maintain anti-poaching teams – rangers, trackers, dog handlers, helicopters, intelligence networks – to discourage, arrest, or even kill poachers.

Often it takes a whole collaboration of NGOs and government agencies pooling resources to foot the bill. Working against them, poachers are funded by crime syndicates and facilitated by insiders – rangers or officials who can’t resist a lucrative bribe. This is why corruption in the nation of South Africa is particularly troubling. It can impact the future existence of rhinos.

As for private ranchers, South Africa’s infamous billionaire private rhino rancher John Hume once claimed he was spending over $12,000 USD a month patrolling his ranch against poachers. His numbers concur with reports from other private conservationists across Africa, where many more animals other than rhinos are at risk of extinction.

Buffeted about by conservation NGOs, concerned citizens, a flurry of studies, and heavy lobbying from market interests, from ranchers to hunters, South Africa has gone back and forth on legalizing the sale of rhino horn. John Hume gained his infamy when he went to court for the right to sell rhino horn legally, saying that it would defray the costs of protecting his animals.

The whole host of stakeholders has hotly debated whether the free market sale of horn (and tusk) will encourage or weaken the trafficking industry. For example, will availability heighten demand in China?

Conservation groups have supported aggressive media campaigns, starring icons like Jackie Chan and Yao Ming, to debunk myths about the curative powers of rhino horn and decrease the demand. Will all this education be counteracted by renewed attempts to market rhino horn? If sale is accompanied by marketing, perhaps it’s the marketing of horn auctions that legislators should focus on.

But horn sales within South Africa that went illegal in 2008 returned to legal status in April 2017 as ranchers unloaded their accumulated stockpiles. And while purists argue, South African ranchers are busy raising rhinos to produce product for horn auctions – because horn is valuable and it grows like fingernails – which it chemically is, more or less – and can be “harvested” periodically like sheep’s wool (growing back at a rate something like 1 – 2 inches per year) – except using power saws instead of shears. (And except the sharp point of the rhino’s horn never fully returns.)

At the current moment, however, it seems the costs associated with protecting the rhino may even be outpacing the ranchers’ opportunity to sell horn legally.

“A lot of people are getting out of raising rhinos,” Schwartz noted on his recent South African visit. “They can’t afford to protect them on their own land.”

At the same time, there is also talk that South Africa will stop the exporting of rhinos, and there seems to be a scramble to get rhinos to safety (or into zoos, depending on your perspective) before this takes effect.

Captives in the wild or wild in captivity?

The rhino pond at Nashville Zoo
The rhino pond at Nashville Zoo

In the end, we cannot know what our four South African natives have survived or been spared to reach their small but pleasant green at Nashville’s Zoo.

Here, the girls seem pretty relaxed, and more concerned about each other than the size of their space. As white rhinos, they are quite social, which is why we have four of them. They love to graze. They move like cows. Until they don’t. They can erupt without warning into a quick jaunt. And stop as suddenly.

It’s true that in their new home, they will probably never hit their potential running speed: 30+ mph. But they probably won’t be chased down by a Land Rover on the hunt, either.

Next time you come across the white rhinos grazing on their hill, stay and watch a bit. See if they don’t seem just a little subtle. To watch them lumber along in their grazing daze, you’d never imagine how much human endeavor, fervor, bloodlust, and intrigue they inspire. They seem unaware that their Javan and Sumatran cousins are nearly extinct. They seem unimpressed by their multi-million-year heritage.

Rhinos are a keystone species; they shape the world around them. It means that once rhinos move onto a grassy plain, they inspire the whole habitat to reinvent itself. Judging from their YouTube popularity, rhinos and other endangered keystone species seem to be calling to us humans as our own population hurtles towards 9 billion.

Maybe, if we observe a bit more intently, listen a bit more carefully, they have something important to tell us.

Finding rhino in a clearing - Nashville Zoo
Finding rhino in a clearing - Nashville Zoo
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