Africa Guide
Guide to Africa

I wonder how the rhinos are?

Written by Neil, a professional safari guide in South Africa

Rhinos in Kruger
Rhinos in Kruger

There are probably about one hundred thousand million stars in our own milky way galaxy. On the darkest and clearest night in the Kruger we can probably see 2500 of them with the naked eye.

The closest one to us, besides our sun, is Alpha Centauri (or Proxima Centauri depending on how technical you are).Alpha Centauri is about 4.3 light years away from us, that's very far away! At 1 079 252.42 kilometres per hour, light from Alpha Centauri takes four and a quater years before we can see it - as a star in our sky on a dark, clear night.

That's 1 079 252.42 X 8 760 hours in a year X 4.3 years away. Even the closest star to me when I look up at the African sky makes me wonder…and then a lion roars, or I suddenly hear the distant whoop of a hyena scout, or even the small, methodical clink of a fruit bat and those sounds bring me back down to earth to nearer, more definable messages from life around me.

Then back into to the conversation around the campfire - what do we do about all the starving children in the world? How can we keep the Kruger safe? Once again we are engulfed in a never ending search for knowledge - for thousands of years astrologers and astronomers studied the stars - debating whether these stars had forcasting powers, or whether they were simply physical heavenly bodies that could be defined. The astronomer-priests of ancient times believed there was a bond between man and the universe. - I believe that the stars above us have connected us, and directed our thoughts and spiritual motivations. They have allowed us to be scientists and they have allowed us to be mystical forecasters. But we still don't know for sure, we are still overwhelmed by the stars.

So the starving children of the world, global warming, and other highly emotive topics almost always come up as topics of conversation while we look up into the stars and it seems that we are also not getting any closer to answers. How many stars? How many more starving children? How much more time? How much more space?

The conversation is always facinating, if only Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Christian Doppler could sit with us for clarity sake, or if Sigmond Freud, Charles Darwin or Kahlil Gibran could interject. - No, what makes us tick is exploration, interpretation and experience, so when the lion roars closer to the fire, we throw another log onto it, perhaps shine a flashlight (we'll need speed) and become a little more alert. Our very own interpretations of how we interact with our surroundings, and in the Kruger - how our surroundings interact with us. These are lessons in the bush, lessons that we no longer learn unless we are there.

So where am I going with this? I'm not sure - I just thought I'd drop you a line and say "Twinkle, twinkle little star…"

On my last safari two bull rhino's - square-lipped or white rhino's - were doing battle. One in defense of his territory, and one who needed a bit more space to ensure reproductive success. The battle was severe, and as my guests and I watched the rhino's engage in ritual sparring, threat and displacement moves - our own interpretations and values and motivations became evident - there were those did not want to watch, there were those who were OK until one of the animals began to suffer, and there were those who were glued to the awesome power of the rhino's, and the inevertiblity of the situation. At the end of the sighting - the dominant bull rhino had a severly damaged hind leg, blood flowing from wounds to his flank and face - but he had succefully defended a boundary. The younger bull ran away - perhaps having done enough to come back later, or simply unaware that he had won a physical contest?

You should have heard us after the drama! We wanted closure, we wanted knowledge, we wanted to help the injured rhino, we wanted to know if it would die, what would happen next, etc, etc..

So my article is about the White Rhino in Southern Africa.

In the order Perissodactyla - odd toed/hoofed animals (ungulates), we have the families of Rhinocerotidae - rhinoceroses - black and white, and we have the family of Equidae - zebras and relatives. I'm writing about rhino's, and the white rhino, Ceratotherium simum specifically, the largest pure grazer of grass that lives on the African continent. For me witnessing rhino bulls fighting leads directly to understanding their social organisation because it is undoubtedly that which has lead to the conflict. So lets call white rhino social systems sedentary, semisocial, territorial and satellite bulls. They kind of work together, hang about together in the same area but with conflict when territories are defended by territorial bulls.

So if you can imagine a territorial bull that spends a large part of his day demarcating a piece of real estate that he wants dominant habitation rights on. This bull doesn't mind females or even other males on his territory, as long as the other males behave submissively, and do not make any advances towards females. Females in turn have what we call home ranges - they overlap and are not defended - the territorial bull will associated with 'rhino crashes' from time to time but more specifically when there are females in oestrus present.

Agression between white rhinos is normally mild except on the part of a territorial male - this male will investigate the credentials of every other rhino on his territory, except perhaps for very young guys, etc. The territorial bull will agressively approach another rhino - stand horn to horn with him, and then slowly begin moving the other rhino off the territory - the other rhino, satellite or not will normally face the trouble and scream for mercy - slowly backing away until theres a gap where he can run off, etc. This gets a little different when:

A) the sattellite or other bull rhino does not want to back off submissively,

B) when two territorial bulls meet at the boundary of their respective territories because of an approaching cow rhino in oestrus.

I suspect we witnessed one of these two events, and that's why the physical contact was severe. It is not usual to see fights between rhinos resulting in serious injuries. That's why I was so enthrawled by the sequence of events, and that's why my interpretation of the interaction allowed for the following analysis.

A territorial bull removing a satellite bull who didn't act submissively Two territorial bulls at the boundary (perhaps a woman involved - oblivious to her part in the sudden increase in testoterone levels)

No matter how we see what happened we can agree that it induced several different reactions from us as a group, and our view of rhinos will now always include that moment, those sounds and the knowledge that sometimes these natural processes can be quite violent.

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