About an hour after we begin collecting data during our first elephant research session, the truck rounds a small corner in the road following a pair of slow-moving juvenile bulls when something else catches my eye. “I swear I just saw a baby rhino,” I tell Kim. Sure enough, about fifty meters into the bush a rhino calf and her mother stand perfectly still, warily watching us. Jacqui, ALERT’s research technician, tells the driver to stop the truck and proclaims, “Baby rhino wins out over elephants every time!” Figuring the calf to be six-to-seven months old at best, we spend the next twenty-odd minutes snapping photos, grinning from ear-to-ear, and positively gushing as we watch babe and mom slowly make their way towards the Zambezi for a late afternoon drink.
My mother groan’d! my father wept,
Into the dangerous world I leapt,
Helpless, naked, piping loud,
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
Struggling in my father’s hands,
Striving against my swaddling bands,
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mother’s breast.
For me, the sighting is a mixture of joy and sorrow. With rhinos being relentlessly poached for their horns to feed an insatiable Asian market, I fear for this little one’s future. Rhino horn – which is mostly made up of keratin, same stuff as your hair and nails – is ounce-for-ounce worth more than gold. More than gold! And to what end? So that various syndicates can supply a ravenous market with a product that is absolutely worthless. Except that somehow its value has become so twisted that, literally, it’s worth more than its weight in gold. Unbelievable, isn’t it?
As of December 10, the number of rhino deaths from poaching for 2012 in South Africa alone stands at 618 – a number which will undoubtedly increase before year’s end. For 2011, the total was 448. In 2010, 333. Just in South Africa. Today, there are fewer than 29,000 rhinos surviving in the wild – a ninety-five percent decline in the last forty years. It doesn’t take a lot of numbers crunching to figure out its future is in a critically unsustainable situation; and, like lions and many of Africa’s other iconic animals, we could see its extinction from the wild within our lifetime.
So while I smile to see this beautiful animal stare at us with a child’s inquisitiveness before following its mom towards the river, my heart breaks with the knowledge that we’ve created such a cruel, cruel world where its chances of survival are slim-to-none and getting worse by the day. Baby rhino might win out over elephant, but unless we recognize how we’re speeding this species and others closer towards extinction every day with our unrelenting avarice, and stand up and put pressure on countries in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere to crack down on the those responsible for such rampant poaching, our greed will ensure that it’s a moot point when all is said and done. I’m so delighted to be able to see my first baby rhino in the wild. At the same time a part of me wishes that I had let it remain hidden in the bush, and that by doing so I might have somehow saved it from such infant sorrow.