PEOPLE 258 – THE THIRD LARGEST LAND MAMMAL, AND ME
March 18, 2017 23 Comments
Years ago, I used to lead bird and general wildlife/nature safaris in Kenya. It was hard work, not least because, rather than relying on a driver, I did all my own driving, of which much was either on bad roads or on no roads at all. But I greatly enjoyed the work, because the company I worked for provided tours for naturalists, and these could be anything from out and out birders, to those wanting to see the large mammals – and especially the large predators – to those who wanted to see and hear about a bit of everything, including geology (my university subject) and Kenyan peoples and history. We handled a lot of groups from museums and nature/conservation societies.
And sometimes the itinerary took us to Meru National Park, which is situated in low, hot, thornbush country to the northeast of Mt Kenya. And there in Meru, in those days (the late 1980s), there was a small herd of White Rhinoceros that I think had been given to Kenya by another country – I think South Africa – as a diplomatic, goodwill gesture, and which the Kenyan government kept under the watchful eyes of some armed National Park staff in Meru.
Now there are two types of rhinoceros in Africa, the White and the Black, and they vary vastly in general temperament. The Black Rhino, which is native to Kenya, is aggressive, violent and extremely dangerous – they kill people, and fiercely attack vehicles. You really don’t mess about with a Black Rhino, you treat it with enormous respect. But the White Rhino is really something else. Its not so aggressive and, living long term under human care, these few animals in Meru were more docile still.
So, on safari, I would take my clients to walk amongst and be with the world’s third largest land mammal (after the African and Indian Elephants), which was a wonderful and intriguing experience. For their part, the rhinos ignored us completely – to the point of calmly walking through you if you were foolish enough to stand in their way. But we could touch them – it was like laying your hand on a rock-solid, cold, stone wall – and, being young and stupid, I remember going round to the front end, getting hold of the fabled horn and shaking the creature’s head – whereupon I was unceremoniously tossed aside very much as you or I might impatiently wave away a nuisance fly – which was, of course, exactly what I deserved.
Amazingly, after all these years (this would have been sometime in the period 1987-1989) I recall the name of the photographer – Bill Stripling. He took these shots and, after the trip, was kind enough to send me these large prints, and also lots of the other excellent wildlife shots he took during the safari, which I’ve housed in an album and which I treasure.
What else is there to see here? Well, the two pictures were obviously taken at different times of the day, as the light in the second one is very yellow – it must have been around sunrise or set.
And also there’s the younger me, with beer gut already evident, and around my neck the Zeiss 10x40B Dialyt binoculars that took such a hammering on those safaris, and which I still have. Also the more discerning of you may notice my slightly big-breasted look – I mean, just how fetching could I get? – which resulted from the fact that, for reasons of security, I always used to carry all of the tours’ petty cash, in cash, in the breast pockets of my safari shirts – I was a walking bank, with a chest that slimmed down as the tours went on. Is that exotic or what???!
And now I suppose, because I try to be honest on this blog, I should tell you the full story of these rhinos. I apologise in advance for the sadness of what I am about to relate.
I was accompanying a party of British birders, and took them to see these rhinos. And then, later on on that safari, we bought a local newspaper and learned that, soon after our visit, all of these animals had been killed by poachers, and their horns stolen. I can imagine the scene. A few National Park guards, most probably armed with British Lee Enfield .303 rifles of WWII vintage, up against superior numbers of poachers armed with AK47s – I expect the guards ran for their lives. I would have run too.
But, sad ending though this may be, after all these years I still retain wonderful memories of being able to be so close to those great creatures.
(You can enlarge these images by clicking onto them – they will open in separate windows.)