“…once you break through into the rhinoceros’s idiom, discover what a rhinoceros mother would find beautiful in a rhinoceros son, the impression animal beauty makes on you is blinding.”

                                                       Laurens van der Post, “A Walk with a White Bushman,” 1986


“Man went even further in breaking the rules of rhino existence. The railroad was even worse affront than the rifle.”   

                                                       Carl Akeley, “In Brightest Africa,” 1920    


Twilight in the Namibian desert, the oldest on earth, overtakes the African night like a gigantic cloak born from the beginning of time. One is transported back 55 million years. One evening we were gifted with the sight of a dozen white rhinos, the second largest terrestrial animal, running past our car, like massive warriors rushing across one of the most isolated and rapturous wildernesses in the world. The sight was hallucinatory, a pageant born from an era when rhinos ruled the world. A few minutes later the vision was matched by two males sauntering off into the distance, jousting horn to horn under the red lights of our car like two prehistoric knights kicking up dust in an antediluvian spectacle fit only for giants.

When Marco Polo visited what is now Sumatra seven centuries ago, he mentioned elephants and what he thought was a unicorn. This creature had the “feet of an elephant, the head of wild boar, and hair like a buffalo.” He underscored that it was a “very ugly beast to look at.” This species, the now very rare Sumatran rhino, number only about eighty. The Javan rhino is at less than 70 and the Indian at about 3,500. It was indeed very different from the small, mythic unicorn that was caught in the lap of the virgin back in the imagination of Medieval European civilization. It was in Southeast Asia 4,000 years ago that the image of the unicorn was born. It is because of Southeast Asia’s fixation on the rhino horn, and its apocryphal medicinal properties of curing hangovers and cancer, that has led to an outright massacre of the world’s rhino populations in Africa and Asia in recent years.

Myths about behemoths, which referred to numerous large species including the rhino, go back to the Bible. Western tradition and tales abound about the unicorn’s strength and unwillingness to be tamed. In the old days proof of the unicorn’s existence was verification of the Bible’s accuracy. In 1836 a Mr. Campbell brought a horn attached to a skull from South Africa, what he called the “Unicorns of ancients, and the same which is described in the 39thchapter of the book of Job.” Exhibited at the Museum of the Missionary Society, the legend of the unicorn spread rapidly throughout the English speaking world.

To 19th century scientists such as Swiss American Louis Agassiz, the rhino was a living cipher from prehistory and embodied a savageness and primitiveness that would, he surmised, doom it to extinction. Even Theodore Roosevelt himself fostered the perception that the rhino was an anachronism and unfit, maybe even unworthy of surviving in the modern world. Roosevelt’s son Kermit wrote, “Look at him standing there in the middle of the African plain, deep in prehistoric thought." Theodore himself wrote, “Indeed the rhinoceros does seem like a survival from the older world that has vanished; he was in place in the Pliocene; he would not have been out of place in the Miocene; but nowadays he can only exist at all in regions that have lagged behind, while the rest of the world, for good or evil, has gone forward.

In its dry, rapturous, often near mystical sweeping landscapes, the desert in Namibia offers a spellbinding horizon for some of the most isolated rhino sightings on the planet. We tracked white rhinos among granite boulders and red sand dunes where one can still imagine Paraceratherium, the hornless distant cousin of the rhino from 30 million years ago. At 16 feet tall and 20 tons it was the largest land mammal ever to walk the earth. We searched for rhino tracks for hours until we finally found a mother with her calf alongside a euphorbia bush several hundred meters away. The power, calm, and utter stillness of the mother guarding her calf was a vision carved out of prehistory and here rhinos were at peace with the world.

Photo credit: Lysander Christo

But despite having no real enemies, humans have managed to almost wipe rhinos out in the last century. There may have been 500,000 rhinos a hundred years ago and some accounts from the early 20th century mention rhinos dotting the landscape as commonly as antelopes.

One hundred fifty years ago there may have been as many as a million black and white rhinos when Stanley and Livingstone and other explorers went searching for the headwaters of the Nile. Then the 20th century arrived and rhino numbers plummeted. While there were only about 20,000 in 2009 today there are closer to 29,000 white rhinos. But while conservation measures have been remarkable with a 41 percent increase, the scale of poaching has also increased over the last decade.

In 2007, 13 rhinos were killed in South Africa. In 2009 about 120 rhinos were destroyed, a year later over 330. In 2017 it was 1,028. While ivory prices may have attained $2,000 a kilo at its peak in 2014, and has since dropped by two thirds, rhino horn has attained prices of $100,000 a kilogram, more expensive than gold, diamonds, platinum and even cocaine. Stories abound of the ruthlessness of poachers and how rhinos have had their horns hacked off while still being alive. In South Africa in 2013 poachers hacked a pregnant mother rhino with an axe presumably to paralyze her spine. She would have given birth in two months.

The scale of the destruction has been overwhelming. In 2018, 769 rhinos were destroyed but in 2019, 594 rhinos were slaughtered. Slightly encouraging as the numbers are, the battle for the rhino is far from over. Overall, about 9,000 rhinos were killed in the last decade. Increasing vigilance, greater understanding of poaching patterns, and law enforcement have helped the situation, but poachers continue targeting rhinos with chainsaws for the Vietnamese market and other Southeast Asian countries. There are hopes to be able to save the northern white rhino with in vitro fertilization from the sperm of the last male, Sudan, to have survived and the last two females still extant. We can only hope. The black rhino number stood at about 2,300 in the early 1990’s and today at more than 5,000. But when one imagines the tens of thousands that used to roam the wilderness of Africa, one can be aghast at the enormous impoverishment the wild has inherited over the last hundred years.

Criminal syndicates in Yemen and South Korea were once the main traffickers in the 1970’s. In 2010 Vietnam lost its last rhino. While the future for rhinos looks slightly better than it did five years ago, some rhino breeders who sell their horns are banking on extinction. Organized crime syndicates still see dollars on the rhino’s nose, hundreds of thousands of them.

As if humans killing rhinos were not horrific enough, there are remarkable incidents of young male elephants killing 58 black rhinos in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park near Durban and between 1991 and 2001 49 white rhinos were killed near Pilanesberg National Park. Older male elephants had been killed off and crowded conditions of the parks created stress and disrupted normal social bonds between elephants. Lacking socialization with older elephants, as Gay Bradshaw highlighted in “Elephants on the Edge” in 2009, made the younger elephants more prone to violence. The evidence of some of these young elephants even raping rhinos is proof of how normal patterns of behavior in the wild has been turned upside down by the hand of man.

We can only hope that one day, the stigma of owning a rhino horn in the far East will sway people’s taste, just as owning a fur has become taboo in much of the West. The slow breeding magnificence of the rhino lingers on in the savannah as a massive sentinel from bygone days, a time when giants ruled the earth. Like the lions and the elephants that have been sacrificed to the altar of human pride, and bloodlust, rhinos have been targeted for the value invested in sheer superstition that has no basis in reality whatsoever. Arthritis and gout and cancer will not be cured by rhino horn powder any more than biting one's fingernails will cure diabetes.

In Africa in the 15th century, Portuguese explorers say they witnessed the unicorn. At certain angles, the two horns of a rhino will appear as one. Today a being born of seemingly prehistoric times, bonds the antediluvian past to our own time. As compared to Rataxes, the rhino nemesis of Babar in the classic children's story by Laurent de Brushoff, some locals in Namibia, in awe of the rhino, have even told stories of the rhino’s care for others, as in the times when they would watch over elephants drinking at waterholes at night, the great Excalibur on their nose pointing outwards towards the bush, guarding those near the water from any attacks from lions.

If the rhinos of Earth should be vanquished by the greed that seems to be driving our society, its horn will have become a dagger to our very standing on earth. The caves of Chauvet, France, painted 30,000 years ago, contain exquisite renditions of rhinos that graced the ground of our origins. The rhinos, their very flesh, like that of the elephants, enabled humans to survive. A century ago Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “Among living giants, it is the only one that has been considered extinct, the only one never brought alive to civilized countries.” Roosevelt's “civilized” forays in the wilds of East Africa returned with several specimens, some of which are displayed in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History. The survival of the rhinos depends on human compassion, charity (Save the Rhino Trust), the continued worldwide campaigns to sway taste away from rhino horn and the fight to stop black market traffickers. The efforts of anti-poaching groups such as the all-women Black Mambas in South Africa who go through six weeks of intense training are especially remarkable. They need financial support and encourage women to join them.

My son Lysander, when he was ten, mystified by the search for rhinos in the oldest sands on earth, called the animals “the living boulders of a faraway time.” A magical description of beings of imponderable presence, whose very mass and steadfastness is that of a foundation, that not only holds some of earth‘s most awe inspiring form and stature, a time before humans started unraveling the fabric of existence, but a special handful of species that are sentinels of stalwartness, power, and fortitude desperately in need of balance in this increasingly fragile time.

Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson's work at their website.

Published on May 05, 2020