I have worked on several black rhino stories in the past and have become accustomed to having to run very fast at a moments notice. Black rhinos are perpetually angry, dangerous, cantankerous and not very bright animals….right?
Thats what you hear, but when I met the wonderful Anna Merz (an old hand at saving rhinos) she put me in my place. “They are misunderstood by men with big egos” she told me, and then went on to explain that they are docile, soft intelligent creatures if treated correctly.
I would never have believed it, but Anna showed me countless pictures of herself in former years standing next to various black rhinos. None of them were flattening her. None of them looked at all angry. And in every picture, Anna looked calm and relaxed despite the fact that an organic steamroller with a giant impaling implement stood poised at her back.
I was beginning to change my opinion of black rhinos. One inescapable truth about black rhinos though is that they are shy. Much more shy than their wide lipped and gregarious cousins (the white rhino). I have spent many many many unproductive days searching for black rhinos for magazine articles and photographs, but they do tend to be somewhat invisible. More often than not, the most one sees of a black rhino is a large and cumbersome bum disappearing noisily off into the undergrowth. They don’t stick around. They just don’t trust us (and who can blame them).
However, when Anna took me around by jeep in her beloved Lewa Conservancy in Northern Kenya, we chanced upon dozens of black rhinos. None of them ran away. None of them acted aggressively. None of them huffed and puffed or mock charged us. They just didn’t seem concerned by us. “These rhinos are at ease” Anna told me “They have no reason to fear of dislike humans”.
That was just a year or so ago. Since then, the deadly rhino poaching scourge has hit Lewa and there have been several deaths of both black and white rhinos on the reserve. Anna died earlier this year. She was a grand old lady who worked tirelessly to save Africa’s wild animals (particularly her beloved rhinos) but she passed away when things looked darkest for the species.
She was not in a positive mind set when last I saw her. She despaired of the march of the Chinese across Africa and what that means to wildlife and she also buried her head in her hands in regards to the resurgence of the poaching she had battled all her life to stem. She had fought all her life for rhinos only to see the unraveling process begin all over again regarding the desire for their horn.
I hope that thought didn’t defeat her or send her to the grave with a fatalistic feeling towards the worlds biodiversity. A lot has happened in Lewa since her death, the fight goes on against the poachers…stronger, harder and with more determination. The biggest news being that the entire area has just been awarded World Heritage Status. No matter what the eventual outcome for Africa’s mega fauna, at least the likes of Lewa will survive. And in no small part, thanks to Anna Merz.
To read more about Dale’s experience at Lewa with Anna Merz check out page 57 of the October 2013 issue of Africa Geographic magazine.