The Rhino More Fortunate

The latest in our The Vanishing series, a gathering of responses not only to extinction but to the quieter losses and disappearances that are steadily stripping our world of its complexity and beauty. Today, Kim Schnuelle tells the tale of three encounters with a rhinoceros and reflects on the true meaning of extinction.

has spent time as a horse trainer, paleontology student, marine biologist, coroner’s assistant, shop clerk, and family law attorney. She lives in the Northwest corner of the United States with her husband John and their Texas stray hounds Chucho and Saint Lucia. Kim’s work has also appeared in Canary, Seattle’s Gallery 110, and several local legal publications.

I. The first rhino I saw was dead

 We saw the tourist hubbub within minutes of our crossing into Namibia’s Etosha Park. A dozen vehicles, husky Range Rovers to battered Toyotas, were lined up like obedient school boys all nosed expectantly in one direction. Over the nearby rise, a group of lions were slowly circling around a fresh carcass of undetermined taxonomy. The cats’ faces were coated in drying blood yet they seemed listless and disinterested. They eyed the carcass languidly, seemingly oblivious to the staccato camera clicks just a few hundred feet in the distance. We could not look away. 

My husband and I couldn’t identify the prey. We saw the grey hooves, stiff and upright, pointing towards the sky in supplication. Yet the animal’s head was unrecognizable and misshapen. It was mottled and lumpen, like a circus monster from a childhood nightmare. I pulled out our binoculars and focused more closely. I could see flies circling the body. I could see the animal’s eyes, flat and clouded. And I could see the sawing scars, fresh and ragged, where the horn had been removed.

The rhino had been poached, likely the night before. The lions were merely late arriving scavengers at the crime scene. I could hear a thumping sound to the north and saw the helicopter, swooping in slow arcs over the flat plains. Searching for a poacher long gone. For a horn likely already packed and en route to Korea.

It’s well known that both the African black and the white rhinos are critically endangered. In large part, their decline is caused by myth – the South East Asian myth that their keratin horn is a powerful medicine and aphrodisiac. Asian species, such as the Sumatran and Javan rhino, fare worse and are teetering on the brink of near extinction with less than 80 of each species remaining.

In 16th and 17th century China, the horns were also carved into elaborate vases or cups for wealthy patrons. I had seen this practice first hand a dozen years before when I had found myself in Hong Kong with an afternoon to fill. Wandering through the local art museum, I was stunned to see perhaps a hundred carved horns, displayed in neat rows like so many dusty ossuaries. Each horn was, in fact,  a dead rhino killed for a few pounds of malleable keratin. The display was not art but rather evidence of genocide. I left the building and never mentioned this exhibit to anyone until now. For I was ashamed. By paying an entrance fee, I became a voyeur and thus was complicit in their deaths. I felt no better than the Asian aristocracy that drove their murder.

In 2018, China proposed lifting their 25 year ban on the trade of rhino horns. This decision resulted in a cavalcade of auction houses, Bonhams and Sothebys included, clamoring to profit. A predictable intense international pressure ensued and China eventually postponed implementation of the trade ban easement. Yet the demand, and thus the poaching, continues unabated. Seven rhinos were taken in Etosha National Park alone between June 23 and June 25, 2017. South Africa reported 1028 rhinos poached in 2017 and, in part due to governmental support for anti-poaching efforts, an encouragingly smaller yet still outrageously high 769 in 2018. The International Rhino Foundation reports that, on average, three African rhinos have been poached every day for the past five years. It’s easy to see where this narrative is heading.

The juxtaposition between the dead rhino a mere four hours earlier and the lone wandering rhino now before me was a bit overwhelming. Perhaps the dead rhino was just a collective dream. Or, more likely, maybe I was dreaming now.

Rhinos are perissodactyls, a group of odd toed ungulates that also include the tapir and horse. They evolved as a line distinct from their brethren approximately 40 million years ago. At one point mammoth rhinoceros weighing over 20 tons roamed from the savannahs in what is now Eastern Europe all the way to modern day China. Before 1900, there were over a hundred thousand black rhinos in Africa. Today there are an estimated 5,000. Absent strong intervention and conservation efforts, we are likely living through the final twilight days of this beautiful and imposing animal. If this is so, how do we want to spend our time? How do we honour the magnificence that is a rhino?

Rhino and the stork (photo: John Tremain)

II. The second rhino I saw was afraid of a stork

The mood in our car was somber as we drove to our lodgings for the night – Halali Camp, located approximately 70 kilometers from Etosha’s southern entrance. We checked in, washed our faces, and aimlessly wandered about the grounds. It was not quite dusk when we eventually found ourselves at the illuminated waterhole by camp’s edge. The wooden benches were already half-full, with silent khaki-dressed spectators intensely focusing their zoom lenses towards the far side of the pond. Focusing on the solitary black rhino in the distance.

Most of the larger National Park camps in Southern Africa have such waterholes. Usually artificially constructed, these gathering places draw predators and prey alike. Although obviously designed for the tourist market, the ponds nonetheless provide a critical water source in an often arid and desiccated land. At times, they can save lives.

The juxtaposition between the dead rhino a mere four hours earlier and the lone wandering rhino now before me was a bit overwhelming. Perhaps the dead rhino was just a collective dream. Or, more likely, maybe I was dreaming now. Watching the lone male across the pond, I wondered if it was itself a fantasy. If live rhinos really existed.

I found myself compulsively thirsty for details. I focused on how the rhino pawed at the water, strangely delicate for its hulking size, before tentatively lowering its enormous head to drink. I took in the flitting of its ears when a distant bird call drew its attention. How solitary, even lonely, it seemed. The other animals, the young hyenas by the fallen tree and the five zebra nosing around a dry bush, kept a healthy and respectful distance away. But mostly I noticed how the rhino itself was slowly edging towards a nearby Marabou stork, perched and immobile on a half-submerged log.

The rhino was shy but clearly playful and curious. It moseyed a few feet closer and tilted its head slightly. It took two more steps and stopped again. It poked its nose up slightly, as if sniffing the air. It moved forward once again and stepped on a fallen branch. I could hear the wood snap from where I sat watching on the tourist benches.

The half-sleeping stork startled and extended its wings, hopping quickly down the log. Frightened, the rhino pivoted and ran (ran!) to the far edge of the pond. A laugh and then a grateful sigh rippled through the watchful crowd of humans. For we had seen something rare. Something true. A spontaneous reaction of a dying species. We were given a gift of presence. A gift of far greater value than five pounds of severed keratin and a bloodied carcass left behind.

III. The last rhino I saw was not a rhino

We eventually left Namibia and took the long flight back to our Seattle home. Yet my thoughts remained with the curious Etosha rhino. I dreamed of him and often woke to a sadness that was hard to define. I wanted to be around him. I wanted to befriend him, if there were any way for a human to befriend a rhino that is. I wondered if there was anything I could do to connect with, if not that rhino, a rhino.

I live a quarter mile from the Seattle zoo, which recently acquired two Asian one horned rhinos. Late one June afternoon I walked up to see them myself. But what I saw there were not rhinos. Not really.

Eventually the rhino stood up and walked to the far end of the enclosure, a trip that took two minutes. It picked at some discarded hay and began distractedly chewing. Then it lay down again. I watched it breathe.

The rhinos are housed in the zoo’s former elephant enclosure. After mounting criticism over cramped conditions, as well as the death of the enclosures lone African elephant, the Seattle zoo closed the exhibit and relocated their remaining elephants in 2014. Several years later it reopened with ‘Taj’ and ‘Glenn,’ the two Asian rhinos. Both rhinos were bred in captivity, in San Diego and Ohio respectively, with ‘Glenn’ being named after the late astronaut John Glenn. If watching from a distance is too boring, then six days a week between 1:30 and 2:30, and for just $10 more, one can visit the ‘Rhino Encounter’ for photo opportunities. A nondescript sign warns against turning your back on the rhino for a “selfie” and reminds the visitor that ‘Rhinos have teeth’ so please avoid placing hands in ‘Glenn’ or ‘Taj’s’ mouth. There is a friendly reminder to “wash your hands after your experience.”

Rhino in Seattle zoo (photo: Kim Schnuelle)

I went to the railing and watched a rhino, I was not sure whether it was ‘Glenn’ or ‘Taj,’ for over an hour. The rhino was lying on its side, breathing slowly and occasionally twitching an ear. People came and went beside me. One man said ‘It just looks just like a rock’ and moved on after a dismissive fifteen seconds. Later a woman, somewhat of a self-styled rhino expert, told me that when they ‘got bigger’ they would need to be kept in separate enclosures to avoid fighting over male dominance. They would need to be housed in isolation. The rhino kept breathing.

Eventually the rhino stood up and walked to the far end of the enclosure, a trip that took two minutes. It picked at some discarded hay and began distractedly chewing. Then it lay down again. I watched it breathe.

‘Glenn’ and ‘Taj’ were born in captivity and will die in captivity as well. They will never have the ability to walk more than a few minutes in any direction. They will never be part of a larger rhino community. They will never be frightened by a Marabou stork.

Although ‘Glenn’ and ‘Taj’ looked like rhinos, they weren’t rhinos. At least not in the full sense of what it means to be a member of a species. They were sentient beings that looked like rhinos, enclosed in a micro-fraction of a traditional range and devoid of any community or traditional habitat. They will never get to be truly rhinos. They will only get to be ‘Glen’ and ‘Taj,’ morphologically similar mimics who might bite at the Rhino Encounter.

It’s true that they could be bred, as their parents were, and that one or two more rhino looking animals may then be born into captivity. It’s a common ‘feel good’ story with the zoo then portrayed as a champion of rhino conservation. But nothing would actually be conserved. Breeding programs merely attempt to convince patrons that their captive rhinos are equivalent to those few remaining in the wild. That the caged rhinos are the same beings as those roaming the Etosha pan but with a future salvation that is only guaranteed by their captivity. A captivity where we can visit ‘rhino’ but will never see a being like the wild rhino I witnessed a month earlier.

The first rhino I saw was dead. Yet that rhino was nonetheless more fortunate than ‘Glenn’ or ‘Taj’. The dead rhino was at least fully a rhino. He or she lived within a possible range of Etosha’s 8,600 square miles, in a matrix of community with others of its kind. With the ability to wallow in a muddy pond at sunset and to be startled by suddenly moving birds. This fullness is what I will remember as rhinos are felled into likely extinction within my lifetime. This fullness is the definition of a rhino; it is the definition of what we are losing in their extinction.

Dark Mountain: Issue 16 – REFUGE

The Autumn 2019 issue is a tenth anniversary collection celebrating a decade of uncivilised writing and art

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