The White Rhinos numbers increased so well that by the early 1980s they were offered for sale to private land-owners on the annual Natal Parks Board game auction. This wonderful work was continued successfully by the successor to the Natal Parks Board, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.
You will notice that we are not including the population figures of white rhino – this is a very deliberate thing in that we don’t want any such information being made public due to the massive poaching onslaught we are currently experiencing. Rhino security is very high on the agenda of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, and any information, no matter how seemingly trivial, is being kept quiet. It’s a very disturbing situation, because poaching is undoing the wonderful conservation successes achieved over the past 60-odd years.
So why is a white rhino called a white rhino? It’s got nothing to do with the colour of the animal! Indeed, both species of rhinos found in South Africa are much the same colour – grey. The most widely accepted explanation of the name “white rhino” is that it stems from the early Dutch settlers in the Cape who were the first to encounter this strangely lovely animal. The white rhino is a grazer and is more modernly referred to as the square-lipped rhinoceros. Being a grazer, its mouth is designed to perform a bit like a lawn mower. The wide, square shape is ideal for cropping grass. And so the early Dutch settlers referred to the “wijd mond’ of the animal. This, over time, became “wijd renoster” and was duly corrupted by English-speakers – the Dutch “wijd” (meaning wide) becoming “white”… This is clearly seen in the image below of a white rhino after it had been darted for capture and relocation. One can see it is a bit unsteady on its feet. We will go fully into rhino capture in a future article but in this drugged state the animal is very tractable and can virtually be led into the transport crate.
The white rhino is also a more placid animal than its bush-dwelling relative, the black rhino, which is quite an excitable creature. We have had white rhinos in iMfolozi graze right up to our vehicle, being so close that the TV cameraman on the back could no longer focus on the animals, which were utterly unconcerned about this strange smelling creature – the vehicle, not the camera-man!. Where the black rhino is quick tempered and will charge a perceived intruder, the white rhino takes a lot more provocation before it will charge. But be warned! An experienced guide or ranger can usually turn a black rhino’s charge, but if a white rhino charges you, best you get into, or behind a substantial tree pretty smartly, because nothing will turn that charge.
The horn of a rhino is in fact not horn as we know it from other mammals such as kudus or cows. It is actually densely compacted hair. When worked it is a beautiful smokey green/grey colour. The initial poaching onslaught began 1970s because Middle-Eastern oil workers suddenly had extra dollars to spend and it was a tradition amongst Yemeni men particularly, to have a decorative dagger with a handle inlaid with rhino horn… Unfortunately, powdered rhino horn is also an ingredient of many oriental traditional medicines – a cultural tradition going back into ancient times. Tests have shown that there is little or no medicinal value in rhino horn but the tradition persists. As a cultural tradition it is very difficult, if not downright impossible to change. We have many such cultural traditions ourselves – early morning coffee, egg and bacon breakfasts, wearing certain jewelry on certain occasions…the list is endless. Our oriental counterparts have just as many.
Being made of hair, a rhino horn can re-grow if it is inadvertently knocked off. This happens in the wild – often during territorial fights between bulls, or occasionally during a capture operation. The rapidly horn regrows, and this fact has prompted the call for rhino farming with a harvest of horn. This is not a far-fetched idea at all, as white rhino become habituated to human handling they are quite tractable. It is not impossible that rhino farming might well be a workable strategy to combat the terrible effect of rampant poaching. And, of course, there is the hotly debated topic of allowing tightly controlled sale of rhino horn to consumer nations try to meet the insatiable demand.