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Wild Life

The Encounter

"A full-speed collision with her would inflict as much damage on you as a deadfall from a six-story building."
Sanjayan, Conservancy lead scientist

By Sanjayan

The day begins badly. We're acting like tourists — endless bathroom breaks and delays over inconsequential decisions (e.g., "shoes or sandals?") mean the sun is already up when we set out from our wilderness safari desert camp.

We are a group of Nature Conservancy donors, their families and Conservancy staff — traveling to see how the organization is helping to establish a new national park in northern Namibia. While donor trips are certainly enjoyable, they're also a lot of work. This morning, I was taking a lot of questions, most of the unanswerable “will I be cold (or hot)?” variety, which did little to buoy my mood.

My ideal mornings are slow — spent in the company of a newspaper and a silent dog.  Now, I was expected to be social…before coffee!

Nasty, Fast…and as Big as a Car

Then we come upon her. There are a dozen of us and one of her — but we're definitely outnumbered in the ways that count.

She's the size of a car, with a hide that can turn the sharpest thorn, a sense of smell that can detect water over the horizon and ears that can pick up a cat’s footfall at 100 paces.

Worse, she has a nasty disposition — charge first, ask questions later. A full-speed collision with her would inflict as much damage on you as a deadfall from a six-story building. She's a black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis), and there are only about 3,500 of her kind left in the entire world.  

John, a Himba tribesman and guide from the Conservancy's local partner, Save the Rhino Trust (SRT), is the first to spot her, standing a kilometer away. He gestures toward the spot without pointing (pointing with a finger at game is considered bad luck in some parts of Southern Africa). All we can see is a dark shadow within some desert bushes.  

But the prospect of a rhino at close quarters has an immediate effect on our scattered group. We become quiet, obedient; suspended between fear and anticipation. We settle into a single file, taking care to step on solid ground, our senses alerted to every gust of wind, every clink of loose pebbles underfoot. 

John is in front, along with my Conservancy colleague and friend, Richard Jeo — a senior scientist with a lot of Namibia experience. John uses hand signals to guide us and keep us moving. Stephanie Meeks (our acting president and CEO at the time) and I trail the rest of the group.

If I have to run, I figure I'll have everyone beat.

A Bounty on Her Head

Suddenly, the rhino steps out from behind some bushes — closer than I had expected — and breaks into a shuffling trot that quickly closes the distance between us. Her bleary eyes blink and her ears swivel, straining to sense our exact position through the sweeping wind.

But she's cautious, too — after all, black rhinos have bounties on their heads. In China and some Middle Eastern countries, her horns (considered medicinal treasures, though nothing more than matted, hardened hair), would go for $60,000 dollars.

And though much of that would get siphoned off by middle men and couriers, in a region where people make less than 300 bucks a month, it doesn’t take too long to see the math is against her. 

John holds up a clenched fist: Stop! A downward sweep of his palm has us crouching and huddling together.

But she tosses her head and keeps coming, deceptively fast, the wind blowing motes of dust off her hide so that she appears to shimmer in the sun. Will she spot us and charge?

Parents have forgotten their kids, and the kids are finally silent. In this stretched moment, whether philanthropist or tribesman, parent or child…we are all equal. There is nothing between us and a suspicious three-ton rhino except 150 meters of open ground.

John sidles up to us. He edges us back; and as we retreat, she halts.

We Have 10 Minutes

John takes out a card with a matrix of numbers on it. Based on actual observations of black rhinos, SRT has invented this card, which tells you how much time you can safely spend in a rhino’s company. One axis marks off distances between the rhino and the observers, and the other marks off whether the rhino's asleep or awake.

The logic is simple enough — the closer you are and the more awake a rhino is, the smaller your margin for error. John taps the 10-minute mark on the card: At this range, our time with this rhino is very limited.

We head back in relative silence, and no one is bugging me with questions anymore. Studies show that the best non-prescription medication for anxiety and depression is a walk in nature — and our encounter has been powerful enough to exorcise a haunting.

Even more amazing, the kids' ears are (for once) free of headphones…unpodded. Experiences in nature are usually personal, but when a daughter says to her father: "That was awesome" — we all know exactly what she means.

My own mood is decidedly better, and not just because of the encounter or my anticipation of the overdue coffee. I've decided to get one of those rhino viewing cards — custom-made to help other people know how much time they can safely spend with me, before and after I've had my coffee.

And since I expect to use the card a lot — I'll get it laminated, just like John's.

Originally posted in October 2007. At that time, Sanjayan was the Lead Scientist for the Nature Conservancy. He is now executive vice president and senior scientist at Conservation International.

The opinions expressed in "Wild Life" are the author's. They should not be construed as the position of The Nature Conservancy or any of its other employees.

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