Finding a rhinoceros or a herd or rhinoceroses in the bush is like going back to the Stone Age while being allowed to carry a cell phone and having a full stomach. They are direct descendants of the giant creatures that roamed our planet 30 million years ago. But from what I know, the inhabitants of our planet during that period were always at least a little hungry. People on safaris such as ours are never hungry. Besides the three afore mentioned breakfasts, we had gourmet lunches and dinners, and with personalized menus if we had any diet restrictions. And all this is not to mention the afternoon snacks with drinks, fruit, and selections of cheese, smoothies and etc. that were always offered before and during the actual safari outings.
Singita and its sister lodge, Sweni, were especially attractive to us because they are pretty much 0-waste, and most of their kitchen ingredients are produced or grown on site. They make their own cheese, ice cream and breads, just to mention a few of their sustainable practices. Singita’s salad ingredients come from their vegetable garden, again demonstrating their commitment to sustainability. The lodge both grows a lot of its own herbs and vegetables on site, and trains and supports local people to plant organic gardens. They teach the local farmers to plant marigolds around their vegetable gardens to keep away flies, and manage other undesirable insects with an environmentally friendly insecticide made from chili and garlic that they call “fire spray”.
Singita Lebombo has a culinary school. Every year, they choose 10 young people from local communities in or around Kruger Park, and train them as chefs. The young people who do well find jobs at Singita or in big cities, and guests are welcome to watch or participate in their classes. The cooking school, the training of small farmers, and the jobs the lodge creates all help to give the local people economic independence. The two Singitas inside Kruger National Park also help to support pre-schools with a “Growing to Read” program in which 1,700 young children participate. I am mentioning all this because if you are going to spend money on a safari, it makes more sense to spend in a place that is improving the environment and the nearby communities.
As you might guess, Singita provides sustainable energy by using a modern solar facility. But Kruger Park uses another modern system that you may not have heard of, something called Meerkat, and it is a mobile surveillance system that can differentiate between human and animal movements in order to alert rangers to poachers. There are only 29,000 rhinos in the world, and South Africa is home to about 80% of them. And guess what? 80% of the Kruger Park rangers are working solely to target or to catch poachers. That is a lot of manpower that could be used for other kinds of conservation.
The number of poached rhinos has dropped in the last few years due to sophisticated surveillance, but not nearly enough to make them sustainable. After all, back in 1998, the human species had eliminated black rhinos by 98%! Rhino horn has always been used in certain native rituals; especially ceremonies when young boys reach manhood, but that’s not what almost eliminated the rhinos. It’s the export business. Rhino horn is still in very high demand in Asia, especially in Vietnam and China. Many people believe that it has medicinal value, and in particular can cure cancer and work as an aphrodisiac. It is a popular ingredient in TCM. And it is also being used as an ingredient for expensive alcoholic club drinks or is sometimes simply carved into works of art. Rhino horns are mostly made up of keratin, the same protein found in our human hair, skin, teeth, toenails and fingernails. We are lucky that rhinos are not hunting us down.
There are two kinds of rhinoceroses in Africa, the black and the white. Guess what? They are the same color; both are grey. If you see a brown one, it’s probably covered in mud or simply dusty. That mud heals their wounds, repels insects, and cools them down. The African rhinos do have a few differences, and the one that is easiest to spot is that the white rhinos have what our guide called “lawn mower mouths” meaning their mouths are much wider than the black rhinos. They walk around with their enormous heads down, grazing on grass, like prehistoric lawn mowers. Just like buffalo, they also like termite mounds to supplement their diets.
The label white rhino is a mistranslation. The Dutch settlers in South Africa used to call the white rhinos “weid mond rhinos”, meaning “wide-mouth rhino” and somehow somebody translated that into white rhinos. Black rhinos have hooked upper lips and are browsers, in other words, they get their sustenance from eating trees or bushes and use their strange lips to pluck leaves and fruits from branches. Black rhinos are also smaller than white rhinos. Both species have two horns, and sometimes a small posterior one. And both have very good hearing but poor eyesight. They don’t look like they can run, but they can run up to 40 – 50 km/h, which is much faster than we can. The two African rhinos have a peculiarity in that the white rhino calves will run in front of their mothers and the black rhino calves will run behind their mothers. And that is more than enough information for you to keep from embarrassing yourself and asking to see rhinos that come in the colors of dominos.
A group of rhinoceroses is called a crash of rhinos. Usually a crash is made up of females; adult males are mostly solitary. They are herbivores, as you gathered from above. Rhinos consume water on a daily basis, but they can survive for several days without water. They are classified as odd-toed ungulates, which means they have an odd number of toes and relatively simple stomachs and digestive systems. They look prehistoric and indestructible, but their skin is actually very sensitive to sunburn and biting insects. They use mud as sunscreen to protect their thin outer skin. And they sleep about the same time that our species should; 8 hours a day. Sometimes they sleep standing up, and sometimes they lie down and curl up their feet. And sometimes the mother rhinos fall asleep while caring for their babies, just the same as we humans do.
Rhino love is difficult. Like Cape buffalo, elephants, and like humans used to, (am I wrong about that last species?) rhinos have certain mating rituals. Male rhinos aren’t ready for breeding until they are about 7, but females are ready at about 3 years of age. Females ovulate once every 28 days and are receptive to beginning a relationship with a male for only one or two days during that cycle. But the curious thing is that female rhinos only ovulate if they are not close to their mothers. If a girl’s mother is nearby, she simply doesn’t ovulate and therefore doesn’t get any male attention.
Male rhinos start the courtship ritual by themselves. The first thing they do is to mark their territory with dung to show that it is their territory and any females in that territory belongs to them. They love to fling dung, but in the end, they create neat dung walls around their territory. When they get the scent of a receptive female, they begin to get rid of their competition. First they try to stare the other males down; this can take hours. Two males vie for dominance by going horn-to-horn and staring at each other for hours. That is probably where boxers of our species got the idea. If that doesn’t work, the males fight each other brutally, and unlike the more polite buffalo, they sometimes injure each other seriously.
Once a dominant male has established himself, the next step is up to the ladies. When a female finds a male she is attracted to, she begins to vocalize, using a whistling sound. She even whistles if she happens to be underwater, blowing bubbles. After whistling for a time, she begins to follow the male around, often spraying her urine behind her to warn off any other females. They do not share their men. When it is certain that they can be a couple, the female starts to chase the male but stops before catching up with him, as if it were a mock attack. The male acts very respectful towards his intended and only seriously chases the female if she accidently leaves his territory, and then he vigorously chases her back in. This courtship can go on from anywhere to 5 to 20 days, during which time the cow goes into full estrus. This is when the singing begins. Stimulated by the cow’s urine, the bull finally approaches her while at the same time bellowing out his version of a love song. She charges him at first, but eventually gives in and allows him to rest his chin on her rump, a tender gesture of foreplay. Soon thereafter, she is ready for mounting, and curls her little tail up to show him. But it usually takes the bull several attempts to get it right.
Of course it takes him a while. His erect penis is shaped like a lightning bolt and is 0,762 meters long. And besides that, it curves backwards. The backward curving penis is what allows him to spray urine and mark his territory. The reproductive canal of a female rhino is long, and full of twists and turns to accommodate the male, but also making it really hard for any successful artificial insemination to take place. A rhino couple will stay together for 2 or 3 days, copulating in performances that last about a half an hour each. And sometimes the female goes behind the male’s back and has a quickie with another male who is waiting on the outskirts for such an opportunity. But the original couple sometimes stays together for up to a couple of weeks. When the love fades, the males leave and do not play any role in raising their young.
He usually leaves the female pregnant with a single calf, and her pregnancy is long – longer than an elephant; about 475 days. A calf, weighing between 40 and 65 kilograms, is born hairy, to protect it from sunburn and keep it warm. It can stand just a few minutes after birth. The calf will only nurse on its mother for about a week without any other dietary supplements. After that, the mother will introduce it to soft grass and teach it to eat, but the calf continues to nurse. Rhinos are very good mothers and do not fully wean their calves for another 12 to 18 months. The calves do not leave their mothers until they are between two and four years of age; females tend to stay longer, and males tend to leave earlier and go off to establish their own territory. That’s not easy, and sometimes they have to wait for an older male to die in order to claim a territory for himself or herself much like climbing the corporate ladder in some big companies.
The interesting thing about rhino mothers is that while they are together with their calves, they will not have sex, which is another reason it is so difficult to increase their populations. Sometimes there are males that are unable to wait that long for their lady to mate again, and they kill her calf.
It is estimated 55 elephants are poached every day in Africa, and 3 rhinos a day. Poaching is big business, and a very cruel business. Tying the fact that three rhinos are killed per day, and female rhinos don’t ovulate if they are near their mothers, and mother rhinos refuse sex when they are caring for their calves, that artificial insemination is difficult, and they rarely have twins, it is really difficult to remove rhinos from the endangered lists.
We learned from our knowledgeable guide that vultures play an important part in rhino survival. As a matter of fact, J.P. has plans to spend his next vacation doing a bicycle charity ride to raise awareness about the importance of vultures. Vultures are like the janitors of Africa. They play a vital role in all ecosystems by helping to maintain healthy environments by getting rid of decaying carcasses that can bring infections and pests to animals and to our species. Nowadays, poachers are poisoning vultures because they circle above an animal that is being butchered or mutilated and signal the rangers that someone is poaching. It takes a vulture less than 30 minutes to spot a dead or dying elephant or rhinoceros, but it takes a poacher more than an hour to hack off its ivory tusks or its horns.
I was born near the end of WWII and raised in a small town in New Jersey, just a little more than a 30-minute drive from NYC. It was a wonderful place to be brought up, feeding ducks and canoeing on the river that meandered through the town in the summer, and ice-skating on that same river in the winter.
My two brothers and I were privileged to be raised in a lovely town that was safe to explore on foot, but close enough to NYC to be taken there on day trips to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Baily B & B circus, museums, Chinatown, street fairs in the spring and Broadway shows as we grew older. But we thought nothing of it.
Later as teens, we would go into NYC to buy a couple of beers (the drinking age in New York State was 18, and 21 in New Jersey) and hang out in Greenwich Village where we saw singers such as Bob Dylan who were on the first rung of the ladder on their way to fame.
The sixties were a time of speaking out and creating change. I decided to do my part by joining the Peace Corps, an innovative cold war program established by John F. Kennedy in 1961. I arrived in Brazil at the end of 1966, and after an adaptation period, was sent to serve in Porto Nacional, in what was Goias at that time. I can’t say I changed the course of the country, especially as I was immediately called upon to teach English in the local high school.
I have been teaching ever since; high schools, college literature, college language pedagogy, financial English and everything in-between. I married a wonderful Brazilian from Rio and we had 3 boys and moved around some, as he was an engineer who worked on hydro dams. Nowadays I am a widow and live in BH with 3 cats, one of which has extraordinary powers, and I have 4 wonderful and uniquely different grandchildren nearby. Thus far, I have had an interesting life, and this new endeavor called a blog should make it even more interesting.