Yesterday, while I was searching for Koppiekats, I walked slap into a rhino and her calf ('slap' is an exaggeration; there was 5m between us). Fortunately, they were white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum), which are much less aggressive than black rhinos (Diceros bicornis). On the other hand, white rhinos are twice the mass of black rhinos.
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes and borrowed from here.
Meeting a rhino on foot is utterly terrifying. They're just soooo BIG. Imagine stepping around a bush to find yourself face to face with a creature whose shoulder is higher than your head (1.8 m) and who weighs in at a horrifying 2,000 kg. On top of all this, they sport a metre-long skewer on their nose.
Today's rhino did not charge. She snorted and tossed her massive head at me, and I rapidly retreated at a VERY fast walk.
Sadly, this is just the beginning. You see, for a couple of months each year, at the start of the dry season, my study site transforms into a magnet for rhinos. I don't know why. The massive beasts come trundling from all over the reserve to congregate in my mongooses' home-ranges, and leave behind their gigantic middens of dung. As you can imagine, it's a nerve-wracking time.
On my very first day with the dwarf mongooses, I was crouched watching Koppiekats peeping shyly from their mound, when I heard branches cracking in the nearby bushes. Obviously a large animal was moving about but, in my naivety, I thought, "No, it won't be a rhino; rhinos are too rare. It's probably a giraffe". Moments later a rhino and her calf burst out of the shrubbery. Seriously spooked because they could smell my presence but not locate me, the pair thundered past at a gallop, crashing between me and the mongooses (who were equally horrified) and coming within a meter of trampling me. After that, any close-encounters-of-the-rhino-kind left me trembling for upwards of half an hour.
Among land animals, white rhinos are second only in size to the elephants. Nevertheless, I suppose I should be thankful; rhinos were once much more prevalent (more than 40 genera) and they included Baluchitherium, the largest land mammal to have ever lived, standing 5.5 m at the shoulder. Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes and borrowed from here.
After this first interaction, I adopted a 'making a noise' strategy. The logic seemed flawless: rhinos are afraid of people and they've got good hearing; if they can hear me coming, they'll run off and we'll never meet. For some time I strode confidently around the study area, singing with operatic gusto or talking to myself (or the birds or the trees) in an exceptionally loud voice. After about the third time I'd marched straight into a rhino, standing staring at me bemusedly, I began to suspect my cunning plan was flawed. It gradually dawned on me that the rhinos didn't associate voices with human beings. After all, how many rhino poachers or hunters undertake their fell trade while lustily bellowing out 'Like a virgin'.
The coup de grace occurred one day when I accidently stumbled on a large, impressively-horned female with two calves. They were only about 3 m away and were jogging back and forth in agitation, so I immediately scrambled up the nearest corkwood tree (another time-honoured anti-rhino stratagem). For the next hour, I perched up there shouting, clapping, yelling and cajoling ("Shoo rhino, shoo") with no effect whatsoever. Despite my rumpus, the trio gradually relaxed (I can only assume they thought I was a baboon) and then - much to my dismay – they all lay down underneath my tree. After prolonged internal debate, I finally edged down the far side of the trunk and ran like crazy.
So think of me for the next month or two, creeping cautiously around my study area, peering over bushes and edging around heaps of steaming dung. I'll probably need a fingernail transplant before they all trundle off again, to winter down on the river flats.