Female black rhino in the Mara

Female black rhino in the Mara

A quick follow up to my earlier entry on the Dallas Safari Club’s auction of the rhino permit.  As I mentioned in my essay, it’s one of five permits offered annually by the Namibian government.  This event struck such a visceral chord and generated an overwhelming reaction, both pro and con … but mostly con.  I floated some rhetorical questions about the disposition of the other four permits … who bought them, who’ll hunt, etc.  But the Dallas auction caught our collective attention in a way that the other four permits never would.  Why is that?

 

The idea that the exclusive right to shoot one of the world’s most revered but endangered animals could be auctioned to the highest bidder is disconcerting in its own right, but the reality that the permit was sold for $350K is particularly horrifying.   The physical act of destruction is appalling to contemplate, but in this case the admixture of killing and money smacks of prostitution of the most insidious variety.  Simply put, it is an ugly piece of self-gratification at an obscene price.  And to add to the insult, the proponents of the hunt think they can assuage the concerns of rhino supporters by reassuring us that the $350K will further the cause of rhino conservation.  Talk is cheap.  When the hell has anyone ever demonstrated or even attempted to prove that hunting money really does advance the cause of species preservation in Africa?  I believe the DSC hope is that the money will be paid, the rhino will be killed, and in short order the whole event will be forgotten.

 

One of the great deceptions the hunters perpetuate is that they’ve actually accomplished something noteworthy by hanging a rhino head on the wall.  Black rhinos can be aggressive and dangerous, but they’re also very shy and wary.  The hunter in the field will have an entourage of armed trackers, and I submit that at no time will he ever be in actual danger.  Nevertheless, he’ll stand breathlessly by the carcass and pose for photos.  Maybe he’ll even have a video team along, capturing the whispers and tension of the tracking team as they close on the prey.  But the accomplishment is roughly the same as if he sneaked through a field in Wisconsin and eased up behind a dairy cow and drilled it with his high caliber rifle.   The glory factor is equivalent …. but friends and family back home don’t know that.  I tracked black rhinos on foot last summer in both South Africa and Zimbabwe armed only with a camera, and I was never in any real danger despite being just 15 meters or so away from the animals.

 

And to cap it all, we have patronizing comments like this from the auction winner.

 

“I deeply care about all of the inhabitants of this planet and I am looking forward to more educated discussion regarding the ongoing conservation effort for the Black Rhino.”

 

The hunter is attempting to make the case that he is demonstrating his care for the creatures of the planet by hunting them.  In other words, he loves them so much that he’ll pay astronomical rates to kill them.  Educated discussion, eh?  Nice.  He also says he wants to “experience” a black rhino.   If many more rhinos are “experienced” there won’t be any left anywhere.  He should pay a visit to the orphaned rhinos at Imfolozi whose mothers were “experienced” by poachers.  This guy will probably be elected to Congress.  He seems to have all the requisite skills.

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lr Eye of an Orphan

It’s long been my belief that rhino poaching is a painful abstraction for most of us with an interest in African wildlife.  We see the gruesome photographs of de-horned animals on the internet and read the news clips about the most recent transgressions against these magnificent creatures.  But then the cell phone rings or the bills arrive in the mailbox and we mentally shift gears to the next concern.  All this is perfectly natural.  Those of us who live in the United States are physically removed from this mindless violence by a broad expanse of ocean and the breadth of a great continent.  We can sign a couple of social media petitions against this cruel practice and feel a little better about it all for a little while, but ultimately the problem of rhino poaching remains a distant frustration.  Despite all our good intentions, it’s something we are unable to substantively influence in a meaningful and positive way.

But there are at least two ways to experience the hard reality of this execrable problem in a way that sears the mind and permanently touches the heart.  One way is to visit the physical remains of a recently murdered rhino.  Friends tell me that the immediate visceral response is a mixed feeling of rage, helplessness and overwhelming sadness.  It is, by all accounts, a life changing event … an ugly and compelling reminder that humanity can descend to almost unimaginable depths of greed and cruelty.

The second way is to witness firsthand the plight of the little ones left behind when their mothers are destroyed … orphans left vulnerable in the bush, doomed without human assistance of a labor intensive and very expensive kind.  The bomas at Imfolozi are presently home to four such little ones.  It was my privilege to join them at feeding time late yesterday afternoon.

Like all babies of all species, these four were precious and beautiful.  Clearly excited by the imminent prospect of dinner, they playfully crowded around their keeper, jostling for position and nuzzling each other in a comforting and affectionate way.  Three of the four were eventually moved to an adjacent pen for feeding.  I witnessed and filmed this chaotic and slightly hilarious evolution from a walkway above the paddock.  The babies attacked the formula and slurped until the containers were empty and capsized.  The fourth rhino was quietly fed in the original boma.  He was recovering from an injury sustained during the poaching incident and would have been unable to compete with his rowdy compadres in a mass feeding.

It is a rare opportunity to stand in the physical presence of a young rhinoceros, to stroke its forehead and feel its pushes and nudges.  And it is indescribably touching to be struck by the extent to which these youngsters need and want our love and attention.  Since these emotional commodities will never again be provided by a natural parent, the proffered human love is gratefully accepted.

The deep anger I’ve always felt toward rhino poachers has now been elevated to a higher level because of my interaction with these orphans.  And I’m more committed than ever to seeing the pestilence of “killing for profit” come to a grinding halt as soon as possible.  The cautionary words of my friend, AWF employee Nakedi Maputla, ring through my head … “Giving up is not an option.”  Amen, brother.

On that defiant note, I’d like to close this entry with a respectful request to the reader.  I ask that you take sixty seconds of your time and listen to an audio clip of the Imfolozi orphans at feeding time.  Their plaintive squeals tug at the heart.  I hope the clip motivates the listener to engage as actively as possible to end the inexcusable scourge of poaching … forever.

Orphaned Rhinos at Feeding Time … audio only

 

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Great White Pelicans at Lake Nakuru

Great White Pelicans at Lake Nakuru

The distance from Samburu to the Maasai Mara is a bit much to cover in one day, so we schedule an intermediate stop at Lake Nakuru en route. Nakuru is a very welcome break from the long stretch of road, and it also happens to be one of David Muteti’s favorite safari destinations. It is a small reserve with a habitat unlike anything we saw at Samburu or will see in the Mara.

 

Obviously, the lake itself is the centerpiece of the area. It is large, alkaline and home to thousands of water birds … most notably the great white pelican and both the greater and lesser flamingo. Its shores are lined with the eye-catching yellow fever acacia, with golden trunks and branches that stand out against the deep green background of the surrounding hills … and the variety of wildlife here is extensive. It is probably the best place in Kenya to see and photograph both black and white rhino. They are here in fairly large numbers and the population, for now, is stable or possibly even growing slightly. The area is well protected from poachers … and thankfully for the rhino, there are no elephants here. The wildlife service has engineered things in this way because the confined habitat would never support both species of large herbivore.

 

The reserve is also unique in that the city of Nakuru is clearly visible on the not so distant hills. It is a wild place, to be sure, but its proximity to an urban area gives it a bit of a drive through game park feel. Nevertheless, the animals and photo opportunities are here in abundance.

 

Great White Pelican on final approach at Lake Nakuru

Great White Pelican on final approach at Lake Nakuru

 

Our late afternoon timing coincides perfectly with the incremental and exhaustive arrival of wave after wave of pelicans. It is an excellent opportunity to practice capturing birds in flight … thinking through the process very carefully and leaning heavily on the very knowledgeable Kevin Woisard for advice, I’m able to capture some sharp images of the pelicans as they glide in for a landing. Towards sunset we have the opportunity to photograph white rhino in various states of lethargy … grazing with head down through the short grass near the lake’s edge and resting comfortably on the earth in the last rays of sun. We understand and duly acknowledge that this may be the only time on this trip that we have any sort of glimpse of a rhinoceros.

 

White rhino taking it easy after a long day of eating

White rhino taking it easy after a long day of eating

We are lodged at the Sarova Lion Hill Lodge, which gets highest marks for comfort and food quality. It also features a strolling guitarist who croons through the evening meal and graces us with a very catchy and somewhat innovative original tune … “The Antelope Song.”

 

The morning drive takes us around the lake, to a lioness and two cubs resting under a tree. They are lazily tearing at a carcass … last night’s kill was a baby Rothschild’s giraffe. We watch quietly for a few minutes when a small, privately owned automobile pulls up. Its occupants appear to be local folks, who sit, like us, observing the lion family and the unfortunate giraffe. Without notice, a young boy, perhaps 10 years old, exits the car with camera in hand, directly in the line of sight of all three lions. The cubs immediately make a start for him, and mother lion leaps to her feat and unloads the deep, throaty rumble that is the signature sound of an irritated simba. We shout him back into the safety of his car, but David pulls alongside the driver and advises him in unmistakable terms that he is placing his family at risk and violating the rules of the Kenya Wildlife Service.

 

The baboons at Nakuru are prolific … it seems the habitat here is ideal for them. Food is plentiful and the trees afford exceptional opportunities for both exercise and sanctuary from lion attacks. They are common on every stretch of road. A wide turn on the far side of the lake brings us alongside a large troop that includes several juveniles. They permit us close access for photographs, including full face shots of the adults and several minutes of young ones hanging from the brush along the road.

 

Young baboons not far from the shore

Young baboons not far from the shore

Nakuru is beautiful, but we are anxious to see the rolling, wide-open grassland of the Maasai Mara. Departure is scheduled for early in the morning.

Cape Buffalo fending off yellow-billed oxpeckers at Nakuru

Cape Buffalo fending off yellow-billed oxpeckers at Nakuru

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