Why I like Rhinos

Rhino Fact:  There are five living species of rhinos (two African and three Asian), their combined populations in the wild being about 30,000 animals.  If rhinos could attend a soccer or football game they would not even fill half the seats in the stadium.

Not quite sure when I saw my first rhino, but it probably was at the Bronx Zoo in the late 1950’s.  The first time I touched a rhino was when I worked as Ranger Rick at Warner Brothers Jungle Habitat in West Milford, N.J. in the early 70’s.   I was driving in one of the safari themed land rovers that we used to keep the animals from getting too friendly with the visitors and their cars.   Every night we had to get out on foot with some of these gentle white rhinos – but always keeping a vehicle or tree between us and them – as we herded these impressive pachyderms through the wooded enclosure into their barns at the end of each day.  

It was not love at first sight or touch, but more of a fascination about how such a large (5000 pound maximum weight) animal could be so nimble on its feet.  Young rhinos running at full speed (30-35 mph) will have all four feet off the ground in mid-gallop.  They are almost comical to watch as they interact with each other, snorting and sparring with their magnificent horns.  These first encounters were with zoo- born white rhinos, the most social and numerous of all the rhino species, and usually much more subdued than their wild counterparts.

Rhinos in their natural African and Asian habitats can be quite aggressive and flighty….as would you, after so many decades of persecution from great white hunters and poachers with AK-47’s.  Rhinos have poor eyesight, which also accounts for many of the stories of them charging vehicles and people.   A rhino doesn’t look for trouble, unless you’re another adult male intruding on his territory and his females (referred to as cows).

Rhino calves are about as cute as any animal baby you will ever meet.  They have a button for a horn and a head that is way too big for their body.  But it’s their behavior that makes them so endearing.   I have been around newborn rhinos of both African species (white and black) and the Greater One Horned rhino of India and Nepal, and they all have endearing personality traits.  Of course, with a 3000-5000 pound mother backing you up you can afford to be curious and brave. 

Orphaned rhino calves that are bottled raised are even more amazing considering the tragic circumstances that took them away from their mothers.  Once they accept a bottle (which in itself is no easy task) they can become quite gentle and love a good scratch and a mud wallow.  

I will never forget the orphaned rhino facility I visited in Zimbabwe and having three very hungry rhinos running at us to suck down their gallon bottles of milk just like they were chugging beer.  In order for these rhinos to first accept a bottle, the ranch owner had devised a rodeo-like pile of tractor tires that he would climb inside and then stick the nipples between the tires.   Looked sort of like the Michelin Man playing nursemaid to baby tanks on wheels!

So despite their aggressive reputation rhinos can be extremely gentle if given the right amount of TLC and training.  I can remember meeting Anna Mertz (a famous rhino lady) in Africa and listening to her heart warming story about the rhinos she raised, especially how they would come running up to greet her even after they were reintroduced into the wild. 

I have plenty of rhino stories to share, both happy and sad.  Let me end this blog with a tribute to The Rhino Man, Michael Werikhe.  Michael was born in Mombasa, Kenya.   After taking a job cataloging rhino horns and elephant ivory he began his walks for rhino conservation in 1982.  He first walked in Africa then Europe and the United States.  He usually walked alone and carried no money, relying on the goodwill of others to give him shelter and food.  At the time he did more to raise the awareness for the plight of the African rhino than any other living being. 

His nature was very much like that of a rhino, strong-willed yet gentle and unassuming.  He touched the hearts and minds of everyone that had the privilege to know him.   When we had our grand opening of Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 1998 we invited Michael and his two daughters (Acacia and Kora) to Disney World.  I still remember Roy Disney Jr., Michael and his girls walking the grounds of Conservation Station (now called Rafiki’s Planet Watch).  It was truly a magical experience for all.  Tragically, Michael died the following year in his hometown of Mombasa, from injuries sustained from an assault on the way to work.

Sadly his fate was linked to the violent fate of his beloved rhinos and I can only hope his legacy will endure and his dream for rhinos be fulfilled.  

If you want to help save the rhino check out the website of the International Rhino Foundation: Rhinos.orgDonations for saving rhinos in the wild, or for helping to care for our two rhino boys, can be made to our Longneck Manor Conservation Foundation at www.longneckmanor.com.  All donations are 100% tax deductable.

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