Rhinoceros are some of the most iconic and endangered animals on the planet.
Facing outright slaughter by poachers seeking highly valuable horns for trade in the Asian traditional medicine market, they are animals of very special concern.
When thinking of rhinos it is hard not to imagine them in the open savanna or desert settings often depicted on television. And yes, those areas in southern Africa are crucial to both white and black rhinoceros and their subspecies.
But did you know rhinos are also an animal of the forest and even the mountains? Or at least they were in many areas before poachers decimated them.
Black rhinos live in the montane forests of Kenya, an ecoregion that has several separate areas up to 2000 meters in elevation.
Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) in recent years has imported rhinos to once again inhabit their former range in the small, landlocked country that has a mix of forest, savanna, and mountains.
I first got an interest in learning more about rhinos in thicker forest habitat after watching an episode of my friend Austin Steven’s brilliant program Austin Stevens Adventures.
In the episode In the Shadow of Armored Giants, he sought black and white rhinos in the Mkhaya game reserve in Eswatini. The scenes of him in some super thick forests approaching rhinos at an incredibly close distance was quite inspiring.
I reached out to Stevens to get some of his thoughts on his rhino encounters since his groundbreaking footage probably gave the best glimpse into rhinos I have ever seen on a television program.
I have been fortunate to observe the behavior of the two species found in Southern Africa, the so-called white rhino (more accurately, the square-lipped rhino) and the black rhino. Of the two, the black rhino is generally the slightly smaller, and known for its more aggressive nature. The white rhino, on the other hand, while of course also being potentially dangerous, has a far more subdued demure. Both are amazingly well camouflaged in natural bush and can be easily missed on a game drive, in spite of their size. If on foot in the bush, one encounters a white rhino, there is usually time and opportunity to slowly back away and avoid confrontation. Should one however, enter into close proximity with a black rhino, then basically it is already too late, and disaster might be the result.
As described in his latest book, Running Wild, Stevens experienced a close encounter with each of the species.
One saw me awakened each night in my tent as a white rhino stomped, pounded and pulverized, with great gusto, my entrance mat, rendering me terrified inside the flimsy walls of the tent. It seemed that my tent had unknowingly been erected within the rhino’s terrain. A lesson well learned.
The black rhino encounter was a little scarier.
As for my black rhino encounter, as is typical, I had no idea the animal was present until it charged out of the thicket and sent me scurrying for my life up a leaning tree, thankfully within reach. A few snorts and a few jabs at my feet, just out of reach, and the animal seemed to be satisfied that it had secured its territory, and it turned around and disappeared once more back into the thicket from which it had emerged. I was pretty shaken, and another lesson learned. All in a day’s work for a wildlife photographer.
I would never have considered some of the dense forest rhinos can inhabit if I had not seen Stevens episode and read his book. They inspired this series of articles and to look deeper into where rhinos used to roam.
As a photographer, rhinos are at the very top of my list of African game I would like to photograph.
Seeing them in the distant savannah and approaching in a Land Rover is one thing but to get close to them in a thick, forested setting is another.
In the next edition, we will look at some of the surprisingly high elevations rhinos can roam and look into what is happening with them in the more forested regions of west-central Africa.
And we will conclude the series with how innovative conservation measures are bringing hope for these armored giants.