Photo: Rhino in field in Africa

The horns are the rhino’s great asset—and peril.

Photograph by Boyd Matson

By Boyd Matson

From the May 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler.

Brett du Bois isn’t the first guide in Africa to tell me, “The rhinoceros has terrible eyesight,” but he is the first to try to prove it by using me as a human eye chart. The plan—and by plan I mean a spur-of-the-moment, wild impulse you would never consider if given a night to sleep on it—is to hop out of our vehicle and stand behind a small clump of fallen acacias in the path of two white rhinos headed for a watering hole.

In fairness to Brett, he will be standing beside me. But I immediately sense a flaw. If we’re the rhinos’ eye chart, Brett is the small print, eighth line—in other words, the rhinos would need the equivalent of 20/20 vision.

At six feet five, I’m the big E. I’m thinking they would have to be blind not to see me.

Being spotted could give new meaning to the expression “on the horns of a dilemma.” The dilemma being up to 6,000 pounds of rhinoceros charging toward us—led by those huge dagger-shaped horns—at 25 to 30 miles an hour or, more significantly, at least three or four times as fast as I can run. Yet in spite of all their brute force, these prehistoric-looking creatures are now endangered. During the past four years, the threat to their survival has dramatically increased. In 2007 only 13 rhinos were illegally poached in South Africa. In 2010 the number was 333. Last year at least 448 rhinos were slaughtered, including 19 of the critically endangered black rhinos.

Rhino killers aren’t interested in the meat; they just want the horns, which are ground up for use in traditional Asian medicines to treat everything from fevers to gout to cancer. No medical evidence proves the effectiveness of the material (which mostly consists of keratin, the same stuff found in human hair and fingernails), but economic growth in China and Vietnam has created a surplus of cash for luxury items, inflating the price for illegal rhino horn and bringing new recruits to the poaching business. By some estimates, the street price for rhino horn now hovers near $50,000 a pound, which is more than the price of gold and, in many cases, cocaine. (Still not impressed? On average, a white rhino’s horns weigh 12 pounds.) Last fall, the Javan rhino was declared extinct in Vietnam. Considering some 21,000 of Africa’s estimated 25,000 rhinos roam South Africa, it’s no wonder the poachers have come flocking.

To better understand the crisis, I too have come to South Africa, to the famous Kruger National Park, where the majority of the poaching is taking place—the safari destination lost 252 rhinos in 2011 alone. I’m staying at nearby Sabi Sabi, a private game reserve that, so far, has successfully protected its rhinos. Sabi Sabi occasionally offers walking safaris through the bush for the adventurous few who the guides determine aren’t likely to freak out and run screaming at the first sight of a rhino or elephant, a reaction that could trigger a new reality show: Slow Tourists, Fast Animals.

But the guides won’t invite their guests to do what Brett and I are about to do—to see how close we can get to wild rhinos without their noticing, even when they’re looking right at us, an experiment to see just how easy it would be for a poacher to sneak up on a rhino. The wind is in our favor, blowing away from the rhinos and toward us, so they shouldn’t pick up our scent. Brett whispers, “Don’t make any noise, and don’t move.” The rhinos slowly make their way past the trees providing our minimal camouflage when they come to a complete stop, turn, and look straight in our direction. All that’s between the pointed ends of two horns and us is maybe 30 feet of very thin air and what I hope is some very, very bad eyesight. For nearly a full minute they stare, a tense assessment as to exactly what species Brett and I might be.

Finally they start calmly walking in our direction to get to the water behind us. Brett again whispers, “Don’t move! Don’t move!” That’s when I realize I’m not even breathing, and I’d better at least move my lungs before I pass out. The first rhino passes ten feet to our right, but the second, larger one picks up our scent. At five or six feet away he stops, suddenly recognizing the big E on the eye chart. Fortunately his next reaction is to jump to his left, away from me, and trot toward his buddy and the water. I ask Brett, “Is it OK now to move? Because my legs would really like to shake.”

Though I’m armed only with a camera for my close encounter, the experience makes it clear that evolution has not provided the rhinoceros with an adequate defense against men armed with guns and dreams of big money. To save the rhinos, poaching must carry a higher price tag, and huge fines and mandatory jail sentences must be applied all the way up the line, from low-level hunters to importers. Even then, these massive creatures built like tanks will still need bodyguards. At the parks that are most successfully protecting their populations, rangers follow rhinos with automatic rifles and a shoot-to-kill policy. That’s a price that should give most poachers second thoughts. Such a solution may sound drastic. But if something isn’t done soon, man will do in, say, the next 60 years what the planet couldn’t do in the previous 60 million: push Africa’s last remaining rhinoceroses into extinction.

Contributing editor Boyd Matson hosts National Geographic Weekend on radio.

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