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Feature Story
Return of the Black Rhino
Page 2

As my traveling companion, Dennis Sizemore, an American conservationist, and I follow Mike, Himba, Joseph, and Leslye, the heat is such that it seems we are swimming or floating through it rather than walking. Though we sometimes stumble and clatter, we are slowly growing accustomed to the challenge of picking our way across roly-poly old basalt cobbles scattered across an almost perfectly planar surface. Exploded, jagged quartz crystals glitter brilliantly on the reddened landscape, sometimes snow-white and other times translucent, as if great bags of diamonds have been rent open and the contents strewn about.

The trackers themselves have scattered now, and whether they have lost the tracks or instead feel that they are so close to the rhinos there is no more need to look down at their feet -- that we need only to lift our eyes to behold them -- I cannot tell. And yet there are no rhinos, only heat and stone and sky.

The light begins to soften with the approach of late afternoon. One by one we sit down on various stones and rest, staring out at the seemingly infinite beauty. To the north -- to the curve of the broad red valley -- is a line of distant trees, the signature of a ghost-river that, Mike tells us, is pretty much the edge of Damaraland. It's a dry river of heated sand even in this, the wet season. Namibia's one inch of rain fell about 10 days earlier, cracking open, briefly, the red shell of earth into a quick unfurling of utterly illogical, almost unseemly, extravagance -- the elegant white blossoms of Catophractes alexandri, or trumpet thorn bush, showing themselves as brilliant as those of dogwood, and the dusky euphorbia, too, seemed a tad greener.

Leslye, who has been squatting on his heels, rises and points. We see then what has been out there all along, a giant rhino, glinting almost white as the sun reflects off her broad armor. She is about a mile and a half away, but even at that distance looks improbably huge -- a living dinosaur, appearing not so much tank-like, as I have read in some descriptions, as like an immense limousine. She is moving across the desert from right to left in a kind of toy-like glide, reminding me of a tractor-trailer seen on an interstate from a very long way off. Behind her is the tiniest fluff of white, like a speck of cotton: her calf. As great as it was to follow their live trail, the joy of seeing the rhinos themselves is about a thousand times better. Mike is smiling, transfixed; we all are.

Mike shares his super-binoculars with us. We can see the puffs of red dust raised by the rhinos' footsteps, even the glint of sunlight in their eyes. We sit there in utter contentment and watch as they gradually quarter, like boats out on a vast sea, and begin to travel in our direction as if being drawn toward us, summoned by our desire and our curiosity. If the rhinos proceed in the direction they have now chosen, they will eventually be within range for some of our telephoto lenses. And because the heated afternoon wind is strong in our faces, we feel safe, as our scent won't get carried in their direction. We sit sprawled among the rocks and watch them and murmur quietly. The watering hole is a quarter mile off to our right, and Mike thinks the rhinos might be heading back toward it after bypassing it earlier in the day. Even in this heat, a rhino can go three days without watering, and under ideal conditions quite a bit longer. Perhaps the mother smelled the lion and decided to make one big loop around the spring, sniffing for the scent of every altered molecule in her desert, before circling back. Perhaps her baby got thirsty.

Time melts. We watch as the mother and calf continue to drift our way. And after a little while, something happens -- some ice-sliver of impossibility dissolves, for it finally occurs to us that she is not just traveling approximately in our direction but has chosen a tangent that leads more or less right to us. We sit up a little straighter, not quite sure what is at work here, but knowing there is something dangerous and wonderful going on. We keep expecting her to veer -- to tack toward the watering hole -- but instead she just keeps coming. At a hundred yards out, my stomach drops a bit, grumbles, and the hair on my back prickles. She is terrifying -- and so beautiful: almost milky white, and with such fluid, enormous muscles. If we are going to stand up and slink away, now is the time to do it, before we enter into her sphere of sightedness. And yet we are mesmerized by her approach and cannot seem to pull away. While she is out on this late-afternoon saunter, believing the desert to be all hers, I cannot imagine that she could possibly be pleased, particularly with her newborn in tow, to discover that she has stepped unwittingly into a nest of humans out in the middle of nowhere. She is 75 yards away, then 50. We can see every articulation of muscle now, the ribs lifting with each breath, the nostrils widening. Her feet are immense, her ankles as solid as anything on this earth, her legs bowed, canted, and angled powerfully at the knees.

The baby, almost buff-white, continues to trail her. He's too cute, like something you'd bring home from the pet store. The mother's horns appear now to tower like skyscrapers, and as she turns her anvil of a head in our direction to stare at us intently, fiercely, we can hear the scretch of each pebble beneath those great feet, can smell the dust raised from each tentative yet angry step. The calf, more hesitant, is farther behind her, mewing like a kitten, distressed, which cannot be helping the mother's mood.

The six of us are frozen in a clump. No camera-clicking now. We are on an incline, elevated so that, even crouching, we are looking down slightly at her. She is giving her most malevolent stare -- 2,000 pounds of fury, now less than 30 yards away, with not a tree in sight -- but she is staring at a point just off my right shoulder, as if her eyes haven't quite focused on us. She keeps coming, her calf keeps crying and fretting, and the heated wind keeps scouring us all, masking us somewhat, though at this near distance, little sliding back-eddies of scent surely must be filtering downslope; surely those huge nostrils are reading something.

She is magnificent, and she is about to kill us. Mike whispers that we may have to stand up -- slowly, all at once -- but we should not run. I hear him as if in a dream, understanding that he is operating in a world in which action has consequence. But I feel as though I am sunk down deeper in time, and I can only continue to stare at the rhino's tremendously muscular body -- slabs and plates not of armor, as in the cartoons, but of dense and utter muscle. I notice a few faint guard hairs along her back illuminated by the lowering sun behind her. I think the only thing that has saved us thus far is the incredible improbability of the encounter: Even now, in these last few yards, she might still be thinking, No, it can't be...

She stops and pivots slightly, squaring up to us now like God's linebacker -- preparing to charge; any fool can see it -- then lifts her tail and, as if squeezing a trigger, voids two blasts of golden urine high into the air, aiming them somehow almost straight up, like geysers. We watch as the sunlit spray vaporizes in the winds aloft and is carried our way. In an instant we can scent it, even taste it on our palates -- slimed! -- and I know without having ever heard of such a thing that this is the final step preparatory to her charge; as with a bird voiding involuntarily just before it leaps into flight, she is ready now, committed.

"All right," Mike whispers. I tear my eyes away and glance at him without moving my head, and see that he is rising slowly, his own hair burnished filamentous by the westering sun. "Stand up slowly, quickly, now." He summons us from our buried dreams like a conductor. This is the only card we have to play: presenting ourselves to her in order to ask for, and receive, her mercy. We rise almost in unison, with only the slightest dysynchrony of aging knees unfolding. To the mother rhino's dim sight, perhaps it appears that the strange human-scented boulder, the slag-rubble she's been approaching, has come to life, suddenly expanding and populating the space before her.

She pauses.

"Don't run," Mike whispers. We are slightly spread out now and are frozen again. Mike, the tallest, is in the middle, and we form a sort of cross. She is so close now that as she exhales, her ribs heaving, her breath is swept straight to us, and we in turn inhale it, our own hearts thumping wildly. The mother snorts, paws the stony ground; more sunlit plumes of gravel smoke rise and drift across us like magic dust. Behind her the calf makes some tiny movement of either fear or impatience. With breathtaking speed and force, the mother whirls, charges back to him, and stands by his side.

Then, with military precision, the pair rotate clockwise in an odd dance, flank to flank at an exact 90-degree angle. Now they're facing away, heads and horns tilted up in the attack, or perhaps the defensive, position -- tiptoeing, pivoting, in a ballerina-like circle, pausing for a full minute with each 90-degree rotation. With their revolution completed, the mother whirls again and breaks into a gallop, running away from us with the calf right on her heels, the two thundering across the desert with twin red wakes of dust pluming behind them, heading for a line of trees three miles distant, which they cannot see but which, in that wind, they must be able to smell exquisitely. They gallop across the red desert as fast as any horse. It is disorienting to watch so large a creature running at so fast and unbroken a pace, accelerating all the way, the calf receiving no slack, working hard to stay up with the mother -- life lesson number one, perhaps. In only a few minutes they are gone, white specks disappearing into that far brush, the sun almost setting now.

Still jittery-legged, we sit down and watch the darkening desert, the space where they had just been. "That was good," says Mike, a veteran of at least a thousand sightings. "That was very good."

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Photos: Ed Kashi
Map: Blue Marble Maps

OnEarth. Spring 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council