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Feature Story
Return of the Black Rhino
Page 3

As improbable as it seems, Mike is from Kent, England; more improbably, he grew up with rhinos there. A short way down the street from Mike's house, a man named John Aspinall opened a suburban zoo -- the Port Lympne Wild Animal Park, replete with rhinos, chimpanzees, and the largest herd of elephants in the United Kingdom. Aspinall was famous for flying native fruits and grasses straight in from Africa for his animals. As a young boy Mike hung out there at almost every opportunity; eventually, drawn to the rhinos, he got a job there.

Mike studied conservation biology at the University of Kent, then came straightaway to the source of rhinos, Namibia, where he got a job in 1993 as an intern with Save the Rhino Trust. For a solid year he worked in the office in Windhoek, in south-central Namibia, doing little more than filing papers, until finally someone saw that he was not just an adventurer but a committed scientist. At the end of that year, he was awarded a job at the field station in Palmwag, in Damaraland.

Mike's office is a thatched-roof, open-air, two-story hut -- a tree house, really -- overlooking Namibia's red hills and arroyos of dazzling heat. Shaded, and occasionally catching the faint stirrings of a breeze, it reminds me of Tarzan's tree fort, except for the bank of solar-powered computers and the file cabinets and the library of dense technical information, the data plots and biological treatises, overflowing the shelves.

Downstairs in the ramada-like plaza, with its cool concrete floor and its daylong shade, are some breathtaking photographs Mike took of charging rhinos. When I ask about them, he shrugs and says he was always able to keep a boulder between himself and the rhino -- a mortal game of tag or keep-away -- and that after a while the rhino would get tired and go away. The photos convey the incredible athleticism of the animal, all but airborne as it races through a boulder field, the ultimate broken-field runner, leading the charge with those twin sabers. And Mike, no less a force, evading the rhino like a bullfighter -- and having the gall, even in his retreat, to snap away.

I was invited to Namibia by Dennis Sizemore, an old friend who is now executive director of the nonprofit Round River Conservation Studies (on whose board I sit as a volunteer), based in Utah. Round River students are working with Save the Rhino to help refine the protocols for rhino-viewing. This involves unique challenges - and opportunities -- here in the see-for-a-million-miles desert. The students, under Mike's (and others') guidance, are combining vegetative-plot analyses and population studies with measurements and observations that detail the various responses caused by humans' presence. How close can a person get to a rhino under various conditions of wind, temperature, light, and so on, without the rhino's knowing the person is there? They are measuring, too, human satisfaction based on proximity to the rhino.

It turns out that distance doesn't matter. In this landscape, tourists are just as thrilled to see a rhino at 300 yards as at 30. Some, of course, might savor the adrenaline rush of a 30-yard encounter, but most seem to prefer beauty, not danger. For such travelers it's enough to see a rhino even at a secret distance -- to marvel, and perhaps to be assured that it simply still exists, and to see it fitted to scale against the vast landscape that birthed it.

That's good news for the rhinos, because to have them bolting all over the desert, constantly on the run -- as they were during the war in Angola -- would not be beneficial to their population. The researchers have found that, once frightened, a male rhino will gallop for at least half a mile before slowing; a female, two miles or farther. That's a long way for a 2,000-pound animal to sprint in 130-degree heat.

In this regard, our encounter in the desert was a failure. The goal is to see the rhino without its ever seeing you; to save it without its even knowing it was saved.

We spend a few more days traveling with Mike. The rainy season has just passed, the desert is in full bloom, and Mike stops often to inhale deeply the scent of all the different flowers. It's the only time of year he is treated to such a luxury.

After our stay in Damaraland, Dennis and I finally say our farewells to Mike. We travel on to Etosha National Park in north-central Namibia, and then home to the United States, which is in the full frenzy of Christmas. I try to hold fiercely to Namibia -- the sound of doves cooing at first light each morning, the laughter of hyenas at night, the otherworldly heat.

Yet as is always the case, these memories of the senses, held tight and scored deep, begin to soften ever so slightly. Not vanishing but reassembling, as if placed within some deeper, though somewhat less sensate, vault. Some vault not-the-present; some vault called the past.

And then, a couple of weeks later, we receive word that Mike Hearn has died off the coast of Namibia in a surfing accident. He was an epileptic and had been taking medicine, but evidently had a seizure while out in the waves, and a life was lost, along with a thousand grand dreams.

Others will pick up his vision and begin reweaving, or attempting to reweave, the pieces. For as long as there are rhinos -- at least a little while longer -- there will be those who are drawn to them, as if summoned. But there is no denying that what has been lost was immense, heartrending, as delicate as it was rugged, and irreplaceable. Something that had been millions, even billions of years in the making -- Mike Hearn -- was here for 32 years, and then gone.

The rhinos, and the basalt, remain.

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Photos: Ed Kashi
Map: Blue Marble Maps

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