Greetings in the night

2015 | Story and photos by Haley Pope

When I first saw their dusty grey forms lumbering through the foliage just as darkness descended, I held my breath in anticipation afraid to blink for fear of missing a second. “Those people were right,” I thought unable to believe what was happening right in front of me. “They have come.”

It was a perfectly clear starry night over Etosha National Park in Namibia. My parents, husband, and I had recently arrived at the Okaukuejo Rest Camp in the southwest corner of Etosha. We had already been on game drives the previous days and had been exceptionally lucky to see a plethora of wildlife including giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, elephants, impalas, lions, birds of all kinds – even elusive creatures like a honey badger and leopard. But this particular Etosha night proved the most memorable.

 

As a zoologist by training, I have spent countless hours learning about the plight of endangered animals and raising awareness through conversation, photography, and writing. So, when I come across iconic wild animals I can hardly contain myself. My blood boils in excitement and each hair stands on end. It feels like a dream. Yet, a heightened sense of awareness during those occasions reassures me that it is, in fact, a reality.

Black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) are rare animals to see in the African bush. There are only about 5,000 individuals remaining in the wild today, due to intensive poaching that has increased over the past few decades. This male was seen near a waterhole one evening just before complete darkness settled over Etosha National Park in Namibia.

A black rhino mother and her baby (Diceros bicornis) approach a waterhole one evening just before complete darkness settles over Etosha National Park in Namibia.

Their dusty grey forms lumbered through the foliage just after sunset and as dark was beginning to descend.

During dinner that night, we were tipped off by other tourists that some very special animals had been seen visiting the camp over the past few evenings. So, around dusk at eight o’clock we gathered behind a partly concealed wall surrounding a portion of the Okaukuejo waterhole. As two special visitors lumbered forward closing in on the waterhole, I strained my eyes to focus on them.

 

Eventually, their outlines became more visible under the moonlight and we heard soft grunts being exchanged. Off to the left through the bushes, came the sounds of rustling. And then from the center. I was doing double takes in all directions trying to catch their movements as they came out of the landscape and into view.

 

Before I could fully comprehend what was happening, eight black rhinoceroses appeared in the open and congregated around the waterhole. They stopped in their tracks when they sensed other rhinos nearby, raising their noses in the air and sniffing. Each of us humans froze in place. We intently watched the scene unfold, anxious about making the slightest noise that could ruin the authenticity of such a rare interaction between typically solitary creatures.

The two rhinos who had first appeared approached the waterhole most cautiously – for now, I saw why. They were a mother rhino and her baby likely only a few months old. My heart swelled with pride for her, for she was doing all she could to ensure that the black rhino population in Etosha remained stable, unlike so many other populations in Southern Africa.

 

By this time, all of the rhinos had seen each other. This triggered a chorus of acknowledging grunts and whines and huffing from all rhinos present, including the vigilant mother. Each rhino slowly approached another and as they drew near they touched noses, sniffed, rubbed up to one another and grunted in greeting. It was as if they were saying, “Hello there, how have you been since we last saw each other? Was it a week ago now? How’s the family?” Each interaction was genuine and friendly. This surprised me. It’s well known that black rhinos are more aggressive and dangerous than white rhinos, at least towards humans, so I didn’t expect their interactions to be so amiable. Yet, there wasn’t any animosity or defensiveness displayed except from the mother rhino.

 

She, at this point, had made it down to the water’s edge and briefly let her guard down to lower her muzzle to drink. The little one seemed too fearful to take a drink. He scampered behind her and peeked out from around her sides. Eventually, one male rhino could not resist the temptation of greeting her. “Could he be the baby’s father?” I thought. No one could know. But as he approached, the mother turned on her heels, the little one at her backside, and squared him off. The male stopped in his tracks and grunted softly at her hoping for an invitation to come closer. It never came.

 

A rhino’s gestation period is about 15 to 16 months long and each rhino only gives birth to one baby about every two and a half to five years. The dangers of allowing another animal to come close are simply not worth the risk. The mother persistently stayed between the baby and the male, although the male did not seem to mean any harm. He appeared more curious than anything else. When frontal approaches proved hopeless, the male tried walking around the side of her. He lowered his head and stretched his neck long to get a whiff of the baby’s scent only to be blocked again.

A black rhino mother and her baby (Diceros bicornis) drink from a waterhole one evening just before complete darkness settles over Etosha National Park in Namibia.

This triggered a chorus of grunts and whines and huffing from all the rhinos present, including the vigilant mother. Each rhino slowly approached and as they drew near they touched noses, sniffed, rubbed up to one another and grunted in greeting.

A female white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) bravely strolls past boasting her size and majesty at Aquila Private Game Reserve, Northern Cape, South Africa.

After several repeated attempts, the weary mother lunged at him as a final warning causing him to back away in alarm. Then she began leading her baby away from the waterhole. He followed several steps behind for a while, getting so close as to nudge the baby on his backside, only to be violently reprimanded by the mother who spun on her heels and charged him grunting angrily. Rejected again, the male finally gave up and allowed them to disappear into the bush beyond the waterhole. Soon the other rhinos dispersed. Just like ghosts gathering at a séance, they vanished into the dark leaving no trace that they had been there moments before.

 

That rhinos would congregate for social interactions during the night, or at all, was completely unknown until recently. Black rhinos are rarely seen associating with one another during the day, so their social culture was a bit of a mystery. The first time I learned of these unusual encounters was through BBC Africa’s Savannas episode. During the filming of the series, they caught the first published camera footage of rhinos interacting with one another in the middle of the night. Their vocal communications were heard on film as you watched them approach each another in greeting, just as I had seen.

 

To see this on film was a moment of beauty. I never assumed I’d be lucky enough to experience it myself. I was reminded of that clip when the first black rhinos appeared under the cover of darkness in Etosha. Seeing eight black rhinos, including a baby, all interacting together in person was more impressive and special than I could have ever imagined. It was so rare an occasion that I’m likely to never see it again. This experience is one of my most treasured wildlife encounters. After all, these incredible animals may not be with us much longer thanks to poaching and habitat loss. That only makes my encounter with them ever more powerful and bittersweet.

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