How I Fell in Love with Rhinos

When I was a teenager at boarding school in Zimbabwe, my best friend, Merina, and I decided that we had to do something urgently to save the rhino. We wanted to save all animals, but it seemed to us that the rhino was in greatest peril.

Earnestly, we composed a letter to the Environment Minister, offering our help. Of course, we had no real plan and never really expected an answer. We simply thought that doing something was better than doing nothing. Next thing we knew, a government car with blacked-out windows pulled up outside our hostel and whisked us away for an audience with the minister. We were minor celebrities for a day in our boarding school.

To cut a long story short, we never did do much to help the rhino, beyond dreaming up cake sales in aid of Save the Rhino that never quite happened. It’s not that we stopped wanting to save animals; far from it, we were passionate about them and, at seventeen, spent a year working as veterinary nurses. It’s just that there always seemed to be something cuddlier or cuter to rescue.

That was one of my biggest challenges when I sat down to write Operation Rhino: their image. They’re not cuddly. Elephants aren’t cuddly either, yet we adore them. When we look into their eyes, we see a whole world of intelligence and emotion.

Rhinos, on the other hand, have tiny, piggy eyes that, from a distance or in photos, convey nothing at all. Most people know only three things about rhinos – they’re short-sighted, short-tempered and their horns are worth more than gold to the criminals who sell them to gullible Chinese, Vietnamese and other Eastern and Middle Eastern customers who believe that a substance (keratin) no different to our fingernails can cure cancer and dozens of other diseases and ailments.

Many of the people who do want to save rhinos do it on principle, because they feel an entire species shouldn’t be wiped out because of man’s greed and idiocy. They don’t do it because they’re madly in love with rhinos.

Growing up in Africa, my own view of rhinos was a bit like Martine’s at the start of Operation Rhino. If they have a personality, I used to think, it’s well-hidden. That changed on a visit to a South African reserve, when I spent nearly an hour watching two rhinos. At first, they were on their feet and bristling, warning us off. When they realised we weren’t a threat, they lay down and dozed. I was taken aback by how vulnerable they seemed.

Then my sister, Lisa, took me walking with wild-orphaned rhinos at dawn in Zimbabwe. Up close, I could look into their eyes and what I saw there shocked me. Far from being the myopic, belligerent modern-day dinosaur of myth, their gentle, beautiful, intelligent spirit shone from them. I would defy anyone to touch a rhino or even be close to one and not fall in love.

Even if you were stony-hearted enough to meet a rhino and not fall for them, you simply couldn’t resist a rhino calf. Have you ever seen one? OMG they’re they cutest things on earth. They really are like the most adorable lily-eared alien nature could have dreamed up. Don’t believe me? Go to the Facebook page of the Rhino Orphanage and look at their gallery of rhino babies.

In Rhino: at the Brink of Extinction, conservationist Anna Merz describes her work saving black rhinos in Kenya. The story of her relationship with orphaned rhino calf, Samia, the inspiration for Jabulani in Operation Rhino, is one of the most moving and wonderful human-animals stories I’ve ever heard. Merz believes that rhinos are most similar to horses. They have intricate social systems. They’re sensitive, smart, playful and deeply loyal to their loved ones. Time and time again, Samia saved Merz’s life, often chasing off her own friends to protect her adopted mum.

Nobody could hear Merz’s stories or those of wildlife vet, Dr Will Fowlds, who reconstructs the faces of rhinos attacked with axes, or see the traumatised babies at the Rhino Orphanage and fail to understand that to lose Africa’s unicorn because of human greed and wickedness would be to lose something irreplaceable. Over 1,215 rhinos were killed in South Africa in 2015. All signs are that that figure will be eclipsed year after year.

Don’t save rhinos just because you think you should. Save them knowing that, beneath the rhino’s suit of armour beats a huge, soft heart and a vast intelligence that can teach us so much. Save them because rhinos have been around for 50 million years and they’re a million kinds of wonderful.

Do you really want them to go extinct on your watch?