Rhino in the bathroom
of yesteryear • Adventure Sport • Africa: The Good News • Book Reviews •
When visiting Humani in the Save Conservancy, one can be assured of being introduced to the newest member of the Humani clan. This extraordinary new addition is an orphan rhino calf named Jimmy, who is being raised by Anne Whittall. When Jimmy arrived at the Humani homestead, weak and in a generally sorry state, Anne was forced to play the part of foster mother rhino. Many will agree that there could be no-one better for the role.
Jimmy joined the family under the most dreadful circumstances, his mother having been shot by a poacher. Rhino poaching has been a huge problem in Zimbabwe over the past twenty-five years, and what was once a healthy national population has been depleted to critical proportions. Of the remaining few hundred rhino in this country, the Save Conservancy harbors a far greater number than any other wildlife area. Because small pockets in other parts of Zimbabwe have been totally wiped out, the Save Conservancy has recently been targeted in a fairly big way, with ten rhino shot in little over a year. The rhino war(s) continue unabated and Jimmy is just another victim of that ongoing struggle. Let me tell you Jimmy’s story…..
The news came in from a gamescout patrol via hand-held radio. A rhino had been poached not far from Elephant water-point in the Jurus area, and they had discovered the carcass. Always quick to react to any crisis situation on Humani, manager Charlie Pienaar and a handful of gamescouts were at the scene in double quick time. The kill zone was actually a few kilometers into a vast mopani forest that offsets the acacia-sprinkled, open plains of Jurus. After scouting about the immediate vicinity for clues and coming up empty-handed, an emotional Charlie returned to HQ to report to Roger Whittall. He had a tragic story to tell. The rhino had been killed days before, at a time when it had been raining. The killer was a thorough professional, using the wet weather to cover his tracks and leaving no clue whatsoever. He had shot the rhino once in the brain, hacked the horns and ears off, covered the carcass with brush to hide it from vultures, and departed the scene as efficiently as he had committed his dastardly deed. The reason he lopped the ears off was because he was aware that the Conservancy identifies its rhino by marking ears. This guy was also aware of much else. Rhino are very territorial and he knew in exactly which area to find his target. He also knew, before he shot the rhino, that Roger Whittall had recalled his gamescouts for a few days, for a bit of rest and recuperation. He struck at precisely the right moment and his planning and actions were meticulous and well calculated. This man knew what he was about and he left nothing to chance. Once Charlie had finished telling what he had observed, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that it was an inside job. Someone with knowledge of the area and the goings on at Humani must definitely be involved. It sickened us all to the core.
Although Roger, Charlie and others were well aware that the rhino in question had recently birthed and had a very young calf at heel, nothing much was thought of it. The rhino had been killed about four days before the vultures had led scouts to her carcass, and the calf’s chances of survival were assumed to be non-existent. Especially since Charlie reported seeing an abundance of fresh lion spoor crisscrossing the area, and no trace of the calf whatsoever. It seemed an absolute impossibility that the calf could have survived, and yet there was a twist in the tale. That twist was little Jimmy’s will to live.
To this day, I don’t know what prompted me to ask Roger if I could go to the scene of the crime the following morning. There was no need to – the carcass and vicinity had been effectively checked over the day before. Anyway, I just wanted to go and look, and Roger thought it was a good idea. As an afterthought, Roger instructed me to take a couple of scouts along and dig around for a bullet in the rotten carcass. That command didn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm. Anyhow, soon I was on my way with Isaac Bangai and Rindai Rindai, two trusty RWS trackers that operate as senior gamescouts in the hunting off-season. I have worked with Isaac and Rindai extensively and know them both to be extremely capable and willing fellows. Isaac usually tracks for professional hunter Thierry Labat, whilst Rindai is PH Peter Wood’s man. As it turned out, I couldn’t have had a couple of better guys along for the ride.
We called on the radio and arranged to meet with the gamescouts who had made the grisly discovery, so that they could lead us in. They were waiting for us when we arrived at Elephant water-point half an hour later. After driving a couple of kilometers, we left the vehicle on the roadside and entered close-knit mopani forest, walking off in single file behind Daniel, the stick leader of that particular scout patrol. There were three scouts, so we were six in total. Great, I thought to myself, I wouldn’t need to do too much digging around in the rotting rhino – there were plenty of hands for the job! Can’t totally give up on the old colonial bit, you know. I mean, who built Southern Africa anyway!
After Daniel lost his way a couple of times, we came to the place. As we approached the pathetic lump of dead mass that represented what was once the pride of this land’s wildlife heritage, a huge lump came to my throat. Who could do this thing, I silently wondered. All was quiet for long minutes as we all just stared in disbelief at the horrific scene before our eyes. It was a truly shocking sight and every man amongst us felt bitter resentment. Not resentment actually – rage and hatred. But it was wasted emotion because we were helpless to do anything. Unless… Unless we could find something, some clue for investigators to work with. We got to work chopping off the head and began dissecting it.
I actually did assist in the gruesome labor initially, but only to get the others inspired. After about thirty minutes of inhaling and groping around in the maggot-infested, putrid flesh, however, I decided that the others were by now well inspired and decided to go on a little reconnaissance patrol about the vicinity. I informed the men that I was off to take a look about, suggesting that maybe I would find a clue. Maybe the poacher dropped a bullet or something? The guys, who were now onto dissecting the forequarters, all regarded me doubtfully but agreed that it was a possibility. Their reaction told me that I had about a one in a zillion chance of finding anything. But, hey, you never know. Besides, I just enjoy scouting about unfamiliar country. It is amazing what I have discovered in the past by just heading off and roaming around the woods for a while.
After walking a large semi-circle through the forest for about forty-five minutes or so, seeing many lion tracks but observing nothing out of the ordinary, I decided to return to the carcass. I find it pretty easy to get lost in the bush, and it took me a while to work out my bearings and start heading back in what I sort of thumb-sucked was the right direction. Changing tack a few times, I soon set myself on a course and began walking in what I thought to be a straight line. I always believe I am holding a straight line when walking in the bush, though usually I am not. In fact, I don’t remember ever walking a straight line! Anyway, I was headed where I was headed and off I went, whistling a little ditty to myself as I strode through the mopani. Not fifteen minutes later, I walked onto Jimmy.
It was an absolute miracle that I walked onto him. He was hidden behind and partially beneath a leafy bush, and if I had walked ten yards either side, I would have missed him. As it was, I almost literally walked onto him. I took a step, glancing casually to my left as I did, and then I froze in mid-stride. I only froze for a second or two, but much took place in that time. I saw the baby rhino lying prone behind the bush with only his forequarters visible, staring wide-eyed up at me. Due to his wide-eyed expression, my first reaction was that he was dead, and in that instant I felt the double-whammy of loss. But then he blinked and I saw that he was definitely not dead, just too petrified to move and risk discovery. Although very young, Jimmy had already been given impressionable insight into the cruel nature of human beings. I paused for only that second or two, and then I continued on my way without any other reaction, so as to not unduly alarm the little guy. About forty yards later, when I was well away from him, I burst into a flat sprint through the mopani. It was the fastest I have moved in years and thoughts were pounding through my mind. Where were the guys? God, I hope I’m going in the right direction! How far did I walk, how far am I from the others? As I ran, fending off whippy branches with my arms, I tried to figure where I was, and more importantly, where the guys were. I ran for several hundred meters in this fashion, before stopping to listen for the first time. It was probably the first several hundred meter sprint I’ve ever done! Blood was rushing through my veins, my breathing was ragged, and I found it difficult to tune my ears into surrounding sound. Where was I, where were they? Almost panicking, I wanted to scream out my frustration. I closed my eyes for a minute and allowed the blood rush to slow slightly, working my jaw and trying to clear my ears. And then I heard the deep booming laugh of Isaac Bangai, carrying faintly on the wind. The men were somewhere up ahead, slightly off to the left. Had I thought about it then, I would have realized that I had almost achieved a straight line on my return route. But I didn’t think about anything, because I was sprinting off through the bush again.
‘Did it chase you?’ asked Isaac.
‘No, it is a young rhino.’
‘Even a young rhino can chase you,’ stated Daniel, matter of factly.
‘It is very young,’ I said, hands on knees, getting my breathing back under control. ‘It is the baby of this dead rhino.’
‘Is it dead?’ asked Isaac, getting down to business in his no-nonsense manner.
‘No, otherwise I would not have tried to kill myself by running as fast as I did to get back to you.’ My heart-rate was returning to normal.
‘Let us go and catch it then.’
‘Yes, let us go and catch it.’
‘Handidi.’ ‘No way,’ said Daniel, ‘that thing will bite someone!’
A short argument ensued as I tried to convince Daniel and the other two scouts that the rhino would do anything but bite them. It would charge them, butt them, run them over, but it would certainly not bite them. They were not convinced and I ended up with the support of only Isaac and Rindai. As it turned out, it was probably a good thing – less is sometimes more. Without further ado, Isaac, Rindai and I retraced my headlong flight through the mopani. As we went, we discussed our plan of action – our rhino capture strategy.
Stealthily, we approached the bush where I knew the little calf to be. Now, when I write ‘little’, I mean to say I had already estimated it to be somewhere around 50 kilograms. Although I imagined it would have next to no strength, having been without milk for days on end, I really didn’t know what it was capable of. Our intention was to capture the rhino fast, with as little commotion as possible, in order to avoid causing it more trauma than it had already endured. Above all, I did not want to risk it getting away from us and heading off into the mopani. It had survived as long as it had, how much longer could it live? Bearing all of the above in mind, we sneaked in on who we would soon get to know as Jimmy, me from the front, and Isaac and Rindai from the rear. We were all well prepped and each guy knew what he had to do, although the game-plan was not exactly complicated. Basically, it boiled down to ‘grab the rhino and don’t let go!’ Actually there was a little more to it – I was to try a soft approach first and test the little guy’s strength. But Isaac and Rindai knew they needed to be very close when I made first contact. I made certain they were well aware of that!
As I slowly and silently crept in the last few yards, I thought it was going to be a cinch. Jimmy did not stir, but his little eyes followed my approach all the way in. And then I was within a yard, slowly and purposefully bending my knees, lowering myself to his level. There was no reaction whatsoever as I squatted down before the rhino, and so I reached out my hand to touch its face. And that was the point when I realized the capture was not going to be a cinch, as Jimmy exploded from the ground and butted me viciously about the knees! I toppled over backwards onto my backside, but as I did, I grabbed hold of one of his ears and held on for dear life! Huffing and snorting, Jimmy fast intensified the attack, the barrage of head-butts crashing into my legs and torso intensifying by the second. The fact that that month old creature possessed that amount of power after four days without nourishment is beyond me to this day. Whilst I am not a WWF wrestler or anything, neither am I a weak man, and I struggled with everything I had to hold onto Jimmy for those few seconds. The head-butting was enough to bring out bruises on my legs the following day. What a fight he put up! Poor little guy must have thought it was his last fight.
Though I was certainly on the receiving end of a serious thrashing, my tag team thankfully wasted no time coming to my assistance. Within seconds, Isaac had a back leg grasped firmly, whilst Rindai came to lend a hand up front. Then we dropped Jimmy like a sheep, whipping all his legs out from under him. Once he was down, Jimmy began squealing hysterically, probably assuming the fight was now really over and death imminent. You assume animals don’t think that way? Specifically month old animals? Let me assure you that they do. Animals know all about death from the day they are born. Anyhow, Jimmy began squealing like a stuck pig and trying his utmost to tear his head from my grasp. In the process, he swept me around in the dust a little. Isaac and Rindai held onto his legs resolutely, and Daniel and the other scouts observed proceedings from a safe distance. Jimmy satisfactorily demonstrated the awesome power a rhino possesses during that encounter, specifically in the neck and shoulder region. Three strong men struggled for minutes on end to restrain a 50 kg animal that had not fed for four days, and that is almost unbelievable. Only believable because I was there!
Eventually, a semblance of order came about when I whipped off my shirt and covered the exposed side of Jimmy’s face. Then he could not see and the crazy head threshing eased. But I still had to clasp his head tightly to my body – the slightest release of pressure brought about a renewed effort. Once he had calmed a little, Daniel and other two scouts plucked up the courage to approach closer. I barked out orders.
‘Daniel, wuya kuno!’ ‘Come here!’
There must have been something in my tone that made Daniel temporarily forget his fear of being bitten by a rhino, and he obeyed with alacrity. I ordered him to take over Rindai’s position holding the front legs. Rindai is a driver and we needed him to go and fetch the vehicle as fast as possible. I instructed him not to waste too much time looking for a suitable route through the mopani, but to return with all due haste! About 40 minutes later, we heard Rindai returning when he was still some distance away. From the sound of things, he had taken my instructions to heart! Not long after, he was revving and ramming his way up to us through the last hundred meters of mopani. As the truck approached, I turned to Isaac who was still patiently manning the rear end of a now fairly subdued rhino calf.
‘What is its name?’ I asked.
Of course, although I have been referring to Jimmy as a ‘he’ throughout this story, we had no idea what sex he was. In a similar vein, I have been referring to him as Jimmy, but we obviously had no name for him. That was the case up until the point when Isaac peered between the
calf’s back legs and made a positive identification regarding sex. Isaac did not ponder the name choice for long.
‘James. Jimmy, we shall call him Jimmy,’ stated the deep voice.
It was very easy to agree with Isaac’s name choice: Roger Whittall’s father, James, was known as Jimmy, and Roger’s grandson (Guy’s son) is named James. And so, Jimmy officially joined the fold.
The work of the Humani rhino capture unit was not over yet, far from it in fact. As soon as we began trying to load Jimmy, the hysterical squealing and frantic struggling started up again. It would continue for the next hour, as Isaac and I tried to keep him under control in the back of the cruiser and Rindai ferried us home to Humani. An interesting thing to note is that, along the way, Jimmy drenched my legs with urine. This undoubtedly proved that he had drunk since the demise of his milk supplier. Taking the amount of urine that flowed into consideration, he had drunk a fair amount recently. The only answer to this is that he taught himself to drink water from one of several pans that are in close proximity to the place we found him. Another astounding revelation pertaining to this determined fellow. Thankfully, once we reached Roger and Anne’s house, there were many hands to help us offload Jimmy into temporary, rhino-proof lodgings. I was totally exhausted by that time. What an ordeal the capture of Jimmy had been! Imagine if he’d been two months old! We’d probably still be out there!
As soon as Roger Whittall saw who we had brought home, he took things in hand. It is always a sight to behold when Roger decides to take things in hand! Barking instructions at anyone and everyone that came within his line of sight, Roger soon had ‘operation Jimmy’ well underway. Obviously, the first and most important task was to get some food inside Jim, and several individuals were dispatched with orders to contact various rhino gurus countrywide, for information regarding rhino milk formula. In the meantime, we felt we should get something into him ASAP, and so we opted for straight cow’s milk. After a brief scuffle, Jim smelt the milk seeping from the strange teat and he latched on like a rhino possessed. It was apparent that it was not going to be a problem coaxing him to feed! Later in the day, a proven rhino formula was mailed to Humani and orders were sent out to purchase the necessary ingredients. It took a few days for those ingredients to arrive, and during that time we kept him on skimmed cow’s milk. Evidently, rhinoceros milk does not contain much fat. Jimmy did not seem to know this, however, and he greedily guzzled down each and every bottle of milk proffered him from day one, no matter whose udder it came from! He drank so much we thought we may be over-feeding him. But if we stopped feeding him, he became aggressive! From the word go, he drank eight litres of milk per day. This quantity has been on the increase ever since, and today, seven months after his arrival, he consumes three times that amount.
Jimmy went from strength to strength from, let’s say, day four of his stay at ‘Hotel Humani.’ Although he fed well during those four days, he was a tad disturbed. The reason for this was probably that Anne Whittall was away, and we decided to keep him in a confined little pen until her return. Not very hospitable, but we were nervous he’d make a getaway during the night if we didn’t keep him under lock and key. Upon Anne’s return a few days later, however, he was released into the garden and his stress level was lowered considerably. Everyone had strict instructions to keep all gates closed at all times, and Jimmy had the run of the garden. From that moment, his character began changing. Over the past few months, Jimmy has turned from an angry and aggressive little tyke into a relaxed, friendly individual. Before he did not trust most everyone and delivered many a knee popping head-butt, but now he enjoys the company of people a great deal. This may not be such a good thing – he will have to return to the wild one day.
Jimmy prefers women to men, and this is solely because of Anne, whom he understands very well to be his mother. This is not surprising as Anne bottle-feeds him five or six times a day. He also eats a couple of pounds of livestock cubes a day, and has begun browsing a fair amount in the garden. His introduction to browsing has been a gradual process, and at first he just picked at leaves, occasionally popping one in his mouth, maybe chewing it a little, before spitting it out. He seemed more curious about eating leaves than anything else. As though he knew he should be, but just couldn’t bring himself to do it. That is all in the past, however, and he now spends a healthy amount of time doing what a black rhino should be doing, and that is browsing. Although Jimmy is well on the way to making browse his full time diet, heaven help anyone who dares forget his feed time! Not yet anyway – Jimmy is probably just over eight months old now, and rhino calves stay with their mothers till about two years of age.
Jimmy is not allowed into the house but he doesn’t seem to know this. At times, he likes to come into the lounge and socialize. When he is feeling neglected, he squeaks his indignation and people jump around. We have what is supposed to be a rhino-proof steel gate blocking off the verandah entrance to the house, but Jimmy butts it over and enters anyway. Well, he used to butt it over. Not so long ago, he attempted the bulldozer angle once too often, and the heavy steel gate fell on top of him. Then he squealed in anger and wouldn’t let anyone near for about an hour. Anne treated his minor wounds with some antiseptic spray and he looked pretty hilarious with blue splotches on his back. I think it taught him a good lesson, for he now avoids that entrance to the house, preferring to make use of the many others.
Jimmy has quite a few friends these days – the dogs, two orphan cows and the orphan buffalo. He has also introduced himself to a family of warthogs that frequent the front lawn in the evenings. The smaller warthogs are terrified of him, but mommy hog is simply curious and once they almost touched snouts before uncertainty caused her to flee.
Anne often takes Jimmy walking, and I have accompanied a couple of those walks in recent times. I was warned in advance that rhino walks can be hazardous, and the only reason I put myself on the line was in the name of frontline journalism. What an experience those walks were! The whole thing, you see, is that these excursions have nothing to do with walking. Not rhino walking anyway. No, this is all about shuffle or gallop, no walking involved at all. Anne and the dogs walk ahead while Jimmy brings up the rear, shuffling along and losing ground as he goes. Suddenly he realizes he has been left behind and achieves zero to top gear in seconds. Rhino are extremely short-sighted and, pounding down the road after Anne, Jimmy seldom picks her out until he is really close. Narrow misses are often the order of the walk. Jimmy has up-ended Anne once before and she was not overly amused. It is actually fairly dangerous, and Anne now walks with a metal contraption that I’ll take the liberty of calling a brace-frame. Hopefully it will absorb most of the impact the next time Jimmy doesn’t slow down in time!
Late one night, a guest who was expected much earlier in the day arrived at Humani. Most had long since retired, but being a nocturnal sort of type, I was still awake. After a cup of coffee, I directed the exhausted guest to his bedroom, which is adjoined to the bathroom. Imagine what a shock the poor fellow received when he bumbled sleepily into the bathroom and found Jimmy bedded down for the night beside the bath! The alarmed guest backed through the bathroom door and out onto the verandah at pace, almost falling over backwards as he did. I was enjoying a late night cigarette on the verandah, and looked up surprised. Had he seen a snake or something, I wondered. Wide-eyed and white as a sheet, the poor fellow turned to me and began stammering, struggling to find words.
‘What is it?’ I prompted him.
‘Dave, there’s a…there’s a…a…a…a’
‘A what, come on spit it out?’ By now I was a little concerned and had flicked my cigarette away, readying myself for action. This is Humani, after all, and this guy could have encountered anything at all in the bathroom.
‘There’s a…a…a…r…r….rrrr’ He had got past a, and moved onto r, which was good progress. And then I suddenly got it. Jimmy had had a bit of an altercation with Anne earlier in the day, because he had objected to her re-arranging his straw bed behind the office. Obviously sulking, he had decided to boycott his bedroom for the bathroom! The disturbed guest was still trying to find the words.
‘There’s a..a…r..r..rhi..rhi…’ He was getting there but I decided to save him further agony at that point.
‘There’s a rhino in the bathroom?’ I asked
It came out with a rush as he nodded his head vigorously in the affirmative. ‘Yes, there’s a rhino in the bathroom, a rhino in the bathroom, a rhino…..’ Now that he had it, he didn’t want to stop.
I put a re-assuring hand on the guy’s shoulder. ‘Don’t stress, that’s Jimmy, come and meet him…’
Needless to say, that guest was not overly keen to introduce himself to young Jim.
When we found Jimmy, we estimated him to weigh between 50 and 60 kilograms. He is now over three times that weight – probably 200 or so kilograms. Although he is mostly a placid kind of guy, he is also super tough and possesses unbelievable strength for an animal his size and age. The strength in his shoulders and neck, specifically, is awesome. I would hate to see the fellow who is butted by him when he’s a mature rhino! I hope it’s not me but it probably will be! When Jimmy arrived at Roger and Anne’s house at the beginning of the year, he could fit under the tea table. Now, his back is inches higher than that table, and he collides with it on a regular basis, smashing cups, saucers etc. Though still a tiny stump, Jimmy’s horn is also growing at a rapid rate. I sometimes wish he wasn’t growing that controversial horn.
Although Jimmy clearly loves Anne more than any other, I like to think he has a soft spot for me. I also like to think that this is because he remembers that I am the one who found him. I have done very little of significance in my life, but finding Jimmy certainly tops the list. I spend a great deal of time with Jimmy when I’m on Humani, and I consider us friends. I just need to remind myself, every once in a while, that you can be beaten up by a friend!
Jimmy joined the Humani/Whittall fold as the result of a terrible tragedy, and none of us should ever forget the details of that tragedy. Conversely, because miracles do happen, Jimmy is not a statistic of the ongoing rhino war, rather he is a survivor. I do not consider young Jimmy Whittall to be a victim of one brutal rhino slaying in a dense mopani forest that flanks the Juru’s area of Humani. No, I consider him to be a shining ray of hope in the entire saga that is the Zimbabwe rhino tragedy. It is guys like Jimmy who inspire the rest of us to carry on fighting. It is guys like Jimmy who constantly remind us that, no matter how impossible victory may seem at times, this war is not yet over…..
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