A one-horned rhino slowly grazed past our jeep.
Head down. It seemed to be looking for something in the ground. Our driver had stopped the jeep for us to be able to take pictures. It was a beautiful morning with birds chirping loudly all around us. The rhino was around 20 to 30 feet away and walking parallel to the road. We hadn’t seen a rhino this close in the wild before. It had the unmistakable single horn bent upwards and positioned prominently on top of its nose.
At the end of the stretch was the gorgeous view of the vast Brahmaputra river. A long necked Great Egret with a black bill in contrast to its white plumage stood elegantly in the distance, ready to fly off at the slightest threat.
It was early January of 2019. We were at the Kaziranga National Park. The weather was very nice, although it could get chilly at night. We were on a 3 day jeep safari, including an elephant safari at 5am. The sun rises very early in this part of the world. By 5am it is actually quite bright. We had experienced an unforgettable elephant safari early in the morning the very first day of our arrival. Today we were on a jeep safari on the East side.
The Kaziranga Park is home to the world’s largest population of the Greater one-horned rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis). After dwindling for many years, due to the greed of poachers, the number of rhinos had finally started to go up steadily, thanks to the hard work of the conservationists.
Meanwhile the rhino we had seen closely, had now walked out of sight. Rhinos weigh more than 4000 pounds on average and graze around quite slowly. It would not have walked that far but we could not see it anymore as it was blocked by the foliage. We asked our driver to move slowly along the narrow uphill sloping road. We hadn’t even driven for a quarter of a mile when we saw the rhino again in plain sight. It seemed to have found what it was looking for.
It was standing next to a dung heap.
We learnt from the driver that a rhino comes back to the same place to defecate. The pile of dung serves as a “message station”. The smell is apparently unique and acts as an identifier. Rhinos can be communal but they are also territorial. Together with urine left along trails, dung piles can act as an invisible border. If it finds the poop of another animal, this could signal a rival, and it would seek to chase that animal out of its territory.
Fresh poop could mean the animal is near. Old poop would mean the animal is no longer around. This kind of basic communication may not be too different from the current social media habits of human beings. And I’m not just referring to the posts that stink. If everyone were to use social media as a communication tool, a recent post or a recent tweet would convey in addition the basic message that the subject was alive and kicking.
The rhino we were following had done its business and was on the move again. Just like the sun rises early, it sets early in Kaziranga. As the sun was setting, I spotted a Little Cormorant with its short neck and rectangular shaped head perched on a branch. We were heading towards the exit when we took a few more pictures of the rhino’s horn.
The horn was its pride. And also the cause for its vulnerability.
The horn of the rhino is referred to as the “horn of despair”. It is often more costly than gold, for its supposed medicinal value. Increasing demand leads to higher prices. Powdered rhino horn fetches a high price in the illegal trade. As demand rises it causes more of the shameful poaching activities.
The safari experience for us was more thrilling and more rewarding than visiting man made tourist attractions. But for this experience to continue we need to come together before it is too late and take action to save the endangered species from extinction.
Once the horn is hacked off by a poacher it leads to the slow agonizing and certain death of the animal.
The existential threat from humans is the worst message for rhinos.