Two Unlikely Friends Caught In Sweetest Embrace In The Wild

“It was something I’d never seen before” ❤️️

Zaheer Ali was on a drive around the South African bush when he came across a lone rhino chomping down on some grass. 

Perched on the rhino’s head was a little oxpecker, and though Ali had his camera ready, he didn’t notice anything particularly photo-worthy. But in just a few minutes, that would all change.

Bird snuggles rhino's horn
Zali Photography

The red-billed bird is often spotted hitchhiking on the backs and heads of black rhinos. The birds feed on ticks and fly larvae on the rhino’s tough skin, ridding the large animal of unwanted parasites. The rhinos provide the birds with a safe place to live and plenty of food — but their connection is even deeper.

The Swahili name for the red-billed oxpecker is "Askari wa kifaru," which translates to “the rhino’s guard.” A recent study discovered that though the birds are just 8 inches long, they help to keep their large friends safe.

Symbiotic relationship between rhino and oxpecker Pusey

Scientists reported in Current Biology that the oxpeckers make up for rhinos’ poor eyesight by alerting them to danger. Scientists found that when oxpeckers detect humans approaching, they make a sharp warning call or hiss, and the rhinos know to become more vigilant. 

This helps the critically endangered species avoid poachers, who hunt the animals for their horn which are used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Oxpecker shouting a warning call Hulshof

But Ali noticed something else when he looked at the oxpecker and rhino pair that day. “I watched as this tiny bird sharpened his beak on the horn of the rhino and it was something I’d never seen before,” Ali said in a Zali Safari blog post. “I picked up my camera and waited for the right moment and took the shot as the bird lay on the horn of the rhino.”

Zali Photography

The bird appeared to be leaning in to snuggle the rhino, both animals completely relaxed and happy in each other's presence. By chance, Ali had captured an image perfectly symbolizing the symbiotic relationship that the two unlikely friends share.

To learn about Zali Safari’s eco-conscious safaris you can find out more here, and for more wildlife photos, you can follow Ali on Instagram.