Although I've always loved and respected all animals, the first time I was emotionally affected by a rhino, was when I met Phila, the poster-child for rhino survivors everywhere. Phila is a Black Rhino who had been shot nine times in two different poaching attempts. I met her while she was still at her temporary home at the Johannesburg Zoo, when I brought some special food for her (Karee tree branches). Despite the brave girl's horrendous injuries and poor health, she still trusted us vile humans, and came running up to me when I called her name. I hand-fed her, and through my own tears, I could see the ancient pain and loss in her sad, dark eyes. A child's balloon popped, and Phila bolted to go and cower in her sleeping enclosure.
I cannot call Phila a survivor in the true sense of the word, because to me survival needs an element of a fighting spirit. And that flame was gone from her wise old eyes.
Her caregiver at the zoo, a girl named Alice, still misses her every day, and often tweets about her.
Phila is as happy as possible now, at a very special, highly guarded, secret sanctuary - where other severely traumatized rhino quietly share their tragic tales of horror with her in a calm, defeated way of silent despair.
Phila awakened a part of my soul that had been asleep and I became more and more involved in the fight to save these amazing animals, in my own small way. I have learned so much from everyone in the know; most notably from my friend Wild Heart who tirelessly works to raise awareness through his beautiful page.
The DSC (Dallas Safari Club) win of the auctioned permit to hunt a critically endangered black rhino in Namibia prompted me to go public with my beliefs. I even challenged Corey Knowlton to hunt me instead, but never did get a reply. Death threats, yes, plenty.
Since Phila, I have been fortunate enough to get up close to our beloved heavies a couple of times. Although there are marked differences in hierarchy and social cohesion between Black and White Rhino, I feel that they both possess an ancient empathy with the human fools sharing their planet, in much the same way Elephants do.
In one of my favorite Game Reserves, I recently watched two rhino having a delightful spa day in a muddy puddle, covering their sensitive skins in a layer of DIY sun and insect protection – prompted by thousands of years of instinct. And yet they played, squealed and grunted like naughty little boys running wild. This taught me that they just want to be free and left alone to do rhino-things.
Later on, we came across a crash of four rhino literally only meters away, quietly grazing. There were three older ones with the most amazing horns ever and a younger one, a couple of years old, who still had some horn and height to grow into. All of their horns have been infused with toxins via the Rhino Rescue Project making it unfit for human consumption. They were not concerned with our vehicle at all. (At that stage ours was the only vehicle there). Their wide mouths (an easy way to tell species is that "wide" = "white rhino") were pressed flat against the ground to pick up every last morsel of juicy fodder, and they moved their magnificent heads from side to side in a graceful sweep, grazing all the while.
The feeling I experienced was peace, and deep eternal sadness. White rhino are massive, with a weight of up to 2300 kilogram. But I looked at their magnificent horns and at the ‘sweet spot' a "good" hunter would aim for, just behind the shoulder joint, and I realized that they are as fragile as a naked human being. Rhino have poor eyesight; they rely on their other senses to survive. They are babes in the woods against poachers. They have no defense against a bullet from a high-powered rifle, panga, axe or chainsaw.
A little while later, the four giants puzzle-pieced themselves into a little mud-hole just big enough for two. With a lot of pushing, shoving, grunting and snorted arguments they finally settled on a four-square configuration that seemed to please all of them. A picture from overhead would have revealed a perfect cube. We left the happy crash to enjoy their spa time in peace.
Those four docile, gentle giants knew exactly what we humans are capable of, but for a blissful few hours, they were just doing what they do best – being rhino. Should you be open to it, when they lift their heads and stare into your soul, you can glimpse the depths of their ancient knowledge and the true, pure spirit of gentle giants residing in the deep river-pebbled depths of their liquid eyes. They convey understanding, empathy, and deep sadness at the same time as complete incomprehension as to why anyone would want to hurt them; as well as a type of closed-off oblivion to the cruelty out there.
Back home, going through the photographs, I realized that from their flower-shaped feet to the pointed perfection of their majestic horns, they are even more fragile than any of us. These gentle creatures have only us to look to for protection. It is our sacred duty to do everything we can to ensure that our beautiful ancient grey heavies can survive and, dare we hope, prosper.