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Circus Forces Rhino To Carry Performers Around On His Back

"It’s utterly baffling ... this activity simply should not happen."

People around the world are fighting to save rhinos from extinction — but in Russia, this one is being forced to perform in a circus.

A recent video, shot at the Russian State Circus, shows a performer with a whip commanding a rhino named Mafa to sit and lie down. Music plays as the man jumps onto Mafa’s back to ride him around the ring.

The man kneels, digging the heel of his boot into the animal’s back. Mafa’s face and legs are covered with white ornamental paint.

Since The Independent recently shared the footage online, thousands of animal advocates have spoken out against the act. Chris Draper, head of animal welfare and captivity for Born Free Foundation, says there’s a good reason why.

“If you take the very resource-intensive, time-consuming lengths people are going to to keep wild rhinos safe, and then contrast it to this ridiculous abuse of an animal of the same species … It’s utterly baffling,” he told The Dodo. “This activity simply should not happen.”

Footage from 2015 shows more glimpses into Mafa’s life, such as the small pen he lives in while he’s not performing, and his displays of nervousness in the ring.

One clip shows Mafa quickly backing away and trying to run from a trainer in the ring who is wielding a whip.

“The handler uses a whip in the ring, which I’m sure they claim doesn’t hurt the animal,” Draper said. “But if not, why use it? If you have something that is potentially adverse touching the animal, you’re relying on that negative reaction in order to be in control.”

While it’s known that Mafa came from South Africa, it’s unclear whether he was born at a game farm or captured from the wild. Regardless, his need for space to roam and graze is surely not met by the circus, Draper said.

“The problem with circuses is that they travel,” Draper said. “Even with the best will in the world, they’re unable to offer adequate care for animals. They pack up and move every week or so, and in order to securely contain a rhino, they’d need to keep him in a small movable enclosure. This is nowhere near what a rhino needs to have the opportunity to graze, escape noise from people and from other animals. It’s a completely inappropriate environment.”

Mafa is a southern white rhino native to South Africa, which is a close cousin of the critically endangered northern white rhino. The latter species lost its final surviving male, Sudan, in March.

white rhino endangered
Sudan, the last ever northern white rhino, who passed away earlier this year | Frank AF Petersens

Since an online petition began last week, over 17,000 people have called on Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., to help shut down the circus act and retire Mafa to a sanctuary.

The growing opposition is a welcomed sign for Draper, who has seen a shift recently in people’s views on using live animals in circuses.

“I think it’s good people have found this so shocking,” Draper said. “What we need to do is turn that outrage into change and ensure this activity is banned not just in a handful of countries, but in every right-thinking country across the world.”

To show your support for Mafa, you can sign this online petition.