As I followed Bons my guide and the three rangers across the endless plain of rocks I replayed the rules in my head:
1. Be very quiet.
2. If something happens, do whatever the rangers tell me.
Seemed simple enough.
We began our search before sunrise, driving over two hours before we struck gold. Our subject was walking a quarter-mile ahead, sniffing his way through the low-lying vegetation. His name was Kangombe (pronounced Kan-Gome-bay), a 38-year-old black rhino the size of a suburban. The rangers identified him by a tell-tale rip in his right ear combined with a 3-inch split in his front horn.
In the wild, a rhino’s life expectancy is early forties, making Kangombe an old man but you’d never know it by looking at him. He was a bruiser, the Duane “The Rock” Johnson of rhinos, and despite his advanced years the dominant male in the territory.
We approached downwind on foot so as not to alert him. Rhinos have poor sight but exceptional hearing and smell, making it necessary for us to be stealthy. Like most animals, black rhinos have a natural fear of humans but they can be aggressive and despite their appearance, surprisingly fast and light on their feet. If Kangombe opted to charge, the rangers would distract him while Bons looked after my safety. No one carried a weapon.
I was on a morning game drive as an invited guest of Desert Rhino Camp in the Palmwag Concession along the Skeleton Coast of Namibia. Situated in the midst of the largest population of desert-adapted, free-roaming black rhino on the continent, the camp is dedicated to their survival and its efforts are the cornerstone of the camp’s appeal.
Wilderness Safaris, which owns and operates the camp, works closely on conservation efforts with Namibia’s Save the Rhino Trust (SRT). Together they offer guests the unique opportunity to join SRT rangers in vehicles and on foot as they track, monitor and assess the conditions of the black rhinos in the region. Poaching is currently the biggest killer of black rhino (any rhino actually) and as of 2014, there are only 5055 left in Africa. The Asian market, most predominantly China, spends thousands of dollars, nearly $65,000 for 1 kilogram [2.2lbs] of rhino horn. An astounding figure considering horns are just lumps of keratin. Buyers could save themselves a lot of time and money if they’d just eat their own hair.
We stopped on the crest of a small slope parallel to Kangombe’s path. He paused to mark his territory—a common practice for males among many species. Unceremoniously, he swept his tail to the side and squirted three large streams of urine behind him. “This is MY home!” his pee declares. Other male rhinos crossing that line would be tolerated if they submitted to his rule, but if they challenged him it could get ugly. According to the information collected by the rangers over the years, Kangombe’s territory is over 300 square miles. That’s a lot of land to pee on.
Slowly and silently we crept forward. Fifty yards from Kangombe the rangers motioned for us to stop. It was picture time. When I clicked the shutter Kangombe whirled around and faced us. We froze and waited. His ears twitched as if he were fine-tuning an antenna. We’d blown our cover but he didn’t appear stressed and the rangers nodded that I could continue shooting.
Side note: Since traveling to Africa, I’ve developed a habit of talking to the wildlife I photograph. I murmur little compliments like “Aren’t you handsome, “ or say what I think they’re thinking, like “Eww.. I don’t like this piece of grass” or “Why are those people staring at me?”
Unconsciously I began to whisper. Within a millisecond I felt a not-so-subtle finger stab my shoulder and the eyes of my companions burrowing a hole thru the back of my head. At the same time, Kangombe looked in our direction. Whoops. I guess following the rules was more difficult than I thought. I flushed with embarrassment.
Kangombe resumed his regularly scheduled activities.
Then it happened.
To my horror, my cargo pants began to chime. A singsong melody one might find in a music box—the kind with the little dancing ballerina. I and all three rangers reached toward my leg, all of our hands fumbling for the Velcro pocket on my thigh. I’d completely forgotten about an alarm I’d set on my iPhone days before.
I was so anxious to make it stop I became increasingly uncoordinated. I couldn’t get the phone out of my pants. I was mortified. Kangombe immediately stiffened and faced us, lifting his head to smell the air, his ears pointing sharply in our direction.
I could feel the rangers’ anxiety as they monitored our prehistoric-looking friend 50 yards away. Would this be a problem or just a silly moment we’d laugh about later?
To be clear, the biggest worry was that Kangombe would flee and my sighting would come to an end. That being said, black rhinos are known for being irritable and charging humans when they feel threatened, and it wouldn’t do for a guest to get hurt. It’s bad for business. Even if it is her own damn fault.
Thankfully, once I managed to turn off the alarm Kangombe relaxed and began chewing on the dainty piece of shrubbery that dangled from his mouth. I, however, was overwhelmingly embarrassed and for the next 45 minutes before heading back to camp, I cycled through a range of silent “I’m sorry” faces that were comical at best.
I told myself I couldn’t be the worst guest they’ve ever had. At least that’s what I hoped.