“…once you break through into the rhinoceros’s idiom, discover what a rhinoceros mother would find beautiful in a rhinoceros son, the impression animal beauty makes on you is blinding.” –Laurens van der Post, “A Walk with a White Bushman,” 1986
PUBLISHED: THE HILL: Changing America by Cyril Christo, Opinion Contributor May 5, 2020
The massive animals are “living boulders of a faraway time.”
Twilight in the Namibian desert, the oldest on earth, overtakes the African night like a gigantic cloak born from the beginning of time. One is transported back 55 million years. One evening we were gifted with the sight of a dozen white rhinos, the second largest terrestrial animal, running past our car, like massive warriors rushing across one of the most isolated and rapturous wildernesses in the world. The sight was hallucinatory, a pageant born from an era when rhinos ruled the world. A few minutes later the vision was matched by two males sauntering off into the distance, jousting horn to horn under the red lights of our car like two prehistoric knights kicking up dust in an antediluvian spectacle fit only for giants.
When Marco Polo visited what is now Sumatra seven centuries ago, he mentioned elephants and what he thought was a unicorn. This creature had the “feet of an elephant, the head of wild boar, and hair like a buffalo.”
He underscored that it was a “very ugly beast to look at.” This species, the now very rare Sumatran rhino, number only about eighty. The Javan rhino is at less than 70 and the Indian at about 3,500. It was indeed very different from the small, mythic unicorn that was caught in the lap of the virgin back in the imagination of Medieval European civilization. It was in South-east Asia 4,000 years ago that the image of the unicorn was born. It is because of Southeast Asia’s fixation on the rhino horn, and its apocryphal medicinal properties of curing hangovers and cancer, that has led to an outright massacre of the world’s rhino populations in Africa and Asia in recent years.
Myths about behemoths, which referred to numerous large species including the rhino, go back to the Bible. Western tradition and tales abound about the unicorn’s strength and unwillingness to be tamed. In the old days proof of the unicorn’s existence was verification of the Bible’s accuracy. In 1836 a Mr. Campbell brought a horn attached to a skull from South Africa, what he called the “Unicorns of ancients, and the same which is described in the 39th chapter of the book of Job.” Exhibited at the Museum of the Missionary Society, the legend of the unicorn spread rapidly throughout the English speaking world.
To 19th century scientists such as Swiss American Louis Agassiz, the rhino was a living cipher from prehistory and embodied a savageness and primitiveness that would, he surmised, doom it to extinction. Even Theodore Roosevelt himself fostered the perception that the rhino was an anachronism and unfit, maybe even unworthy of surviving in the modern world. Roosevelt’s son Kermit wrote, “Look at him standing there in the middle of the African plain, deep in prehistoric thought.” Theodore himself wrote, “Indeed the rhinoceros does seem like a survival from the older world that has vanished; he was in place in the Pliocene; he would not have been out of place in the Miocene; but nowadays he can only exist at all in regions that have lagged behind, while the rest of the world, for good or evil, has gone forward.”
In its dry, rapturous, often near mystical sweeping landscapes, the desert in Namibia offers a spellbinding horizon for some of the most isolated rhino sightings on the planet. We tracked white rhinos among granite boulders and red sand dunes where one can still imagine Paraceratherium, the hornless distant cousin of the rhino from 30 million years ago. At 16 feet tall and 20 tons it was the largest land mammal ever to walk the earth. We searched for rhino tracks for hours until we finally found a mother with her calf alongside a euphorbia bush several hundred meters away. The power, calm, and utter stillness of the mother guarding her calf was a vision carved out of prehistory and here rhinos were at peace with the world.
Photo credit ©Cyril Christo & Marie Wilkinson