Next time you come across white rhinos grazing on a hill, stay and watch a bit. See if they don’t seem just a little subtle. To watch them lumber along, you’d never imagine how much human endeavor, fervor, bloodlust, and intrigue they inspire. They seem unaware that their Javan cousins are nearly extinct. They seem unimpressed by their multi-million-year heritage.

Rhinos are a keystone species; they shape the world around them. It means that once rhinos move onto a grassy plain, they inspire the whole habitat to reinvent itself.

My fascination with rhinos started simply enough: White rhinos, coming soon and a promo shot on Nashville Zoo’s website, where three heady behemoths stared me down like Pleistocene rappers.

Following Google Search down the rhino hole takes you to a world of criminal poaching syndicates, police, rangers, airport sniffer dogs, drought-starved villages, eco-tourists, luxury lodges, billionaire trophy hunters, conservationists, even PhD candidates living on a shoestring in the desert to collect rhino data – all before your search crosses the Atlantic to American zoos.

We lose rhinos to “human-animal conflict” wherever African land slated for human development was carved, willy-nilly, into wildlife corridors. That historic lack of insight pitted wildlife against local livelihoods, resulting in human hunger and dead rhinos. It didn’t have to be “us or them.” Current day conservation groups work against that notion to establish wildlife-related economies for the humans living near protected wildlife habitats.

Also causing carnage are illegal hunting and criminals feeding a black market hungry for rhino horn in China, Yemen, Vietnam. As with gold and other plunder before it, rhino horn’s value is mostly a function of the human imagination. Those African nations that take poaching seriously, tend to view wildlife as national treasure and its poaching as a kind of “last straw” of plunder.

In Botswana, which adopted a shoot-to-kill anti-poaching policy; in Kenya, where the Wildlife Service dogs airports, literally, with sniffer dogs – the poaching crisis has stabilized for the moment, at least according to Dr. Phillip Muruthi, chief scientist at African Wildlife Foundation. This decrease in poaching, however slight, is the hard-won success of steady conservation efforts.

South Africa is another story, an anti-poaching potpourri roiling in binary feuds – horn sales or no, humans or animals, hunting or banning, zoos or wild, us or them – it sounds sadly familiar.

And while purists argue, South African ranchers are busy raising rhinos for horn auctions (now legalized) – because horn is valuable and it grows like fingernails – which it chemically is, more or less – and can be “harvested” periodically like sheep’s wool, except with power saws instead of shears. (And except the point never grows back.)

I don’t know if it’s the uncanny prescience in their poor-sighted eyes, their chubby haunches, or the sight of a baby rhino pouncing into a mud pond, but there is something about rhinos…

It was rhino fascination that led me to seek out Dr. Muruthi. A steely rhino conservationist, Muruthi treks up and down rhino range from Nairobi to Cape Town making himself a magnet for solutions that benefit all three prongs of the resource equation – humans, habitat, wildlife. Most current-day conservationists favor sustainable models like this, prioritizing programs that raise all boats.

Dr. Muruthi’s brusque, informative manner announces, this is no rhino hugger; this is a pragmatist. Nor does he get snagged by binary disputes. He listens and sizes up quickly. Deft, subtle, he slips things in – ah, zoos, well yes, important for research, but of course we’d prefer it if wildlife could safely come home.

Phillip Muruthi reminds me how badly we need problem-solvers. We all share the same impending nightmares – population pressure, climate change, dwindling resources, creeping, incurable diseases. We won’t shake them by burying our heads or baring fang on each other with the displaced rage of riled up dogs.

Dr. Muruthi and fellow conservationists know sustainability is a big dream and holding off extinction is a constant state of emergency.

“In the long term,” Muruthi said to me, “I don’t think we will have sustainable development in Africa if we don’t conserve our species, our wildlife, and our wild lands.”

It’s stark realism, which he holds while he and AWF support a more positive vision – community-owned conservancies and eco-friendly lodges. Like most conservationists, he moves under the crossfire of competing interests – competing governments, NGOs, agencies.

Conservationists excel at holding steady, trying things, insisting on win-win solutions. They move like rhinos, slow, slyly aware, intensely focused on the ripe grass underfoot. Gradually, they shape the habitat in which they move.

In a chat with Dr. Muruthi, you almost see his future Africa, the thriving eco-tourist destination lush with human, wildlife, and habitat wonders. It gives me hope for rhinos.

Conservationists have become my inspirational lighthouse.

Back at the zoo, I’m like a fan girl, lingering way longer at the rhino exhibit than most – so long a watchful docent approaches. It’s OK – I enjoy sharing rhino trivia:
As white rhinos, the girls are quite social, which is why we have four of them. They love to graze. They move like cows. Until they don’t. They can erupt without warning into a quick jaunt. And stop as suddenly.

In their new home, they will probably never hit their potential running speed: 30-35 mph. But they probably won’t be chased down by a Land Rover on the hunt, either.

At the zoo, the rhinos’ regulated, artificial habitat may oddly predict our best future in an overpopulated, under-resourced world. Maybe our keystone species call to us because they embody things we’re letting drift away.

The docent moves on, and I stay, mesmerized by rhinos. They play. They rest lying side by side, head to tail, bodies touching. They seem to know when humans are around. They’re discreet in moving away, slowly, not looking up. But if you happen upon a rhino grazing near a viewing stand, it won’t be long before you’re looking at her behind.


  • Marianne Messina

    Editor and Journalist

    Editor and journalist Marianne Messina spent 10 years covering performing arts for Metro Silicon Valley, CA. At the same time, as a marketer, she developed and managed four online magazines for a matchmaking website, created a web community and magazine for the arts, and led the rebranding and migration of a college website. She currently covers wildlife and conservation issues, most often for Mongabay, and writes  "recreational" opinion pieces on impulse.