Black Rhino: A rare encounter

Chad Cocking shares his unbelievably exciting experience of coming across a critically endangered black rhino in the Timbavati after 10 years of guiding. Here is his story, first hand.

“Holy $#&@, a black rhino!” were the words that quite involuntarily came out of my mouth when my eyes caught sight of what Glen, my tracker, was pointing out! Most likely not language I should have been using on a safari with guests, but in light of what I was suddenly looking at, I think I could be forgiven.

Part of the reason for my exclamation may have been that, up until that point, we had been having a rather quiet morning, with very few of the Big 5 having shown themselves. However, I think a much greater reason for the slip of the tongue was due to the fact that the last time I looked up and was surprised by one of these critically endangered rhinos whilst on game drive was almost ten years ago! Black rhino numbers have been on the decline for a couple of years now. Sadly this iconic species has had a precarious existence since poaching has increased. The last time I chatted to Timbavati management they suspected there were only around ten of these rare animals in this area.

However, we are part of the greater Kruger National Park which means these numbers can change daily - as can your luck! And today was my lucky day! The morning had not started off in a fashion that suggested it would end up being one of my most memorable drives ever, but then again they seldom do. Heading into an area of the reserve that is seldom traversed, we had already enjoyed some wildebeest, impala, zebra, steenbuck and mongooses, and were heading off towards a waterhole for a cup of coffee while allowing the animals some time to wake up. Suddenly Glen raised his hand and pointed out to the right. I hadn’t quite caught what he said, and in all honestly, thought he had mentioned “zebras”, so casually I glanced to my right to see for myself what his keen eyes had picked up. Then, in one of the most surprising moments of my guiding career, I saw the unmistakable shape of a black rhino running parallel to the road.

Quite unlike my last sighting in 2008, where it took me a few seconds to register exactly what I was looking at, this time it took mere nanoseconds for my mind to comprehend that this was no “ordinary” rhino, and at that very instant, I uttered the words that made my guests realise that this black rhino was not something we saw every day. I instinctively stopped the vehicle, cut the engine and then sat quietly as the rhino disappeared behind a small thicket just in front of us, fortunately it too had come to a halt and we could just see its ears turning like radar dishes to try and figure us out. Black rhinos are naturally curious, and after only a couple of minutes, it decided to come a little closer to inspect further. As the rhino appeared in a small clearing I was allowed my first ever opportunity to photograph this incredible species. Sadly after a couple of minutes it got spooked by the sound from the Land Rover and started wandering off into an area north-west of us. At this point I suggested to my two guests that we could try and make an approach on foot as we had far less chance of being detected than in a noisy vehicle.

They were very eager and so after a full briefing, we followed Glen through the bushes in the direction the black rhino had gone. It didn’t take Glen long to spot the rhino again, we followed his lead as he crouched down and started shuffling forward a little bit to get into a good position. Unfortunately the wind was not in our favour and so we had to move around so that we could rather be downwind from the animal. We eventually got into a position that saw us hunkering down and watching a black rhino out in the open from only about 40m away! The rhino stood with its ears poised and listening, but with the wind behind us and because we remaining dead quiet, it was oblivious to our presence. Unbelievably, we spent several minutes watching it before it turned around and walked off, leaving all four of us with massive smiles on our faces!

I often tell my guests that even after eleven years in the Timbavati, I still go out and encounter new experiences on most days, and that these open systems that we are part of are full of surprises. Despite saying that though, I never imagined that on that Tuesday, I would find and walk into one of the most endangered – and potentially dangerous - large mammal species in Africa. It was a morning drive that will stick with me forever, and upon returning to breakfast, I didn’t know whether I should have indulged in a glass of sparkling wine with my guests, or rather gone and washed my mouth with soap for having so blatantly cursed in front of them!

Luckily, it doesn’t take that much bubbly to wash down the soap, and in the end it was actually my reaction upon seeing the black rhino that became one of Hod and Amy’s highlights of their stay with us at Tanda Tula!

I just hope it is not another decade before I get to experience that level of excitement again.

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