Quick reminder that from next week I will be reducing my output to one post a week, on Thursdays, alternating between TWIL posts and more serious posts like this.
This is the story of a book that changed me life, and how it wasn’t enough.
The book that set me on my path
Back in 2007, I was feeling rudderless.
I had an Arts degree under my belt, but had (at that point) given up my dream of being a writer as impossible. I was working as a theatre tech (the stage kind, not the hospital kind) and enjoying it, but recoiling from the sheer level of networking and putting myself out there that would be required to make a living out of it. Theatre for me felt like an adventure, an intense, adrenaline-fuelled retreat from reality – not like something I could make a living out of.
I’d always liked wild places and wildlife – my mum instilled in me a passion for birds from an early age – but at that point the idea of working in conservation wasn’t even on my radar. I had an Arts degree, for goodness’ sake.
And then I read Douglas Adams’ Last Chance to See. Published in 1990, it was the account of Adams (better known for genius sci-fi comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and zoologist Mark Carwardine travelling around the world to try to catch a glimpse of a few of the world’s most endangered species. In the process, Adams told the stories of those species and of the people working to save them, sometimes at great personal cost or even risk of their lives.
I finished that book one evening, sitting up the fly tower at a university theatre and reading between cues. And then and there I decided that I wanted to be one of those people. Less than two years later, through study and a considerable dose of luck, I was a trainee park ranger.
The white rhino that isn’t white
One of the species visited by Adams and Carwardine was the northern white rhino, one of the two subspecies of white rhinoceros. Weighing in at anywhere up to 2,400kg, the white rhino is the third largest animal in Africa. Their name is a misnomer, as they are almost exactly the same shade of grey as the black rhino – in fact “white” here is a bastardisation of the Dutch word “wijde”, meaning wide, and referring to their wide, flat-lipped mouths.
Their mouth shape is an adaptation to their grazing lifestyle. Despite their size, bulk and two-foot-long horns, they are herbivores, and use their size and armaments only defensively. Douglas Adams described the sight of one cropping grass as “like watching a JCB excavator quietly getting on with a little weeding.”
Fashion, medicine, and rhino horns
The reason Adams and Carwardine went to see the northern white rhino in the late 80s is that, at that point, there were only twenty-two of them left in the wild, all residing in a single national park, Garamba, in what was then Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). All the northern white rhinos outside of that park had been killed by poachers to fuel the black-market trade in rhino horn.
At the time Adams was writing, the majority buyers of rhino horn were Yemeni who used them to make decorative dagger handles. These days, traditional Chinese medicine has once more won out as the top threat to rhinoceros survival, with a rising trend for its use in Vietnamese medicine coming in second. Black market rhino horn can sell for as much as US$50,000 a kilo.
The writer and the rhinoceros
Writing about his experience of approaching a three ton, heavily armed rhino, in full view but downwind, Adams described the rhino puzzling over what it was seeing and trying to catch the humans’ scent, like you or I might look around for the source of an odd smell.
Adams’ depiction of the world as experienced by this remarkable creature – a world of sight and smell transposed, where every scent was sharp and full of details, but visual information was so vague as to be almost meaningless – has always stuck with me. He made the rhinoceros seem at once alien and familiar. To paraphrase his words, you can’t understand the thought processes of a creature like that – but you can’t help but want to understand them.
Douglas Adams died in 2001, aged only 49 – gone far too soon. And now Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, is gone too.
End of the line
In the 1980s, when Adams was visiting the last of the wild rhinos, Sudan was already living in captivity, having been captured in the wild in the ’70s. Meanwhile, the population in Garamba continued to fall to poachers: in 2005 it was estimated at less than ten animals (the proposal described in this article to translocate five rhinos to a Kenyan wildlife sanctuary for their protection never eventuated), and today the northern white rhino is believed to be extinct in the wild, with no sightings or signs of the animals recorded since 2007.
He is survived by a daughter and grand-daughter, Najin and Fatu, but unless by some miracle another male is found living wild, Sudan’s death marks the end of the line for the species.
“If we kill something, it simply won’t be there any more”
Like the author who wrote about them, the northern white rhino is gone too soon, victim of a world where too many people still see wildlife as commodities rather than a diverse and amazing array of creatures who have as much right to life on this planet as we do.
Towards the end of Last Chance to See, Adams recounts the extinction of the dodo, clubbed to death by Dutch colonists not because they had a use for it (its meat was unpalatable), but simply for sport. “Up until that point,” he writes, “it hadn’t really clicked with man that an animal could just cease to exist. It was as if we hadn’t realised that if we kill something, it simply won’t be there any more. Ever. As a result of the extinction of the dodo we are sadder and wiser.”
Perhaps, though, not that much wiser.