© Frank Pope – black rhino, the unexpected social butterflies of the desert
My first job in conservation was with Blythe Loutit in Namibia, who founded Save the Rhino Trust. I was based with her in Khorixas, a small town in the hinterland of the Skeleton Coast, running a crafts for conservation project for the local communities. It became a crash course in desert living as well as a thorough introduction to the biology of desert-adapted black rhino, and certainly one of the most formative periods of my life. Blythe’s enthusiasm was infectious and she knew the desert inside out. One day she let me in to an extraordinary secret about rhino – something that she and her husband had discovered by chance. Then, very sadly, Blythe died in 2005. In her memory I decided to make a film that would record what she had witnessed. I had no idea that it would turn into a four year obsession! Blythe was the finest eco-warrior I’ve ever met, and I can only hope that I had her blessing.
Black rhino are solitary animals with an aggressive reputation. But what Blythe had witnessed challenged all of my preconceived notions about them. The key to unlocking her secret was to observe rhino at night, so we used a special low-tech “starlight” camera which amplifies moonlight yet allows one to be a fly on the wall. The camera has tremendous depth of field and brings a beautiful silken quality to the images rather like a Chinese painting. Buoyed up by the talents of my wonderful crew we set off to find a hidden location where Blythe had seen black rhino gathering at night to socialise. Our dream was to film this private rhino world for the first time and learn more about them.
Despite their size finding rhino in the desert is much harder than expected, and without the help of Simson Uri-Khob and the team at Save the Rhino Trust we would have failed. He took my crew under his wing and walked our legs off to find rhino! It’s thanks to him, Bernd Brell and the SRT trackers that we found any rhino at all. Desert adapted black rhino travel great distances in search of food and water – more than any other rhino in Africa – and when you do eventually catch up with them you’ve got to be on your toes as they have a rather ferocious tendency to charge.
There’s something incongruous about a beast as big as a rhino surviving in one of the most inhospitable places on earth, but due to the the low rainfall and unique geology of Namibia, desert plants are super-charged with minerals, so desert-adapted black rhino tend to be some of the fattest rhino in the world. This iconic rhino picture below was taken by my friend and colleague Mike Hearn, Blythe’s deputy director until his accidental death six months before hers in 2005. They’re some of the best pictures of desert rhino ever taken, and my film is dedicated with great love to the memory of both Mike and Blythe.
I often wished for Blythe’s guidance during my quest and missed her wisdom sorely, but when we finally found her secret spring and filmed the rhino interacting it felt like we’d discovered a completely different world. Under the cover of darkness black rhino shed their solitary skins to become the social butterflies of the desert. Completely in their element, with senses on full alert, rhino come alive in the darkness. I must admit to there being a few hairy moments as we were working on foot – the first when I was approached by exceedingly curious rhino, and later when a pride of lions commandeered the water hole. The lions slunk off to hunt zebra at the edge of the clearing, but they kept us on our toes all night. It was one of the most extraordinary full moon experiences of my life and as dawn broke I realised I’d learnt one more lesson from Blythe – to peer into this world, learn from it, but then leave it alone so it has a chance to survive. Under the cover of darkness we saw rhino in a completely different light.
An Animal Planet Special on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Rhino Nights
Known as, Saba and the Rhino’s Secret, in the International version.