We’ve been so lucky so far. We saw four white rhinos the very first game drive, a circus of elephants (the technical term for a group) in the evening the next day, and a cheetah in the next morning. We’ve also been lucky with the people, who have taught us a great deal about poaching, animal behavior, and the birds and the bees. We have worked with three rangers so far, two of whom are called JP (no relation, except a jocular tendency and an unwillingness to wear full pants, even in 40 degree weather) and Trevor.
The first JP is head ranger at the reserve, so we call him JP “Senior”. He is extremely knowledgeable, as should be the case, and has managed to explain the significance of rhinoceros’ as a quasi-keystone species quite succinctly. By keystone species, of course, I mean to say that their influence on the ecosystem is qualitatively greater than one would think depending on the mere number of individuals – they are the central stone that holds the arch together.
And it all comes down to poo.
Rhinos eat about their own weight in grasses or leaves every day, and pass out half that mass. Considering a fully-grown rhino may reach 3.3 tons, that makes for a lot of feces, which in turn makes for a relatively vast and cheap housing market (shall we say) for the dung beetles which depend on it. Many of these beetles, despite their best efforts, are in turn the food for the numerous birds and insectivores that inhabit the mountains and plains of southern Africa. I suppose you could say that the rhino significance is more quantifiable on a microbial level, but that in no way diminishes it.
In addition to this important ecosytemic role, we have learned more about rhinos, and poop in general. White rhinos are grazers and black rhinos are browsers, which is great because we can track the two based on the content of their droppings – grasses and leaves, respectively. Male scat (a technical term) is especially distinguishable because it is split open to spread the scent and reinforce territorial claims in a fiercely competitive world.
This competition, which is in fact interspecies, has lots of explanations, but one of my favorites so far is a folk tale that Trevor told us. It goes that the reason rhinos crap so much is that it is the only arena they can actually compete in with elephants, since elephants are bigger, stronger, and “smarter”. So basically, power to the poop.
So far, my favorite folk tale about feces has to do with hippos. As Trevor tells the story, one day, god created the hippo, and the hippo was sent out of the water and into the world. But the hippo’s skin was too sensitive in the sun, so he asked god, “Please, let me come home, it is too hot and my skin hurts!” So god said, “OK, you can come home to heaven, and you can live in the water. But you must not eat the fish.” And for this reason, the hippo only eats greens, in water or on land, and that is also why the hippo spreads around its dung, to show god that there are no fish bones inside. THE END.
– Clara Bowe