The Last Living Dinosaurs

Published on the 31st of October, 2019

My mother once called black rhinos “the last living dinosaurs.”

It’s true; over the past 60 million years, they have braved ice ages, battled prehistoric predators, and biologically adapted for the modern world. It’s a shame, then, that their very existence now hangs in the balance just because people have decided that their horns have magical curative properties — when, in reality, it's made of a substance that is identical to a human fingernail.

If you have ever known a rhino, it is impossible not to become enchanted by them. Despite their formidable appearance, they’re quite affectionate creatures; they factor large into some of my fondest childhood memories, from Rufus slurping up her milk bottles to Hoshim happily flopping over for his beloved tummy rubs. We’ve been privileged to raise a number of orphaned black rhinos, and last month, our family got a bit bigger: Solio, a former orphan who we reintegrated into the black rhino populations of Nairobi National Park, gave birth to a wild-born son. Just a few weeks later, we rescued a pint-sized orphan from Tsavo West who we have called Apollo. So, it feels very apt to dedicate this Field Notes to the last living dinosaurs, the black rhino.

- Angela Sheldrick

The last living dinosaurs, the black rhino:

When Kenya’s National Parks were established back in the 1940s, the black rhino was chosen as their symbol. At the time, they were ubiquitous across the country, but the human demand for rhino horn changed all of that. Poaching has driven the species to the brink of extinction — estimates say there are just 5,000 black rhinos left in the wild, 800 of them in Kenya — and they are listed as “critically endangered” by the IUCN.

Black rhinos have always been a big part of the Trust’s Orphans’ Project, to say nothing of my own life. Over the years, we have raised some 16 orphaned black rhinos, and as such, I grew up alongside these spectacularly prehistoric creatures. While Maxwell, our resident blind rhino, will remain dependent on us for a lifetime, many others have been successfully reintegrated back into the wild — and just last month, we discovered that one of these orphans had given birth to her first wild-born baby! Solio’s mother was fatally injured by suspected poachers in 2010, and we brought her up at our Nursery and later assimilated her into the Nairobi National Park black rhino population. The fact that she was able to mate and start a family (we’re calling her little boy Sultan) shows just how successful her reintegration has been.

This final step of reintegration poses the great challenge when it comes to rehabilitating orphaned rhinos. While elephants are very difficult to raise, their reintegration is relatively straightforward given they are such social creatures by nature. Black rhinos are not nearly as challenging to raise if you understand their many idiosyncrasies, but they are a very territorial species and thus extremely complicated to reintegrate. We pioneered the process, one that involves three years of walking the little orphan around the communal dung piles (or middens) of the resident black rhino population. You see, a rhino’s dung acts as its calling card of sorts. Over time, the orphan’s signature dung makes it known to the wild rhinos, and eventually it is accepted as a rightful member of their community. We have to take this process one step at a time, because resident rhinos seek to eject or kill anyone they see as an intruder.

Nobody in the world had more experience raising black rhinos than Daphne. She and David successfully raised the first infant orphan black rhinos back in the 1950s, and she brought up many more over the following decades. I share the rehabilitation process of the black rhino in Daphne’s own words:

“Rhinos are, in essence, the last living dinosaurs having moved down the ages unchanged for 60 million years, those living today identical to those that lived all that time ago. Evolution has found no necessity to adjust the model in any way — therefore, in terms of nature, the species has attained perfection for its specific role within the environment. That role is an important one since rhinos consume plants and shrubs that are either poisonous or unpalatable to other herbivores and in this way keep the pastures in balance.

“The dung is an extremely important component within the life of living rhinos. It signifies their identity, the means by which they are introduced to the resident rhino community so that they eventually become known and accepted as a member of it. (Of course a baby born to a rhino mother in the wild has the protection of its mother until this has been achieved). Rhinos never defecate and urinate in the same place. These are separate functions. Dung is deposited in communal middens and urine is sprayed against nearby bushes and trees for resident rhinos to monitor hormone levels and determine gender, if male the rank and status and if female the oestrous cycle.

“Just as fascinating as are these ancient creatures, so are the insects that have evolved either alongside or within them; Rhinomusca and Lyperosia flies that breed in the rhino communal middens and the mysterious electric blue Gyrostigma that but for its scarlet nose stripe, mimics a wasp. This insect has no mouth parts, its soul mission being to find a living rhino within 5 days on which to lay its comma-sized eggs that hook into the striations of the skin. These hatch into tiny larvae similar to an inchworm which bury through the skin and somehow end up in the rhino’s stomach, subsisting on the stomach content and evolving into cicada-sized Bots until conditions are right for the exit in the dung to pupate in the ground, emerging as the Gyrostigma electric blue fly whose mission is to continue the cycle all over again.

“The widespread reputation of the black species is one of aggression, unpredictability, and even stupidity. Yet these wonderful animals are none of these. Instead, they are highly sophisticated creatures who, but for poor eyesight, have senses that are arguably unmatched within the animal kingdom. The sense of smell is extremely acute and is the means which governs their life, as is an impeccable memory of every object within their orbit, so that they can gallop round without colliding with anything, bearing in mind that rhinos belong to the family of horses and can run at some 35 miles per hour.

“Rhinos are among the easiest of all wild animals to tame. Scratch a rhino on its tummy and it will instantly collapse in a state of bliss — give it a tasty morsel and it will suck on it long after the morsel has disappeared, savoring the lingering taste for as long as possible.

“Many people view a rhino’s myopic vision as a handicap but this is not so, because they are using the sophistication of their other senses. The eyes are needed only in situations of close combat to size up an opponent. The aggressive reputation of black rhinos stems from the fact that a rhino’s means of defense is attack. Should the animal become startled it will charge, moving instinctively and at such times rhinos can be of course extremely dangerous.

“Since evolution has not removed the horn, it follows that they need it. Furthermore, rhinos are obsessive about their horns which are their main means of defense. Hours are spent shaping and sharpening it to the satisfaction of the owner — and should the rhino not be satisfied with the result, he or she will even deliberately knock it off so that it can grow anew and be shaped afresh. In fact, the horn is only keratin identical in substance to a human fingernail. It is indeed a tragedy that the mistaken belief of its magical curative properties has taken hold amongst far eastern peoples — something that has been proved scientifically to be untrue. Should those people take to biting their fingernails, they would be ingesting an identical substance and rhinos would not be as critically endangered as they are today, spared to walk the earth unchanged for a further 60 million years, just a nature intended.”

— Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick DBE

Every rhino life is precious, and we're working hard together with KWS to ensure that they have a future. Our Anti-Poaching and Aerial Teams conduct daily patrols to apprehend poachers, while our Mobile Veterinary Units have treated many a rhino patient. Two years ago, we partnered with the KWS to expand the Meru Rhino Sanctuary, a critical safe haven for black and white rhinos.

And, following the model Daphne perfected, we continue to rescue and rehabilitate orphans in need. Towards the end of September, a baby black rhino came into our care in Tsavo after his mother died of anthrax. Apollo, as we have named him, is just six months old. We have a long road to travel with him, raising him to adulthood and working through the painstaking process of ensuring that he is accepted into the wild communities in Tsavo East. Until then, he is very content with his new situation and, right in line with Daphne’s words, has accepted his interim family with an open heart. We feel extremely honored to be in a position to support Apollo through his milk-dependent years, and in time, help him return to his birthright: a life in the wild.

Angela Sheldrick produces Field Notes as a special monthly email, providing her personal insight into varying aspects of Kenya's wildlife and habitats, along with the work of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. To receive the email edition of Field Notes, which includes interviews with our staff, please choose the 'get our emails' option at the bottom of this page and subscribe to the International Newsletter.

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