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Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards

A Glimpse of Grey

Black rhinos differ greatly in temperament; some are relatively placid, while others are highly strung and liable to charge at the sound of a snapping twig. This can make rhino tracking a rather tense affair. Some time ago, I was involved in a rhino reintroduction project for two years. One of my first experiences of tracking was also the most unnerving. And, frankly, humiliating.

Peekaboo! An alert Buntungwa. Photo: Jessica Groenendijk

I was accompanied at the time by two rhino monitoring officers: they had just spotted a female black rhino named Buntungwa, and one of the men had nimbly climbed a tree to get a better view of her. The second scout, Andrew, led me closer. We crept through the bushes until I, too, caught a glimpse of grey through a tangle of twigs and leaves. But, in order to assess her body condition and health, I needed to see her properly. Sensing my frustration, Andrew motioned that we would approach from another direction.

After gingerly negotiating a patch of thorny scrub, we stopped below a termite mound. Andrew peeked round it and invited me to take a look.

I immediately got that ‘oh-oh’ feeling. What I saw was a highly alert rhino. Buntungwa’s head was up and her ears swiveled. She was restless, aware that something was not quite as it should be. I tensed as she swung round to face us. Then she started trotting briskly in our direction. This was when I discovered that, in such situations, it's every scout – and woman - for themselves.

Andrew bolted, I instinctively followed him, and we crashed back through the thorns. We made so much noise, I couldn’t hear Buntungwa. Was she right behind me? My skin prickled. Any moment now her horn would connect with my backside. As I ran, the urge to check whether she was coming after us became unbearable. I threw a glance over my shoulder. To my vast relief, I saw her heading full tilt in the opposite direction, her tail in the air.

Andrew and I breathlessly gathered our wits, arms bloody and stinging from the thorns. Joseph descended from his vantage point. Having witnessed all, he couldn’t stop laughing. I gave him a withering look.

There was no chance we’d be able to approach Buntungwa again. Might as well go back to camp. As we retraced our steps, still smarting emotionally and physically, I gradually became aware of a rushing noise, accentuated with a rhythmic thud. I stopped and listened. The sound was unlike anything I’d heard before. It was getting louder. Andrew and Joseph stopped, too. We looked at each other, puzzled.

Judging by the expressions on the men’s faces, realization hit us simultaneously.

Buntungwa was coming back and she meant business. I pictured her solid body barreling through the undergrowth, feet pounding. No doubt about it: she had resolved to find out what, or who, had disturbed her.

Once again the scouts and I scattered, each searching desperately for a climbable tree. There weren’t many around. While I struggled, unsuccessfully, to heave myself into the measly branches of some kind of shrub, Buntungwa thundered triumphantly past me, just a few metres away. Moments later, there was nothing but the cry of a bird and the echoing thunder of my heart.

If anybody laughed this time, it was Buntungwa. Somehow, I felt even more foolish than if she’d cornered me, trapped up a tree, like an experienced monitoring scout. But I consoled myself with one thought as we walked home: the morning had not been wasted. Buntungwa was clearly in fine fettle.

Buntungwa photographed from a helicopter. Photo: Jessica Groenendijk

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