Rhinos are, without a doubt, one of the most magnificent animal species on our planet today. Tragically, however, they are also one of the most endangered. Thanks to a widespread myth that their horns have medicinal qualities (despite being composed entirely of keratin: the same protein that forms human hair and nails), rampant poaching has driven many rhino subspecies to the brink of extinction. The Javan rhinoceros was declared extinct in 2011, while the Western Black rhinoceros suffered the same fate in 2013. The Sumatran and Black Rhino subspecies are currently classified as “critically endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Following the death of Nola – one of only four remaining Northern White Rhinos – last November, the outlook for this subspecies is also looking extremely bleak. An average of three rhinos are killed for their horns every single day.
Luckily, there are many dedicated groups out there who are working to save rhinos. Instagram user James Suter recently shone a spotlight on the commitment that is required to successfully rehabilitate orphaned rhinos by sharing a touching photograph to his page.
This picture, originally taken by Sacha Specker, shows a baby rhino being comforted by a human.
Many Green Monsters will be aware of the serious problems that can arise when humans pose for photographs with wild animals … and Suter addresses the issue head-on, saying, “I am not a huge fan of photographs of people ‘petting’ wildlife, for many reasons – as it really can send the wrong message especially for those far removed from the challenges faced in Africa when it comes to wildlife conservation.”
His words point to a very important fact: that animals should never be used as mere photograph props, with no regard for their safety and wellbeing. Tiger cubs, lion cubs, and other exotic animals are all too often used for this purpose by roadside zoos and other dubious captive facilities. The animals are usually torn from their mothers at a very young age and fed less than they should be, in order to keep them small and docile for as long as possible. Once the cubs have grown too large to pose in photographs anymore, they are cruelly cast aside or imprisoned in tiny cells that can never fulfil their developmental needs.
And it’s not just the big cats who suffer. On a number of occasions, clueless beach-goers have even dragged helpless wild marine animals out of the sea for the sole purpose of being photographed with them … and tragically, some of these animals have died from the shock of being torn away from their natural environment.
However, Specker’s photograph is not an example of an exploitative interaction between the calf and human. Instead, it serves an example of the dedicated care that rhino conservationists provide to the orphaned calves in their care. Suter explained, “Rhino calves not only crave companionship, physical affection, and assurance but they rely on it to survive. Anxiety and malnourishment can lead to a rhino calf dying – and this happens quickly if orphaned rhinos are left alone at such a young age. Therefore this comfort that Ringo receives from people is necessary, and it benefits him and is done in a safe and controlled environment, where there are experts (and) vets to look to for advice.”
Ringo, the calf in the picture, lives at the Ol Peteja Conservancy in Kenya. He is guarded by a rota of different people, to ensure that he does not become too attached to any one human, and will therefore be suitable for release back into the wild once he is old enough. His carers always bear his long-term wellbeing in mind and are confident that he will be able to thrive once he is released.
Suter’s thoughtful closing remark in the caption accompanying this beautiful image sums up exactly what lesson people should take from it: “I think it is always important to remain sensitive and informed when it comes to photographs of people ‘petting’ wild animals – questioning every time if the animal needs to be petted. Is it for their wellbeing, or for someone else’s gain? Will they suffer later from so much human interaction or will they thrive? Thanks Ol Pejeta for the work you are doing surrounding rhino conservation.”
Image Source: Sacha Specker/Instagram