Image credit: CC BY-ND 2.0 (Steve Slater, 2013)

In prehistoric times, rhinos used to roam freely across Africa’s verdant savannahs and Asia’s tropical forests. Today, while these mega-herbivores — adults weigh more than 1.5 tonnes — still exist in the world, with populations tracked in parts of Africa, India, Nepal and Indonesia, their numbers have drastically dwindled primarily due to the threat from poachers; rhino horns are worth more than gold on black markets in China and Vietnam. Over in Africa, the rhino is the most endangered of the legendary Big Five (rhino, elephant, lion, leopard and buffalo) in the safari world.

Anti-poaching efforts, conservation measures and awareness campaigns about the plight of the species have been continuously raised, but rhinos are still being targeted by poachers, and sadly their future continues to hang by a thread.

According to Chris Roche, chief marketing officer at Wilderness Safaris, among the Big Five, the black rhino is the rhino species most vulnerable to extinction, with some 2,500 remaining on the whole African continent. There are also about 20,000 southern white rhinos left in Africa, where about 82% live in protected sanctuaries throughout the southern and eastern part of the continent. Roche points out that because of the unprecedented levels of poaching, both species face a real threat of extinction within less than a decade if nothing radical is done to change the current circumstances.

Given the grim predictions, it is not unusual to find diehard wildlife lovers travelling half the world just to admire these spectacular animals in their natural habitat, particularly if they value the complete Big Five experience.

But before intrepid travellers embark on a rhino adventure and get a taste of the African safari, here are some useful pointers to prepare for a responsible and rewarding trip.

Black Rhino

Contrary to their reputation, rhinos are not typically aggressive and attack only when feeling threatened. Image credit: CC BY-ND 2.0 (Michael Jansen, 2012)

Embark on a meaningful journey
Joining a reputable wildlife safari will allow travellers to fully immerse in a world of bountiful wildlife, distinct vegetation and unique landscapes. Whether you are an adventure junkie and you wish to get up-close with nature and wildlife or you want to indulge in awe-inspiring vistas from the comforts of your villa, a safari will provide something for every type of traveller — from experiencing classic game lodges to luxurious camps where you might wake up with the awe-inspiring view of inquisitive elephants drinking right from your swimming pool. But no matter how much these accommodations induce nostalgia of a long-forgotten era of colonial times, the real entertainment begins when you go out and about exploring unknown territories, where rhinos are wandering peacefully, enjoying another day on the bright-coloured African plains.

If you hop on game drives managed by responsible travel specialists, you will have the opportunity to sneak a peek behind the scenes of wildlife and witness first-hand the struggle faced by rangers, experts and conservationists who are directly involved in the rhino protection.

Roche from Wilderness Safaris recommends travellers to join a morning safari, when rhinos are active in the cool of the day, or seek them during the late afternoon or dusk, when the herbivores emerge from the thicker bush. It’s during these times of the day when you will have plenty of opportunities to admire the species in their own habitat — and while you may only get to catch a glimpse of the black rhino through the dense thickets, you could be watching the grazing white rhino for up to 30 minutes from a distance of 30 metres!

Such an experience will not only leave you with fantastic memories and a lifelong respect for the environment, but also a cherished affection for rhinos.

Crash of Rhinos

If rhinos disappear, certain plant communities will be altered and additional species will be implicitly threatened. Image credit: CC BY-ND 2.0 (Ryan Kilpatrick, 2015)

Respect rhinos
Rhinos are not the best looking or most exciting of African wildlife, so don’t judge them based on their outward appearance and way of life. Take time to understand the species, and you will discover plenty of interesting facts. For instance, the excretion of a rhino allows others to make out information such as the age and gender — very powerful waste indeed!

Additionally, while elephants are known as the ecosystem’s “engineers”, playing an important role in balancing the structure of an ecological community, rhinos too are known to improve the dynamics of the ecosystem. Rhinos are actually considered an “umbrella” species — if they disappear, certain plant communities will be altered and additional species will be implicitly threatened.

Les Carlisle, conservation group manager at andBeyond, shared that white rhinos feed on grass, often grazing it to a level prime for many other species including antelopes. Similarly, black rhinos have a diet consisting of leafy plants, branches and thorny wood bushes, which in turn help other species thrive in the forested areas.

Rhino in Africa

In Africa’s diverse environments, the presence of this prehistoric-looking large mammal can create some truly gripping imagery. Image credit: CC BY 2.0 (flowcomm, 2014)

Photograph rhinos responsibly
In modern African travel, safaris have truly transformed the way travellers perceive wildlife. Today, our only tools to “shoot” rhinos and the Big Five should be our digital cameras to capture images that can remain our very own trophies for posterity. Similar to elephants, the rhino’s proportions can give the photographer various composition options — from focusing on different details on their bodies to capturing them juxtaposed against a dramatic landscape.

Roche from Wilderness Safaris said that in order to capture beautiful photographs of rhinos, the crux is good light, which is best in the early morning and late afternoon for maybe an hour.

In some of Africa’s harsh environments, the presence of this prehistoric-looking large mammal can create some truly gripping imagery. However, whilst on a photographic safari, do keep in mind that your images should never include geotagging data, which indicates when and where the picture was taken, as this is one of the crucial information poachers scour social media images for to zoom in on their loot.

Rhino translocation

Rhino conservation remains one of the most urgent challenges in Africa. Image credit: andBeyond

Get involved
While safaris are the most popular way to sit back and relax when exploring Africa’s wildlife, travellers should also be mindful of their experience holistically and be aware that rhino conservation is one of the most urgent challenges on the continent. Travelling through the African bush to spot majestic wildlife is in itself the first step to understanding some of the struggles experts go through to save the endangered rhino. Today, various African travel companies are actively involved in conservation causes and some have united their efforts to help translocate rhinos from South Africa to Botswana.

Travellers interested in actively participating in rhino conservation can join volunteering programmes, become ambassadors for rhinos by fundraising or raising awareness through social media, care for an orphaned rhino or support rhino translocation programmes that move the animals from a high-risk area to an area where there is lower risk of poaching.

andBeyond’s Carlisle opined the easiest and best way to support rhino conservation is to travel to Africa to see these animals in the wild, as this signals to the communities that the ecosystems are truly valuable.