I have made it a mission to learn something new everyday, and I guarantee that there is no better classroom than the back of a land rover bouncing through the African bush. Our teacher and safari guide Mike has an abundance of fun and freaky facts, every tree has a story and every drop of dung has a history.
Ten minutes after leaving Stanley Livingstone, we cruise up to a herd of zebra. They shoot us an inquisitive glance, and then resume their grazing, as if we are of no interest to them whatsoever. They have an air of arrogant elegance about them, and as we admire their glossy stripes, Mike explains that the design isn’t just a fashion trend. Zebra stripes act as a private air conditioning system, allowing them to stay blissfully cool in the heat of a Zimbabwean afternoon. While humans tend to bond over coffee and a Mugg and Bean muffin, these animals frequently indulge in one another’s faeces. This is a process known as Coprophagia, and is practised for several reasons. These faeces contain substantial amounts of semi-digested food, so basically its leftovers for lunch. Mothers are known to eat the faeces of their new born young during the earliest phase after birth to eliminate cues to potential predators. If ever your parents complain about how much they have sacrificed for you, this fact can be used in your defence.
Moments later, a chubby warthog comes waddling past our vehicle. Having grown up with these pesky characters demolishing our garden and putting my mum in a mood, I made a deliberate effort to not show too much interest in him, just out of principle. However, it proved extremely difficult to hold a grudge against a near round bush pig, who was struggling to balance due to the obvious lack of a tail. According to Mike, this wasn’t the only dismembered pig in the land. Warthogs live in burrows. Unfortunately for them, so do hyenas. Often, as warthogs back up into the homes, they are met by the sharp teeth of an unwanted guest, who not only evict them, but take a tail for their troubles. A decent 70% of the warthogs on this 6000 acre game reserve could tell you this tale (pun intended).
With a renewed love for these poor little bush pigs, we continue on our quest. The sun was setting, casting a warm golden glow over us. We could hear birds ruffling the leaves on the trees, and the air was filled with tranquillity…and smelled a little bit like pee. Aghast, I shot a glance at my family members, searching for the culprit. I wasn’t the only one to have noticed this acidic scent, but Mike looked overjoyed and excitedly asked if anyone could smell urine. With the “whoever smelt it dealt it” childhood chant in my mind, I averted my gaze and kept my mouth shut. Much to my relief, he informed us that rhino had recently been in the area.
Mike explained to us how rhino have a unique system of detecting the presence of other rhino. Male rhino ensure that after defecating they leave traces of urine and faeces on their back legs. As they stroll around, these little titbits drop off, allowing him to mark his territory. While humans stand around at bars, batting their eyelashes in skin gripping jeans, an increase of oestrogen in female rhino dung is all it takes to let the boys know to turn on the charm.
In fact, rhino urine is basically their Facebook page, and hosts an abundance of information. We like to smell wines to find out about their culture and flavour, and rhino like to smell each other’s urine for similar reasons.
When we finally saw five beautiful black rhino, I felt like I knew them already. They took a leisurely stroll around our vehicle, soaking up their attention of the five awestruck visitors. I felt overwhelmingly privileged to be in their presence when Mike explained how these were five of the remaining 1500 black rhino left in the world. They moved with such a quiet grace, so unthreatening, that it proved difficult to accept that there was such a high price on their heads. Feeling humbled by the experience, we said our goodbyes, and headed towards the dam for sundowners, pausing now and again to allow a herd of elephant or buffalo to cross the road.