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Rhinos on the run

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
Rhinos on the run Hendri Venter/Remembering Rhinos
19 Feb
With their horns still much-prized by poachers, will the revered African safari bucket list of photographing the ‘Big 5’ of elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo and rhino roaming wild and free soon be a thing of the past?

In the past ten years, more than 7,000 rhinos have been poached for their horns in South Africa alone. With around three quarters of the entire population of wild rhinos on the African continent, the release of South Africa’s official figures each year is regarded as the greatest measure of the poaching crisis that is threatening this iconic species globally.

According to official figures released by South Africa’s Department for Environmental Affairs, 1,054 rhinos were killed by poachers in 2016 (the last year for which final figures are available), down slightly from 2014’s peak of 1,215.

Based on the most recent government figures available, it is estimated that 2017 will mark the fifth year in succession that more than a thousand rhinos have died in South Africa, butchered mercilessly for their horn.

Driving this deadly trade is the mistaken belief in Asian countries, most notably Vietnam, Laos and China, that rhino horn is an aphrodisiac, health tonic, even a cure for cancer. Of course, such claims have no scientific basis – rhino horn is made of keratin, the same substance as our fingernails. Nevertheless, with a value reputedly worth its weight in gold, rhino horn is now seen as a status symbol, an investment, with its value increasing as the rhino population dwindles.

In fact, so great is the money to be made, that criminals in recent years have even targeted museum pieces and captive animals. Last year, two infant rhinos died after having their small horns hacked off in a vicious attack on the Thula Thula Rhino orphanage in South Africa. Soon after, a white rhino was killed for its horn during a night-time raid on a zoo near Paris. These are the lengths to which criminals will go to sustain the demand for one of the most prized commodities of the illegal wildlife trade.

 White Rhino Silhouettes by Shannon Wild(Image: Shannon Wild/Remembering Rhinos)


The uncertain future faced by the white and black rhinos of southern and eastern Africa has seen many anti-poaching initiatives deployed to protect them across their range. These include tracking collars and microchip horn implants, specially trained dogs to track and apprehend poachers, as well as anti-poaching patrols from the air, even on horseback.

Other more drastic measures include relocating white rhinos from their South African strongholds to neighbouring Botswana, and even Kenya and Uganda, two countries previously outside of the white rhino’s historic range. Some conservationists and reserve managers advocate dehorning as a deterrent, but even this has proven futile as some poachers will still kill their prey in order to not have their time wasted again by following the tracks of a dehorned rhino.

The idea of marketing African countries as tourist destinations without some of their iconic wildlife is not one many wish to contemplate. However, the increased focus on the plight of rhinos and elephants has created a greater sense of urgency amongst tourists wishing to see and photograph the animals before it is too late. Safaris and other wildlife-watching related tourism continues to grow across the continent, and new opportunities to combine conservation experiences with the tourism sector have emerged. For example, one game park in Zimbabwe now offers horseback safaris that combine with anti-poaching patrols to protect a breeding herd of black rhinos.

(Image: Margot Raggett/Remembering Rhinos)(Image: Margot Raggett/Remembering Rhinos)


South Africa has the biggest population of rhinos – both black and white – in the world, which makes it a major location for safaris. Kruger National Park, on the border of Mozambique, and Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park in Kwazulu-Natal, have by far the biggest concentrations of rhinos to be found anywhere on the continent and sightings are common.

However, this also means these parks are the major focus for poachers, many of whom cross at night into Kruger from Mozambique, particularly when it’s a full moon. Kruger is vast, the size of Wales, so poachers can easily avoid detection. Therefore, the relocation of rhinos from this and other South African strongholds to neighbouring Botswana, or north to Uganda and Kenya, is intended to spread populations and boost their chances of survival.

These relocations also have a positive economic impact for the new host countries, as a rhino is a star attraction. For example, Uganda’s rhino population was all but wiped out by the end of the 20th century, but their renewed presence within Murchison Falls National Park and the popular Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary is helping to put Uganda back on the African safari map. Walking safaris are proving especially popular at Ziwa, where a breeding population of approximately 20 white rhinos can be found.

Kenya has always been renowned as a wildlife hot spot, and it is one of the few countries where both black and white rhinos can be seen. The black rhino is critically endangered, numbering barely more than 5,000 across its entire African range, compared to nearly 20,000 white rhinos. Like elephants, they are sociable, family-orientated animals, but live in much smaller herds. Black rhinos tend to be more solitary and shy, preferring to frequent bushy scrub and forest, making them harder to spot than the slightly larger and heavier white rhinos.

Outside of Africa, the greater one-horned rhinoceros of India and Nepal is a magnificent sub-species, with striking folds of skin on its body that resemble armour plates. Only around 3,500 remain in the wild, mostly in Kaziranga National Park in Assam, northeast India. Although the tall grasses and floodplains are not easy to get around – this is prime tiger habitat too – the chance of sightings are rated as good.

(Image: Tom Way/Remembering Rhinos)(Image: Tom Way/Remembering Rhinos)


After elephants, rhinos are the biggest land animal found on Earth. Both species, along with the hippopotamus, are categorised as pachyderms, the term used to describe very large land mammals with a thick skin.

Rhinos share much of their range with elephants, although they are not as widespread. They have poor eyesight but a keen sense of smell and acute hearing. That said, with an experienced guide, they can be approached on foot and observed from a safe distance downwind. Rhinos are grazing herbivores and use their horns to dig out roots and bulbs, so they need to be photographed at ground level to get the best sense of their size and proportions in relation to their surroundings.

Even from a safe distance, a telephoto zoom of around 100 to 400mm focal length range is a likely first choice of lens when encountering a rhino for the first time. As with elephants, zoom in close for portraits, focusing on the eyes, but being careful to ensure the horns (both white and black rhinos grow two horns) are wholly within the frame.

While the animal’s grey hide is the perfect neutral tone for making an accurate exposure reading, the high contrast resulting from the bright African sun and deep shadows can be a challenge. On a clear, cloud-free day, direct sun on the subject can result in both bright highlights and deep shadows within the same frame. This is more of an issue if photographing rhinos with a wider focal length, in order to show the animal in its entirety within its habitat.

(Image: Gurcharan Roopra/Remembering Rhinos)(Image: Gurcharan Roopra/Remembering Rhinos)


Safari game drives usually take place first thing in the morning at sunrise or during the last hour or two of the day as these are the times when wildlife is most active. These are also the times of day when the sun is at its lowest, so the light is more diffused (more so if there is cloud on the horizon) and warmest, with red and orange colour casts. Aesthetically speaking, these conditions provide the most appealing lighting for all wildlife. In the case of a rhino, the warm light of late afternoon can enhance the red soil from a recent dust bath, concealing the otherwise dull grey hide.

Rightly, rhinos belong on Africa’s ‘Big 5’ photo subjects, but they are rarely the most popular on the list. They may not have the obvious beauty, stealthy movement and hypnotic gaze of the predatory big cats, nor the distinctive and massive features of an elephant’s ears, legs, trunk and tusks, but many agree that the rhino is the most prehistoric-looking of these iconic animals, like a creature belonging to the era of the dinosaurs. It is the large head and scythe-like shape of the horns rising from the snout that fascinate biologist and photographer alike.

Rhino portraits offer many compositional possibilities: the profile is the most obvious, particularly for showing the size of the horn in relation to the head. Face-on studies are more of a challenge, as both the horn at the front of the animal’s snout and the eyes further back in the head need to be in focus. This requires an exposure setting that will maximise depth of field, so a stopped down aperture of f/11 or f/16, and a high enough ISO rating to ensure a fast shutter speed to freeze any movement in the animal or camera.

Timing is critical here, because when observing a rhino face-on, it will probably be spending most of its time, head down, eating. That moment when it raises its head to listen, or to look in your direction, is the time to focus and fire the shutter. Rhinos may not be the prettiest of subjects, but they are certainly one of the most distinctive, and encounters are never dull.

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• Choose the lens you are most likely to use. Rhino habitat is dry and dusty, more so in the dry season, so you want to keep lens changes to a minimum. Therefore make your first choice of lens your last and choose a zoom that covers most of your focal length options, such as a 100-400mm.

• Meter off the animal’s hide. The wrinkled grey hide of a rhino is a perfect neutral tone for making a meter reading, so lock this exposure setting into your camera, or just shoot manually with this setting and then focus and compose to complete the picture.

• Focus on the eyes. Not as easy as it sounds because the eyes are a tiny part of the rhino’s features and set well back from the horns, their most prominent feature. Easier to do when doing a profile shot, but when face-on you need to wait till they are looking up in your direction.

• Forget the lens hood. With game drives first thing in the morning and in late afternoon, the sun is low in the sky and more likely to cause lens flare if your subject is between you and the sun. Lens hoods help reduce the amount of flare when shooting towards the sun.

• Make too much noise. Rhinos may have poor eyesight, but they make up for that with very good hearing and a keen sense of smell, so approach them from downwind, tread carefully and only speak when your guide says so – quietly.

• Pack up too soon. Wildlife photography is about patience and being ready for the unexpected. Rhinos may be lumbering and slow moving, but they are known to charge – competition from other animals at an evening water hole may provoke them into action. Also, look out for the chance of a silhouette against a red sky of sunset.

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