The annual number of rhino poached in South Africa last year rose to 1,215, Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa told a media briefing in Pretoria two weeks ago. On average, over 100 rhinos were illegally killed each month. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said the figures showed a 21% increase in poaching from 2013, topping that year’s total by 195. Molewa added that so far this year 49 rhino had been killed countrywide.

Let’s slow down at this moment and go back in time… July is the coldest of winter months in the south of Africa. I was sitting in an open Land Cruiser, inhaling the fresh desert air that was getting cooler with each breath. Close to the Equator, the Sun was going down fast, towards the flat horizon of thorny acacias and dry grass.

In front of us, next to a waterhole was a small acacia with several Cape Glossy Starlings roosting in its crown for the night. A pair of screeching Blacksmith Lapwings was flying around as six Burchell’s Zebras were quenching their thirst, suspiciously observing surroundings every now and then. We haven’t seen the reason yet, but suddenly you could have palpated a tension in the air that made the zebras step away and even one female Ostrich stand up…

Then the Lord of the waterhole came, a young – although nine years old White Rhinoceros. The bull weighing almost two tones stopped at the edge of the clearing to sniff the air. The Sun was half-set behind the horizon, painting the grass golden-yellow and shining through the dust disturbed by the hoofs of now visibly nervous zebras.

H. offered me a glass of Campari liqueur and there we were, enveloped by the tranquility of a sunset in a thorny savanna observing a rhino lowering its massive head to the water. The sky was becoming orange-pink; its reflections were colouring the water, while the rhino raised its head, water sipping through his half-open snout, itself shining from the last sun rays of the day.

One Springbok gazelle came to drink, but kept a respectful distance staying by the smaller puddle. The sky was turning colours and the lower, dark-blue layer was clearly distinct from the higher yellowish one: the blue was the shadow of the Earth (the Sun has just set behind the horizon), while the higher one was still sunny…

Graph 1, data published by South African Department of Environmental Affairs (2015)Data published by South African Department of Environmental Affairs (2015)

Fast-forward to the present murky sky and the 1,215 rhino butchered last year. But that is not all, Save the Survivor – a non-governmental organisation taking on an increasing number of injured or orphaned rhino and giving them a second chance – says the actual rhino-poaching statistics for 2014 are 30% higher than the official tally and the number of rhino killed could be as many as 1,700!

The official statistics don’t include baby rhino that died after their mothers were poached, nor do they include rhino that died during botched poaching attempts when the poachers were unable to remove the horn. It also excludes cases where the horn has been removed, but the rhino survived the attack, Save the Survivor experts say.

WWF states that the “killing on this scale shows how rhino poaching is being increasingly undertaken by organised criminal syndicates,” and announces, “all eyes will now be on the next major conference on the illegal wildlife trade to be held in Botswana in March, where governments from around the world will take further steps to fight the trade and save the rhino.”

My eyes will be returning to the lonely acacia next to a waterhole, trying to spot a large shadow in the sunset. White Rhino lifespan is 40 to 50 years, but I am wondering if “my” rhino is still alive?

Cover photo: White Rhinoceros, Wikimedia Commons.

Written by Dragan
Dragan Simic is obsessively passionate about two things – birding and travelling in search of birds, and that has taken him from his native Balkans to the far shores of Europe and the Mediterranean, southern Africa, India and Latin America. His 10,000 Birds blog posts were Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards. Birder by passion and environmental scientist by education, he is an ecotourism consultant, a field researcher and a bird blogger who always thinks that birding must be better behind that next bend in the road, and that the best bird ever is – the next lifer. He tweets as @albicilla66