Semester at Sea: Cape Town

Ellen Mitchell/Sun Star Columnist
Nov. 4, 2013

A rhino munches on grass in Cape Town, South Africa. Ellen Mitchell/ Sun Star

A rhino munches on grass in Cape Town, South Africa. Ellen Mitchell/Sun Star

During our second day in Cape Town, I woke up early and went to the Fairy Glen Nature Reserve. Riding around in old army transport vehicles, we came within arms length of ostriches, springbok, water buffalo, wildebeest and zebra. We even got down off the car to get eye level with a pair of lionesses and their lion in an enclosure away from the other animals.

Rhino poaching is still a big problem in South Africa. Because rhino horn is worth more, in weight than gold or cocaine, poachers don’t let flimsy game-reserve fence stop them. The two rhinos kept in the Fairy Glen reserve outside of Cape Town are rare survivors of a poaching attack, and are kept separate from the more dangerous animals because their defense system–their horns–have been carved out of their heads by poachers in the night.

Rhino horn is supposed to have healing powers and be an aphrodisiac. However, their horns are made of keratin, the same as human hair or nails. Not many people have ever gotten aroused by chewing their nails.

The story on the reserve goes that three years ago, the two rhinos were living a peaceful existence on the reserve–one male and one female. The rangers were hopeful that the female might be pregnant, helping to bring her race back from extinction. One night, poachers cut the fence, tranquilized the rhinos with a powerful and poisonous drug and hacked off the rhino’s horns the way torturers might pull out your fingernail from its bed.

Poisoned and bloody, the rhinos were left to die in separate ditches, where a ranger would find them the next morning. They were still alive, but an antidote to the tranquilizing drug had to be rushed from the nearest human hospital, and it took weeks for the rangers to safely assume the rhinos would survive.  If the female was pregnant, she sure wasn’t anymore after all the trauma.

Today, they live peaceful lives. The forensic trail ended at an abandoned warehouse with some elephant ivory, but no rhino horn. The male had reconstructive surgery days before we came. The open wound was still there, covered with flies. The rhino charged the big car we were in, but stopped about a foot from the side, about as far away as he would have been if his horn had gone tearing through the metal side of the car. But there was no horn anymore, just a mourning grunt as he turned away.

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