The Rhino Is Back! And an Angry Elephant Chases a Hyena

Peter Turchin


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I have traveled extensively in southern Africa over the past 25 years—South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, and now Namibia. But in all my previous trips I was lucky to see a black rhino only once (in South Africa’s Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park). The problem, of course, is that by 1995 the world-wide population of the black rhino had collapsed to less than 2,500. From that low point, the species made a tremendous comeback, more than doubling in numbers. And Namibia is probably the best country to reliably see rhinos (both black and white). On a night drive in the Etosha Pan Park a week ago I saw seven rhinos within a span of one hour: first, two black rhinos at a waterhole, then a mother and a baby white rhino at another waterhole, and a family group of three white rhinos by the road we drove on. As it was at night, I don’t have good pictures of these encounters.

Fortunately for a photographer in me, I saw another black rhino in the broad daylight, during a game drive in the Waterberg Plateau Park. As the name indicates, the park is situated on a high plateau (all photos in this post are ©PeterTurchin):

It’s well protected from poachers, so that the population of black rhino there has become a source of rhinos used in re-introductions to areas where rhino were driven to extinction.

Waterberg Park has an ingenious system of blinds, situated next to waterholes, which can be used by humans to spy on wildlife. At one of these blinds we were watching a group of buffalo drinking water and licking salt:

when a fine specimen of black rhino entered stage left:

The first thing he did was mark the territory by spraying urine on the soil and then kicking it back to spread the scent (which is how we knew it was a male):

After that, the rhino’s interactions with the rest of animals were fairly amicable, although everybody (even large buffalo males) gave way when the rhino visited the water hole.

Incidentally, the antelope in the background is the eland, the largest antelope of them all:

Having drunk its fill, the rhino proceeded to the salt lick. On this photo you can see him “licking his chops” (note the tongue):

One of the features of game viewing in Namibia is that the country is very dry, and during the dry season (which is most of the year, anyway) the game congregates around water holes, making it easy to see them. Another notable interaction at a waterhole that we saw some days before in Etosha Pan was an altercation between an elephant and  hyenas.

WARNING: a few of the photos below can be considered as quite gruesome! Proceed at your risk.

What happened was that two days before we arrived at the Namutoni Camp in eastern Etosha two lions brought down a giraffe at a waterhole nearby. Alas, by the time we got to the kill, the lions had already departed. But there were plenty of scavengers, vultures and hyenas (and an odd jackal):

Here’s a hyena working on a piece of giraffe, while the head of the poor giraffe looks melancholically on:

The hyenas really trashed the waterhole, dropping rotting pieces of the giraffe in it and defecating. When an elephant showed up for a drink, he was really incensed at such unhygienic habits:

So the hyena decided to drag away what was left of the giraffe’s leg to be enjoyed in privacy, while being chased by the angry elephant:

I can sit for hours watching animals do their thing.

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Ross Hartshorn

Half-formed thought for the day: the ability to preserve (or even increase) the population of a valuable species is a demonstration of social cooperation. Not just endangered species like the rhino today, but also things like forests in countries that had started to run short of timber due to overactive logging.

Soooo….it seems like it might be possible to tell, centuries later, how well a society was able to coordinate (maybe a better word than “cooperate” since it was often done by decree from above) its actions. Presumably somewhere out there ecologists or other biologists have records of the rate of extinction (or at least population decline) of various timber or game species in different parts of the world. It would be interesting to see how/if it correlated to other measures of social cohesion.

Hey, I said it was a half-formed thought.


Why do you think that high levels of cooperation lead to the same social norms which value whether certain species go extinct or not?

Ross Hartshorn

You’re probably asking Dr. Turchin, not I, but my take is that high levels of cooperation do not necessarily mean an endangered species will be rescued, but low levels of cooperation guarantee that it will. Also, a high level of coordination in a society enables thinking about long-term consequences, which is a necessary (but again, not sufficient) condition for preserving an endangered species.


No I am asking you.

Why of low levels of cooperation guarantee that endangers species will be persevered?

Ross Hartshorn

It’s very close to the “Tragedy of the Commons”, in the classic sense (see the essay of the same name). The population of a species in the wild is a shared resource, and we’re all better off if it is preserved, but each individual might be better off killing one for their own uses. So, preserving it requires cooperation.

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