Weighing from two to four tons, standing five to six feet tall, and measuring eleven to sixteen feet long, the rhinoceros looks ever bit the prehistoric monster that it is. A leftover from the past, the rhino has changed very little from the time its ancestors roamed the earth in the company of mastodons and saber—toothed cats.

The African black rhinoceros was a common sight fifty years ago, but now fewer than 15,000 survive, and their numbers continue to dwindle. Rhinos are not the victims of evolutionary failure; their undoing has been rather the lancelike horns, up to 54 inches long, jutting from their snouts. All five species of rhino are being hunted into extinction because of the widespread belief throughout Asia that ground—up rhino horn is a powerful aphrodisiac.

Because of its reputation as a sexual stimulant, rhino horn, at $12,643 per kilo (2.2 pounds), has become the most valuable animal product in the world. A pound of powdered horn, scraped in the presence of the buyer, is worth its weight in gold in many nations of Asia, where a single horn can bring many thousands of dollars. As a result a strictly illegal business continues to flourish while the rhino population diminishes. It is unfortunate that in the mind of the user the ground—up substance added to a potion he drinks will send him into a sexual frenzy. Only the belief in rhino horn makes it any more of an aphrodisiac than an ordinary lump of sugar might be!

The three Asian rhinoceroses are almost extinct; concentration has therefore turned to the African rhino. Like their Asian cousins, the black and white African rhinos are becoming victims of the quest for sexual prowess.

Both the African rhino species have a vile temper and are extremely unpredictable. Perhaps poor eyesight is the reason for the rhino's defensive and untrusting behavior; it cannot see clearly beyond ten yards. No approaching human is able to determine whether the rhino will ignore him or charge without warning or provocation. Not telegraphing his intentions may serve as a protective mechanism, and many a poacher has doubtless paid with his life when the rhino suddenly turned on him. In the bush one can never be sure if it is going to charge, ignore, walk, or run away. But when the rhino decides on action, it can move with speed and agility. It runs at a rapid gallop and can do an about—turn at full speed. If a hunter approaches from down—wind and the rhino sees movement from the corner of its eyes, it will probably lower its head and come for the hunter like a locomotive. In fact the rhino will even sounds like a locomotive, huffing and chuffing in a rather realistic semblance of a train.

The irrational behavior of the rhinoceros does at times reach ridiculous proportions. A game warden in Kenya tells how he pulled a rhino out of a mud hole with his Land Rover. The beast promptly repaid the favor by caving in the side of the vehicle. It seemed as though he blamed the vehicle for his having gotten stuck in the mud in the first place.

Lately African rhinos seem to have been on a rampage to reduce the population of automobiles. There are regular reports of rhinos blindly charging automobiles and keeping up the attack until the vehicles are reduced to wreckage. Some have adopted an even more effective method in the one—sided war against autos. They stand near the highway, apparently waiting for a car to approach within range, and then step out into the road. For a small speeding car, a collision with a full—grown rhinoceros is like crashing into a stone wall.

One rhino attempted the ultimate conquest. In a well—recorded incident a large male rhino tried to take on a railroad train! Passengers were made rudely aware of the attack by a tremendous jolt. Looking out of the window, they watched as the rhino scrambled to his feet and staggered off, snorting and shaking his head. He emerged the loser of that skirmish but retreated with nothing more than a monster—sized rhino headache. Apparently other rhinos are trying their luck with trains, for a number have been killed every year on the Mombasa—Nairobi Railroad. If the rhino happens to be on the track when a train approaches, as often as not it lowers its head and charges the train. So far the train has won every contest, although in May 1991 a railroad car was derailed.

It seems inconsistent that an animal with such a vile, unpredictable temper is considered the most easily tamed animal in Africa. In captivity the rhino becomes so gentle that it will eat out of its keeper's hand, will come on call to have its ears rubbed, and may even roll over on its back so the keeper can scratch its stomach. Such activity is not without hazards to the person attending to the rhino's whims. When a rhino's ears are rubbed, it often responds by leaning affectionately against the scratcher. The animal may be only expressing contentment, but two tons of animal bulk leaning against a 150—pound human can be, to say the least, a rather unnerving experience.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth