“…the rhino is charging, head down, horns pointed straight at me, I kept clicking the shutter. I don’t know why, but about 20 meters away from me the rhino suddenly stopped. It was so close, I couldn’t even get its full head into the camera frame anymore. It looked at me, snorted, then…”
That’s a quote from just one of Theo Allofs’ many adventures as a professional photographer for 25 years. (We’ll finish that rhino charge in a moment!)
Theo has been published in renowned magazines and newspapers around the world including National Geographic, The Smithsonian, Time Magazine, The New York Times, and Newsweek. Now he has kindly offered to write for us here at Ever Widening Circles, because he believes in our efforts to change the negative dialogue about our world.
Saving Rhinos is just one of the many parts of the natural world he is advocating for.
I reached out to Theo recently and we’ve had the most delightful telephone conversations, agreeing in the end that his work and experiences profoundly demonstrate that this is still an amazing world (our EWC motto).
Theo will be taking us on many journeys over the coming year for our series of articles called Saturday’s Around the World. His stories and remarkable photography will help us all come to know uniquely wild places like Namibia, India, Bolivia, New Zealand, the Antarctic and many more.
Now let’s get back to that charging rhino! Here’s Theo…
I’ll try to keep it short this time… (I have so many fantastic stories to share with EWC readers for their Saturdays Around the World articles.)
This one happened in 1999 in Damaraland, in north central Namibia.
Some of you may know that Namibia is a country on the Southwestern coast of Africa. Waves from the Atlantic ocean meet enormous stretches of sand dunes for hundreds of miles inland and yet diverse wildlife dots the landscape of the famous Namibia Desert.
I was traveling with the Save the Rhino Trust in Namibia, one of the few Trusts that I trust, but more about that later.
Thanks to their enormous efforts and utter dedication we can still find a good number of highly endangered black rhinos roaming in Namibia’s wild Northwest. They truly are saving rhinos.
I was there in 1999 when they organized a black rhino census and I was allowed to participate and photograph. In our Land-cruiser were four people: a British volunteer, myself, and yes, believe it or not – two rhino poachers!
Well, I should be more precise: ex-rhino poachers, who the Save the Rhino Trust had converted to rhino trackers. The Trust is having some success in Namibia convincing poachers that by saving the rhinos they can make more money with tourism than from what they could get selling the rhino horn to Asian markets (more about that later too).
30 minutes of driving into a bone-shattering track, one of the ex-poachers spotted a rhino with his naked eyes.
Even though he pointed me in the right direction, I couldn’t even spot the rhino with my binoculars. I was impressed. Finally, I saw a tiny spot under a small scrubby tree.
It was late afternoon when the British guy and I began walking towards the beast, against the wind of course, so it could not smell us. My companion needed to get close enough to see any special marks on the rhino for identification. I, of course, had to get close enough to photograph.
He recommended I always hide behind a bush. But I said, “I cannot photograph from behind a bush!” “No problem,” he said, “Then just don’t move if the rhino gets up. No worries, mate!”
So, we continued approaching. The rhino looked peacefully asleep when we were only about 300 meters away. Everything looked cool.
But then suddenly it got very hot, and the wind began to change directions. The rhino quickly looked alert to our presence, no doubt inhaling the soap we had used during our last shower.
The moment the beast jumped up, my partner jumped behind a bush next to me. I kneeled down behind my tripod. Camera and 600 mm lens ready for action! And action did come – fast. The rhino charged, head down, horns pointed forward – straight towards me. My shutter clicked. The rhino stopped.
I looked at my partner with a “What should I do?” expression on my face. His answer came as hand signals: “Stay put!”
So I stayed put. But the rhino didn’t, and charged again – straight towards me. The shutter clicked, but I didn’t move.
The rhino stopped again, and was, by now, not more than 80-100m away from me. I looked over towards my guide with another question mark on my face. This time, he just shrugged his shoulders.
I looked around, not a single big rock or tree for shelter against rhino horn. The irony was not lost on me: I wanted to get as far as possible away from a horn that some cultures will stop at nothing to seek. What a weird world!
With nowhere to hide, the rhino charged at me for the third time. What could I do? At that point, absolutely nothing, There’s no way I could outrun a rhino.
This might be a great place for a few rhino facts from SavetheRhino.org
- Senses: rhinos have poor eyesight, and cannot easily detect an observer standing more than 30 meters (90 feet) away. They do, however, have an excellent sense of smell and hearing.
- Running speed: Black rhino can move extremely fast, and have been recorded at highs of 55 km/h (34 mph). They can change direction surprisingly quickly, and can run right through scrub and bushes.
- Weight: Adult males weigh up to 1,350 kg (3000 lbs.) and females up to 900 kg (2000 lbs).
So, I just sat still behind the tripod and kept shooting. It is probably an understatement to mention that you need a lot of nerve to stay still under these particularly unfavorable conditions. (I must admit, I had previous training in these matters. But I will get to this in future articles).
So, while the rhino was charging, head down, horns pointed straight at me, I kept clicking the shutter.
I don’t know why, but about 20 meters away from me, the rhino suddenly stopped. I couldn’t even get its full head into the frame anymore.
It looked at me, snorted, then turned around and ran away.
So… How do you survive a rhino charge? The key is what you don’t do:
Don’t run. (You can’t outrun them anyway.)
Don’t move a muscle. (They have such poor eyesight that they may actually be unable to pick you out of the background as long as you don’t move.)
And I was proud of myself for managing to keep my pants dry.
What I didn’t know at the time was that the image I took of the black rhino’s last charge would make me more money than any other image I have ever taken. It was bought by a big company for worldwide advertisement campaigns.
Little did I know, at that point, the advent of digital camera technology would change my profession irrevocably.
Do you remember when you bought your first digital camera? The very first models came out the same year as my rhino charge, but it was a brick, weighing almost 4 pounds and luckily, it gave my profession a short reprieve until the first digital cameras with consumer appeal came out in 2003.
After that, Photoshop made it possible for anyone to pass themselves off as a professional. Everyone in my business had to come up with survival ideas.
Sometimes we forget that while technology changes what’s possible, the expansion of the internet also killed hundreds, if not thousands, of professions that were once lucrative. Nature photography is one of the dead, so I had to find a new niche, one that I will tell you a lot about in my next article for EWC: aerial photography from a para-glider. To my knowledge, there is only one other nature photographer in the world who does this work with expertise.
Since 2011, I have specialized in aerial photography, using a powered para-glider that allows me to fly low for wildlife photography and over one thousand meters high for landscape images.
In my next Saturdays Around the World journey for EWC, I’ll take you to some amazing places from the air, and tell you more great stories to support the assertion that this is still an amazing world.
Thank you to Theo Allofs for taking us on a little journey we could not have gone on without you!
Visit his website to see a spectacular celebration of life and landscape on our planet. I showed my mother his website over the holidays and she was on it for a half hour, sighing and demanding that I “look at this!” and “look at this!” He also has a beautiful Facebook page that will keep you in smiles and sighs from his posting of photos periodically there.
Now we can’t leave the subject of Rhinos without circling back to problems and solutions (yes, there is good news too) to the worldwide rhino poaching problem.
The gist of the situation is that ancient folklore in many Asian cultures persist in making people believe that rhino horn has medicinal properties, when in reality, the horn is made of exactly the same protein – called keratin – that makes up your hair, nails, and animal hooves.
In other words, making a potion of rhino horn is like filing your fingernails into a cup of tea and expecting a cure.
The growing problem these myths create is explained in this excerpt from an article by Tia Ghose, of LiveScience.com
“The black rhinoceros population has declined by 97.6 percent since 1960, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. One rhino subspecies, the northern white rhino is in even greater danger, with just five individuals — all in captivity —remaining.
Poaching is the main problem. Last year, 2,015 rhinos were killed in the center of poaching territory — South Africa — compared to just 13 back in 2007, said Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation, a conservation and advocacy organization that aims to protect rhinos. In South Africa’s Kruger National Park, crime syndicates from Mozambique cross the border, sneak into the park and slaughter several rhinos daily, she said. [See Photos of All Five Rhino Species]
Demand for rhino horns in Asia is fueling illegal rhino hunting. In China and Vietnam, the burgeoning middle- and upper-middle classes see rhino horn as a status symbol. Eastern medicine practitioners tout the horns as a blood cleanser, fever reducer, hangover cure and even cancer treatment, though there is absolutely no evidence that it has any medicinal value, Ellis said.” 1
To learn about why we must turn our backs on cultural practices robbing us all of the diversity on this planet, here’s a great article that explains even more about the issue.
During the research for this article, I came across the craziest photo of a 20-something, wealthy/elite woman in Vietnam, grating a sizable chunk of rhino horn into a cup of tea to cure her hangover. In this information age, I wondered how in the world she didn’t know or care about the dreadful extermination she is encouraging.
I have struggled today to avoid showing you the photos of rhinos after poachers have dropped out of the sky from helicopters, sawed off their horns and then left the animals to suffer and die, missing half their faces.
That is what this woman is perpetuating for the sake of her fingernail powder “cure” for a hangover.
Ever Widening Circles will very rarely call for its community to turn their backs on anyone, but cultural practices that exterminate and degrade our planet for everyone cannot continue.
If we want to lift the average up, we have to stand against folkloric practices that harm our shared world.
An EWC Call to Action: If you live in a culture that supports this practice, take a stand: Start a movement to shun the notion that these beautiful animals should be slaughtered and go extinct for the price of out-dated practices.
HERE’S THE GOOD NEWS
Theo Allofs has seen progress in places like Namibia when it comes to saving rhinos and rhino habitat conservation.
This means, as the World Wildlife Fund likes to say, “This is a battle we can win.”
Here are some statistics from their page at WWF.org…
“On World Rhino Day 2014, here are our three reasons to celebrate:
- The recovery of white rhinos from the brink of extinction 100 years ago to over 20,000 today is one of conservation’s greatest success stories.
- Black rhino numbers have more than doubled from their low point of 2,400 in 1994 to more than 5,000 today.
- The greater one-horned rhino faced a similar extinction threat at the turn of the 20th century, when only a handful remained, but have since recovered to over 3,300 today.
We are not without hope for the other two rhino species. There are 57 Javan rhinos in a single park in Indonesia, yet their numbers have doubled since monitoring began in 1967. There are possibly fewer than 100 Sumatran rhinos, yet their populations, too, could recover given the right management interventions and continued protection; something that a partnership of conservation organizations are working on together.” 2
Good to know that it is possible to move things in the right direction.
And we’ll go out today with a few more photographs from Theo Allofs, reminding us of all the wonder and beauty yet to share in his upcoming articles.
Thanks, Theo… see you again in a month when you take us to the skies on your paraglider!
More about Theo Allofs…
He is author/photographer of seven books including coffee table books about the Yukon, Namibia, Australia and the Pantanal. “Pantanal – South America’s Wetland Jewel” was voted by Discover Magazine as one of the ten best scientific oriented books of the year.
During his career, Theo has won numerous international awards, amongst them 11 awards in the prestigious BBC Wildlife Photographer Of The Year competition. GEO, American Photo. Theo is one of the founding members of the ILCP (International League of Conservation Photographers). He is a regular speaker at international nature conventions.
Theo lives with his wife and photographer Jami Tarris (her article on baby orangutans is coming soon) and their little Westie Gershwin near Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’ve spent so much time in delightful conversations with them now that they feel like old friends.
These are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. “EWC Thought Leaders” is a fitting moniker.
They also lead photography tours all over the world that sound extraordinary. No doubt their personal connections in some breathtaking places and remarkable skills would make for an amazing journey of a lifetime.
If you’d like to see their Photographic Tour website, you can take a look at the spectacular images from some of their tours at Focus Expeditions.
~ Dr. Lynda
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Meanwhile, stay open, curious and hopeful!
- Ghose, Tia. “Will Fake Rhino Horns Curb Poaching?” LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 26 June 2015. Web. 22 Jan. 2016. <http://www.livescience.com/51354-synthetic-rhino-horn-decrease-poaching.html>. ↩
- “Hope for Rhinos.” WorldWildlife.org. World Wildlife Fund, 22 Sept. 2014. Web. 22 Jan. 2016. <http://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/hope-for-rhinos>. ↩