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Glorious armoured giants

Powerful, prehistoric and precious, the rhino is one of Africa’s most iconic creatures, symbolising the struggles and successes of African wildlife conservation. In a series of short articles, Lauren Jarvis looks at the threats to its survival, and meets the people battling to protect it
ROSS COUPER / REMEMBERING RHINOS

Eye to eye

There can be nothing more exhilarating than the thrilling experience of coming face to face with a rhino on foot

We walk in silence for an hour, every snap or crunch of Africa’s sun-scorched bush ricocheting through the burning air like a gunshot. Sound and smell could betray us here, in this vast expanse of the Sera Conservancy in northern Kenya, and while I keep my eyes to the ground, dodging branches and side-stepping leaves, my Samburu guide Sammy is watching the wind.

Shaking a sock, a wisp of ash floats south before he signals me to move on, slow, silent, single file, and then: Do. Not. Move. A thorn-laden acacia, just 20m ahead, begins to shake violently. The perpetrator is hidden, but undoubtedly huge. I stand, transfixed, seesawing inwardly between excitement and fear, my body wrestling with its primeval, protective response: fight or flight?

A look from Sammy vetoes both. Suddenly the thorns are stilled, and from behind the tangle of bush comes a horn. heavy, curved and most-coveted. Shortly behind is an immense, nonchalantly noble head, followed by a one-ton, leathered and battle-scarred body, as old as the Earth itself. I hear my own intake of breath and the head swings in my direction, ears forward; gentle, ancient eyes trying to work out what I am: friend or foe. I’m standing face-to-face with one of the rarest animals on the planet. He doesn’t see me but I see him, and he’s more magnificent than I could ever have imagined.

A warrior, a wanderer, an icon. A link to our past and a symbol of our future; an animal loved by millions and a victim of human greed. Everything that’s right with our world and everything that’s wrong; everything we could hope to gain and everything we could lose. I see him for just a minute, before he turns and is gone.

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