The girls spend their days grazing, from dawn to dusk, in a 100-acre field. It is protected by a tall electric fence, along one side of which runs a road where safari vehicles can stop to look. Sometimes there are traffic jams. Najin and Fatu may not be quite as famous as Sudan, but they are still well known in safari circles — still bucket-list creatures. Four times a day, a truckload of visitors who have paid a special fee and signed safety waivers are allowed to come inside the enclosure. The girls surround the truck, eating snacks, while the tourists (Chinese, Australian, German, American) take photos. During the high season, the rhino area’s parking lot fills up with four-by-fours and school buses.
I spent one week out in the field with the girls. I would go to them at dawn and leave when the sun set. It was no time at all, in the scheme of things — not even a blink of evolution’s eye, and just the tiniest fraction of the girls’ big, wrinkled lives. But out there in the field, time hung thick like fog. Every day felt like a sliver of eternity.
It was the cold season in Kenya, and I stood there through every kind of weather, under orange skies and yellow skies and skies as gray as the girls. I watched Fatu get mad at an egret that landed on her back and try to buck it off. I watched Najin dip her huge head into the water trough and drink so gently, with such delicate sips, that she hardly left a ripple. I watched dung beetles roll perfect spheres of rhino poop, then struggle to wrestle them off to their nests through tall grass. I watched the girls sharpen their horns, clumsily, adorably, on a little metal gate, scraping the paint right off, threatening to tear the whole thing from its hinges. I was chased, briefly, by a blind buffalo named Russell. I saw Fatu shock herself one morning on the electric fence, right on the face — she flinched and raced off, at a speed faster than I knew rhinos could run, and a terrified Najin turned and ran right alongside her. During thunderstorms, I stood there getting soaked, watching the girls change color — chocolatey, glistening — as the dust on their backs turned, drop by drop, into mud. One day I held a cantaloupe-size ball of rhino poop in my palm, then broke it in half: pure grass.
I spent an unbelievable number of hours just watching the girls graze. That might sound boring, but they elevate it to an art form. White rhinos eat so much grass that they are sometimes called “grass rhinos.” Their mouths are perfectly designed for the task, in the same way that a great white shark’s mouth is perfectly designed to eat seals. White rhino snouts are flat, like vacuum attachments, and they tear the grass not with their teeth but with their lips, which are ridged to clamp the tiniest shoots. They can find grass in what looks like a bare patch of dirt. As they graze, the girls swing their heads back and forth, tearing and chewing, tearing and chewing, crunching every mouthful with the sound of muffled thunder. I kept wondering: How could these tiny plants support creatures so huge? And how could grass ever be so loud?
One day, just after dawn, I got to give Najin her morning scratchdown. JoJo was scratching her, as he did most mornings, and when he stopped, Najin stood there, waiting, seeming to want more.
JoJo asked if I wanted to give it a try.
I did. I walked over to the mother rhino, curled my fingers and — a little hesitantly, much more tentatively than JoJo — started to scratch. I scratched her temple, her neck, her big thick folds. I felt her roughness and her softness. I wasn’t very good at it, to be honest — I was slightly scared, ready to sprint away at any moment, so I didn’t really dig in like the caretakers, didn’t commit my whole fragile body to the task, and I think Najin could tell. But she stood there anyway, accepting it — and then when I stopped, she swiveled her long head over toward me, stared at me, held still. JoJo said this meant she was asking for more. So I kept scratching.
Most of us are taught that rhinos are exotic. Perhaps no animal has been more widely misunderstood, especially in the West. For over 1,000 years, the historian Kelly Enright points out, not a single rhino was seen in Europe. In that absence, misinformation bloomed. According to “The Travels of Marco Polo,” rhinos were very ugly unicorns that did not kill their enemies, as you might expect, with their horns — they pinned them under their knees and licked them to death with their spiky tongues. Even today, in the modern world, rhinos are mythologized and fetishized to the point of unreality. We look at them like dinosaurs who have outlasted their time, even though they are no older than horses. We see their horns as strange and fantastical, but in fact they are only compressed keratin, the same material that makes up our hair. The same material, in fact, that made up the fingernails I was using to scratch Najin.