Saturday, 20 August 2022

Why I’m mourning Sudan the rhino

WHEN the children were young, we lived in Africa and the little ones were given a story book called When Hippo Was Hairy.

It is a collection of tribal stories that explain the characters and behaviour of the different species of wild animals.

The children loved it — the stories may not be as fanciful as Rudyard Kipling’s How the Elephant got his Trunk from the Just So Stories, but they are acutely observed and accurately reflect something about the nature of each animal.

The book included Ndebele and Batonka stories about the Rhino and both tales mention his near-sightedness and bad temper.

In one, the elephant (whose sight is also not of the best and who can be somewhat short-tempered) teases the rhino until the pugnacious creature just can’t help himself and an animal equivalent of fisticuffs ensues.

In the midst of the stories, the book gives facts about the animals: apparently the average lifespan of a white rhino is 45; the males are often solitary and stand 6ft tall at the shoulder. weighing in at about 6,600lb.

This week, a northern white rhino who had lived 45 years died through age-related illness. We all now know his name was Sudan and he was the last male of his kind in the world.

Rhinos don’t impact much on our lives here in Henley, but I suspect news of the death of Sudan gave us all pause for thought (even in the midst of unsettling news of unpredictable tensions in international politics and the uncertainties of Brexit and even our recent dramatic weather).

Only two northern white rhino survive and both are female. Why should it matter? I’m told there are 20,000 southern white rhino in existence, so isn’t that okay? And could we tell the difference between the two?

To be honest, I have to look very hard to see the difference between white rhino and black rhino, let alone the sub-species. And yet we pause; there is real sadness.

The extravagant variety, even playfulness, of creation: the painted butterflies, the sea slugs and fishes decorated with clown-like, modern art designs, the 900,000 different types of insects, all the birds great and small (how do they do that flying thing?) and yet we mourn the threatened extinction of the northern white rhino.

It’s as if we know at some deep level that every single species and sub-species is precious, more than that, if we think about it, that each individual is precious, even when we ignore them or are careless of them, deep inside, we know that they are loved and are a uniquely valuable part of creation.

Are we sensing the greater love cutting through all our daily bustle, even for a creature famous for his “bodger on the bonce”?

Until this week, I had never heard of Sudan, I had never read his Tinder profile and I wasn’t aware of the desperate plight of the northern white rhino, but I sit here in the Thames Valley and I feel the poorer for his passing.

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