MOSI-OA-TUNYA NATIONAL PARK, ZAMBIA – The rhinos nibbled on dry grasses in the afternoon sun, their horns brushing the ground, hardened skin moving like plates of armor over thick muscles.

This park, at 25 square miles small among the country's 20 preserves, is home to nine white rhinos, a "near threatened" species poached in Africa for horns prized in Asia.

"We didn't have any rhino population in Zambia," said Oluronke Oke, a planning officer for the Zambia Wildlife Authority, or ZAWA, now the Department of National Parks and Wildlife. "It had been wiped to zero."

Around the world, saving threatened and endangered species can mean protecting habitats, breeding in captivity, fighting in court, and levying steep fines or jail time for poaching.

In Zambia for roughly a decade, conservationists have taken vigilance to the extreme in an attempt to protect rhinos. The country now counts 11 in all, Oke said.

Armed with cellphones and AK-47 rifles, three or four guards monitor each rhino 24 hours a day in Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park outside Livingstone, the tourism capital of Zambia.

"Where there are rhinos, there is a gun," said John Kadobi, a wildlife police officer for ZAWA.

The guards look tough when they stand in a row with their rifles and stern faces to cameras, but their hearts are soft for the animals, and they'd sooner scramble up one of the prickly trees in the savanna grassland than shoot a charging rhino.

They're the fathers and grandfathers of the rhinos, some dedicating 20 years in the field protecting wildlife.

"It's just the passion that I have for the animals," Kadobi said.

Rhino relationships

The guards work varying shifts, sometimes a week on, a week off. In the field they develop an intimate relationship with the rhinos, animals that can live as long as 40 or 50 years when protected.

Charles Siame, senior wildlife officer, knows Lucy and Lubinda well, a couple of the 16,000 white rhinos he estimates are left in the world; the International Rhino Foundation puts the number as high as 21,000. At the start of the 20th century, 500,000 existed, according to the foundation (see sidebar for the most current data).

"These are original species," Siame said. "They have not evolved like other animals we see in books."

As he talks in front of the rhinos, he and the other guards slowly move visitors in the park so they maintain a distance of 55 yards from the bonded pair. Lucy is a baby, and a terror to the other rhino mothers, but she and Lubinda, named after Zambia's minister of tourism, sleep together in the morning and munch side by side at night.

"You cannot separate the two," Siame said.

Elsewhere in the park, other guards protect Jessie and Lewis and Sepo. Siame shares tidbits about their personalities.

About Lewis, a male who could reach 4.5 tons: "He's one of the good boys. He would only charge when you provoke him."

About Jessie, a female that may someday weigh 3.5 tons: "Jessie would charge at anything. It's like she needs a lot of privacy. Unfortunately, we don't have bedrooms in the park."

Lucy's mother died, and she bonded to Lubinda, but she's a problem for the other mothers, Siame said. She's a bully who chases other babies, so to protect their own children, the moms hide when she comes.

"She kicks away the young ones because she's bigger, and she takes the milk," Siame said.

The baby rhinos cry like human babies, and the adults growl.

Protection is key

No poacher has taken a rhino from the guards in this park, but the wildlife officers believe their vigilance is the only thing keeping the quiet beasts safe.

"My main duty is to protect the animals from poaching," said Kadobi, who has guarded rhinos for some 12 years.

In Mosi-oa-Tunya, tourists can go on walks to see the rhinos, Earth's second-largest land mammal. The guards have a mixed reaction to their visitors. In some cases, the guests take an interest in the animals and make donations to organizations such as the African Wildlife Foundation.

In other cases, tourists want to touch the rhinos, an idea Siame describes as "crazy ... sorry to use that word." Saying you want to touch a rhino is like saying you're tired of breathing, he said.

"The rhino is one of the dangerous animals in the park," Siame said.

As many as 32 tourists a day will see the rhinos in the busy season, and other times, in the hot summers, they might not get a visitor in a week.

The tourists from China especially befuddle the guards, who carefully control the environment around the rhinos. They ensure that people walk in single file to avoid sharp stones and snakes, and remain a prescribed distance away from the rhinos. But they find the groups from China difficult to organize.

The guards also are wary because the market for the rhino horn is strong in Asia.

"They believe the horn is like Viagra," Siame said. " ... That's why these animals are almost going extinct."

In reality, the horns are made of keratin, so people may as well sweep up hair and nail clippings at the barber shop instead of poach, he said. 

To planning officer Oke, protecting the rhino is a priority even beyond her own salary. Already, park officers must buy feed to supplement the animals' diet because the climate is changing.

Oke would like to see Zambia get help from a seasoned organization to set up a program such as Friends of the Rhinos to ensure resources are reserved for the animals in the future.

"We guard them jealously," Oke said.

So far, the rhinos watched around the clock are safe, but the success in the small park may be idiosyncratic, elusive elsewhere. In Kruger National Park in South Africa, a much larger landscape, a guard told University of Montana assistant professor Jennifer Thomsen – in Africa this summer for a conference – that poachers take a rhino every single day.

In Mosi-oa-Tunya, Siame believes the animals will continue to roam the grassland in the next century only on one condition:

"If more effort is put into protecting these animals."

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Reporter for the Missoulian