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Book Review: The Black Rhinos of Namibia

The Black Rhinos of Namibia

by Rick Bass

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012

The Black Rhinos of Namibia, in which veteran geologist and nature-writer Rick Bass goes to that south-western African nation in search of its small population of black rhinos, is a haunting book because Bass is a prose stylist of great power – but it’s also a haunted book, because despite the hard-bitten optimism of its author, his story cannot have a happy ending. At some point in the next five or ten years, all sub-species of black rhinos will go extinct in the wild. Bass has written a stirring and beautiful book about one such sub-species, but a hundred such books wouldn’t change that fact.

Bass knows something about being haunted. In his home valley in Montana, the giant grizzly bears that once roamed the entire continental United States have been reduced to a handful of individuals (“the Walking Dead,” as some activists have dubbed them) for whom survival and repopulation in the wild is an impossibility. His trip to Africa is born in part of his desire to see a species that’s, as he puts it, come “through the bottleneck” and is now on tentatively healthier footing. He writes at one point that in order for Namibia’s black rhinos to survive, it isn’t necessary for local tribesmen to like the animals – it’s only necessary that they not hate them. But as long as there exists a black market in Africa, those tribesmen need only hate their own poverty (or feel a touch of a human emotion called greed) to keep going out into the scrubland and shooting rhinos. The more the Namibian government clamps down on poaching, the more money the black market will offer for every dead animal. This would be bad enough if there were ten thousand black rhinos in the world, but there are very likely fewer than a thousand. There’s no way the animals can win.

There are still some out there, however, in Namibia’s Etosha National Park and neighboring regions like Gondwanaland and Damaraland, and in the forbidding reaches of the Namib Desert. Bass goes to find them, re-tracing the path of such earlier books on the subject as Carol Cunningham & Joel Berger’s Horn of Darkness: Rhinos on the Edge (2000). Readers already familiar with Bass’ work (The Ninemile Wolves, for instance, or The Lost Grizzlies, or his amazingly moving dog-book Colter) will know to expect the lyricism that is his stock-in-trade; newcomers will frequently be thrilled. Hard-case stories often evoke eloquence, and this is one of those times.

First he has to get there, of course. There are parts of Namibia that strongly resemble some child’s construction of the Garden of Eden. Bass isn’t going to any of those parts – instead, he’s going to some of the most punishing regions on the planet (our author rightly summarizes the story of Africa as “heat and paucity”), to places where the daytime heat literally begins to disintegrate the unadapted human body:

How to describe the heat? The vaporousness of abstractions, simile, and metaphor fail us – “staggering,” or “like being inside an oven” (even these cliches are fiercely true, in Namibia) – and yet insufficient too is the rigid sterility of numerical descriptions. For instance, it is somehow not quite enough to simply state the fat that the ambient temperature on this sojourn is now 114 degrees, with the redrock basalt-bouncing ground temperature easily able to reach 150 degrees. Even a description of the body’s responses does not accurately describe the runaway race-heart drumming as the body begins the rebel and protest, if not quite panic; the parchment-feeling of the drying lungs, even within the previously safe and moist environs of the human vessel; the beginnings of a crushing headache, and the disintegration of vision.

Traversing such hellish terrain often necessitates using the most hellish form of transportation on the planet, and this, too, Bass learns:

It’s just a kind of formality, a requisite code of behavior; and after that first day [spent savagely trying to bite the newcoming human] the camel settles down and spends the next forty-eight hours only spitting at the rider – vomiting on the rider, actually, with the camel twisting its big neck around, in serpentine fashion, until the gigantic head is positioned to hurl the green putrescent vomitus directly onto the rider or, if the rider is dodging, at some part of him or her (they aim for the face).

As bad as camels are, however, they’re YouTube kittens compared to the animal he’s come to Namibia to see. Bass allows himself to wax poetic about the beasts:

The rhino, for instance: three thousand pounds of muscle walking around on a stony, nearly barren land, one nearsighted day after another, with tens of millions of years unscrolling behind it. As if the unchanging land itself, the basalt plains, had spent twenty million years cogitating on the first rhino …

Millennial cogitating is all well and good, but black rhinos can be short-tempered, murderous brutes, nearly blind but with an almost preternatural sensitivity for getting ticked off. At one point Bass and his guides have climbed to the top of a steep hill in order to watch a mother rhino and her calf lumber by. They’re out of range of the animal’s weak eyesight and upwind of her sharp nose, but still she stops:

She is not looking at us – she is off by a few degrees, but it’s eerie, utterly improbable. Why else is she climbing up this mountain? We go from reveling in her beauty to becoming dimly and then acutely aware that soon we should stop admiring her and shift gears completely, to be worried about our own safety …

That gear-shifting is a common thing in Namibia, which is still home to some of the most dramatic mega-fauna remaining on Earth. Rhinos share this land with lions, hyenas, leopards, wildebeests … and one creature more spectacular, more other-worldly, than all the rest:

So it is that we barely recognize the animals standing motionless in the trees before us: hulking silhouettes in the shady grove of an island in the middle of the river of bright burning sand. Andreas points them out – Elephants, he says, and a part of me wants to correct him, or my own eyes, and say, No, mountains.

(Bass’ guide is extremely tense during the encounter, “And the fact that the man who had been almost gored by a rhino is far more frightened of elephants,” Bass writes, “is not lost on me”)(The local Himba tribes have whispered legends of a coal-black woman who can sometimes be seen walking among the elephants, reaching up to stroke their faces, softly singing to them in tongues that have been lost for thousands of years, but if Bass ever sees such a mythical creature, he keeps it to himself)

Since black rhinos are so scarce, it’s perforce Namibia itself that makes the foremost impression. Plopped down in the blistering heat, the near-absence of edible vegetation, and the abundance of super-predators, Bass can’t help but reflect on the bizarre fact that mankind originated in places very similar, the sheer odds of it:

In a landscape filled with six-hundred-pound lions that are adept at pulling down six-hundred-pound oryx or wildebeests, and in a land where the spotted leopard can climb a tree far better than any man … it seems improbable that we could survive even a single night out on the pan by any means other than chance, luck or grace; and to consider a week or month of such survival, a month or year or lifetime, much less a century or millennium or eon, seems as strange and impossible as any of the other wonders we have seen on this trip.

Of course, lyricism has its dangers too, as everyone except lyrical writers seems to know. Such writers can, as the Irish of the last generation said, sling it around, and Bass himself occasionally falls victim:

I had been apprehensive about traveling to Africa, not yet understanding, as I do now, that the world is Africa: that Africa has been at the back of the world’s curve for so long that it is now nearing the front again; that the rest of the world, which came from Africa, is become Africa again …

But in a book this moving, flights of fancy are an allowable excess. Not only is the reader reluctant to pick linguistic fights with a writer who frequents the haunts of one-ton bears, but there’s also the intensely melancholy fact that the black rhinos of Namibia deserve some flights of fancy. Repeatedly in these pages, Bass finds himself reflecting on the incredible length of these great creatures’ tenancy in the arid spaces to which they’re perfectly adapted. For countless thousands of years, rhinos have lived and fought and birthed and died here, and by his nature Bass is a celebrator of abundance. It must burn like fire for him to be so often a poet of loss.

Most of Bass’ audience will never see a black rhino in the wild; most of them will end up living in a world that has no wild rhinos at all. But there’s this book, and they should read it.