August 9, 1999, Michael Werikhe died from injuries suffered on his way to work. He was a maintenance superintendent at the Associated Vehicle Assembly plant. He was a widower, leaving two daughters. If this were all to his life, the world wouldn’t know him.
This man who died in Mombasa on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast was better known as the Rhino Man, the man who walked around the world in order to raise money to save animals, particularly the black rhino. In 1991, he was the closing speaker for the International Rhino Conference held in San Diego. Not a biologist or animal behavior specialist, he spoke from the heart of someone protecting his national heritage.
On a Saturday, May 11, 1991, he led a fund-raising walk, co-sponsored by the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Wildlife Park and the Discovery Channel. I still have the long-sleeved t-shirt I received for participating.
If he were alive today, surely, he would be walking again, walking across Taiwan asking people to stop using the Chinese medicine made from illegally acquired rhino horns or walking to Sudan from where heavily armed horsemen come to kill the wild northern white rhinos in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Forty years ago, a little over 2,000 white rhinos lived across five African countries. But in 1984, wars in these countries and demand for the rhino horns left only 15 animals, all of which were in the Garamba National Park. Since then the rhino population had been making a slow recovery, until this year.
In the last 14 months about as many rhinos have been killed, reducing the number of animals in the wild to 17-22, cutting their number by half.
These rhinos are animals that zoos might not be able to save since they don’t breed well in captivity. The guards at Garamba know the desperation of these times; some have even been killed protecting the northern white rhino.
Rhinos aren’t cute and cuddly like the giant pandas. They aren’t sexy and dangerous animals that can be trained to perform like tigers or lions. They are near-sighted and bulky, with thick tough skin and tendency to charge first and ask questions later.
No movies like Gorillas of the Mist plead their case. They cannot learn to use sign language and they cannot be trained to entertain humans.
Still, isn’t that the greatest test? If we can save an animal, a whole species, not because of its value to humanity but because it is a unique life form that has a right to survival?
Darwin’s theory of evolution, the survival of the fittest, didn’t include the wholesale slaughter of animals for trophies over the mantel or a carved knife. His theory didn’t include the imbalance caused by a modern society with guns and a global economy where demand for old folk remedies might still activate the coffers of desperate or dangerous people with little regard for laws of man or nature.
There are people working to save the rhinos such as Save the Rhino International, a UK-based organization, and the International Rhino Foundation, but in a time of multimedia, such organizations need a high profile, charismatic spokesperson to gain media attention.
Will anyone rise to save the northern white rhino today? Will anyone walk in the path of Werikhe, not as a scientist, but as a believer in the innate good of humanity working to preserve a global cultural heritage? The northern white rhino needs a hero who will walk among strangers seeking, as Michael Werikhe did over a decade ago, to unite people around the world before it is too late.
I only hope that in another decade people won’t be writing in memory of the north African white rhino.