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The Rhino Keepers
By Clive Walker, Anton Walker
Jacana Media (Pty) LtdCopyright © 2012 Clive & Anton Walker
All rights reserved.
The Flight of the Unicorn
* * *
The unicorn was first mentioned by the ancient Greeks in what was to become Europe, not in their mythology but in their accounts of natural history. The earliest description of a unicorn is perhaps from the Greek physician Ctesias in 416 BC. Both Aristotle (384–322 BC) and Pliny (AD 23–79) were convinced of its existence and believed that 'like the rhino, the unicorn was endowed with enormous strength, but this was concentrated in its single horn'. Some 500 years after Aristotle, the Roman scholar and teacher of rhetoric, Aelian, mentions the unicorn on several occasions in his 17-volume On the Nature of Animals. This mystical creature later became an important symbol in both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period and was described as an extremely wild creature, possessed of purity and grace. Even the genius of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), writing in one of his notebooks, was taken in by the belief: 'The unicorn, through its temperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness, and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep on its lap, and thus the hunters take it'. The one thing that Da Vinci got right was the unicorn's wildness, and it can certainly be ferocious.
We know that medieval knowledge and belief often stemmed from ancient Biblical sources that reference the unicorn on a number of occasions. Kelly Enright, in her excellent work entitled Rhinoceros, places it perfectly into context: 'The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (second century) translates re'em as "monoceros" or single-horned. In the Latin Vulgate Bible, the main version used from 400 through to 1400 CE, re'em, or monoceros was translated to "unicornis", the Latin word for single horn'.
As Latin was the official language of the church, unicornis became the accepted word and took on the meaning as evidenced in Numbers 24:8, 'He hath as it were the strength of a unicorn' and again in Isaiah 34:7, 'And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with their bulls: and their land shall be soaked with blood'. In Job 39:9–11 we perceive another element, 'Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? Or will he harrow the valleys after thee? Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great?'
These Bible passages leave one with an impression of the unicorn as an animal possessed of immense strength and violence. Consider how far back these writings go. Numbers recounts the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert after they left Mount Sinai. They had rebelled against God and his appointed man, Moses. Both Numbers and Isaiah conjure up a sense of great power and retribution for those who disobeyed. But perhaps the unicorn was also imbued with another property, as in Psalm 92:10, 'But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of a unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil'. Perhaps we should leave the interpretation to more learned scholars.
There are so many legends attached to the origin of the unicorn that I would argue that the rhino should be considered a candidate for the honour. The popular portrayal, of course, is that of a beautiful white horse with a goat's beard and a large spiralling horn protruding from its forehead which could, apparently, only be captured by a virgin. Does it surprise anyone, therefore, that it is generally portrayed as such and certainly not in the likeness of a rhino?
Da Vinci had clearly never seen a unicorn, and neither had anyone else of his time until the return of the celebrated Venetian traveller Marco Polo. While travelling in Indonesia, in the 13th century, he described a unicorn as:
scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant's. They have a single black horn in the middle of the forehead ... They have the head of a wild boar's. They spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins, but clean to the contrary to our notions.
What Marco Polo had seen turned out to be a Javan rhino, which evidently did not fit his perception of a unicorn.
As so often with myths and legends, ideas are developed and passed down from one generation to another, one storyteller to another, one writer to another until they eventually take on a reality of their own. What starts off as a myth becomes in the end a fact. We know today that no such animal as a unicorn exists, and if by any chance the rhino can lay any claim to the origin of the legend, no virgin in her right frame of mind would go anywhere near one, especially not a black rhino. As a child, it was a great story, but as you grow older you realise that your local zoo, or for that matter any zoo, doesn't have one.
Right up to the beginning of the 19th century, a strong belief in the existence of the unicorn was widespread among writers, poets, historians, alchemists, physicians, theologians and no doubt a fair number of travellers.
* * *
In books on traditional Chinese medicine, beginning with the oldest, the Shennong Ben Cao Jing (attributed to the Chinese emperor Shennong, who lived around 2800 BC, it was only compiled into three written volumes in the late Warring States and Western Han periods from 475 BC to AD 9), rhino horn is classified as a cold drug, indicated for hot diseases and thus suitable for cooling the blood and counteracting toxins. In the poem 'Juan Er' from the Shi Jing (Book of Songs) it says 'Just for a moment, I pour from that rhino-horn cup, so as not to hurt forever'. This may be the first written evidence confirming the fact that by the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770–221 BC) at the latest, the Chinese were using cups made out of rhino horn. That is more than 2,200 years ago. Another written reference to rhino horn is found in the Hou Han Shu (official dynastic history records) dating to the Xin Dynasty of Wang Mang (AD 9–23) where it is mentioned as an ingredient in a recipe for longevity.
So, because of the dramatic decline of the Chinese rhino population during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, the Han were importing rhino horns by sea from Sumatra. By the Western Han period, rhino-horn cups were being buried with their owners, as they were deemed more valuable than jade. The rhino became mythical, and its horns came to be considered magical. Based on the power of their respective horns, images of Zhi, the mythical Chinese goat-unicorn, were transformed into mythical rhino- unicorns.
While the Western Han were conquering and colonising the south, the tide of human influence turned and began to flow mainly from the East to the West via the land routes of Central Asia and the developing maritime silk route, as traders of Mediterranean origin began to use the south-west monsoon winds to sail right through to southern India. Due to the nature of these trade winds, the merchants and traders had to remain ashore in southern India for several months before the turn of the winds. This had an enormous impact on later unicorn myths.
This southern India trade route was not only a conduit for spices, silks and other valuable goods such as rhino horn and elephant ivory, but also for stories and information. As stories of the mythical Chinese unicorn moved westward, they filtered through Indian culture and acquired new erotic and aesthetic aspects from the old Indian story of the gentle one-horned hermit Rishyasringa from the third volume of the Mahabharata written in about 400 BC. As such, certain aspects of the European unicorn myths, especially its gentleness and its supposedly easy capture by a maiden, were probably of Indian inspiration. So profoundly was the myth of the Chinese unicorn transformed by its passage through southern Indian culture that knowledge of its origin in China was gradually superseded.
The belief in the power of rhino horn as an aphrodisiac must have originated within the greater Indian sphere of influence. From ancient times in China, rhino horn was believed to serve the practical medical functions of lowering fevers and counteracting toxins, but people in the West somehow came to believe that rhino horn was used in China as an aphrodisiac. This idea is completely unfounded, as there is no mention of using rhino horn as an aphrodisiac in any texts on traditional Chinese medicine.
Rhino / unicorn horn acquired additional magical powers when Ge Hong (AD 283-343), best known for his interest in alchemy and techniques of longevity, wrote his Baopuzi (Book of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity). Rumours of these magical powers began to spread westward.
The horn of the narwhal (Monodon monoceros), which is actually a tooth and not a horn, came into China from the north-east Arctic seas as early as the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), and was used, like rhino horn, for medicine and for carving. Soon rhino horn and narwhal horn became linked due to their use as medicine and, as a result, narwhal horn acquired the magical aspects of rhino / unicorn horn. Knowledge of these magical qualities reached the Muslim world via the Turkic tribes of Central Asia, and by the early 11th century the Arabs had come to consider rhino horn and narwhal horn (which they called khutu and was carved to make their knife handles) as one and the same. During the 12th century, rumours about the magic of rhino / unicorn / narwhal horn spread to Europe from the Arab world, and images of unicorns with spiral horns began to appear in medieval European art.
* * *
While unicorns only exist in our imagination thanks to myth, legend, fairy tales, art and literature, rhinos still exist today. All rhinos belong to the mammalian order Perissodactyla, which comes from the Greek [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (perissos), meaning uneven or odd number, and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (daktylos), meaning finger or toe. In other words they are odd-toed ungulates. Other extant Perissodactyla are tapirs and equids (horses, zebra, etc.). We know from the fossil record that the world's five remaining rhino species were once widespread and numerous. Rhinos have been around for at least 50 million years. They appeared during a long series of geological time frames comprising three Periods and seven Epochs known as the Cenozoic Era. This Era, which we know as the Age of Mammals, began 65 million years ago.
Rhinos were once a diverse group of mammals ranging over a wide variety of ecosystems in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa, although they were never found in South America or Australia. The earliest rhinos had no horns and some were only the size of a dog. The largest and most spectacular, the Paraceratherium, also commonly known as the Indricotherium, stood 5.5 metres at the shoulder, was over 8 metres long with a 1.8-metre-long skull and weighed in at about 20 tons. To put it into perspective, that's more than the weight of three African bull elephants.
The woolly rhino (Coelodonta antiquitatis), a two-horned animal with the anterior horn measuring up to a metre long, was larger than today's white rhino (Ceratotherium simum), and was on average some 3.7 metres in length, around 2 metres tall and weighed 2–3 tons. The woolly rhino was well adapted to the steppe tundra, with short stocky limbs and a thick woolly coat, and first appeared in China about a million years ago, later spreading to Europe where it became common along with the woolly mammoth. With powerful neck muscles, it used its large horn to sweep aside the snow in order to eat the underlying vegetation. The long horn was comprised of keratin, as are the horns of rhinos today, and was likewise used as a defensive weapon. They were supremely well adapted to the cold climate of northern Eurasia and the arid desert regions of southern England and western Siberia. We know that the woolly rhino was observed by humans, as they are depicted in the cave art of Europe dating back, in one case, some 30,000 years.
In the valley of Ardeche in France, set in a limestone cliff above the former bed of the river of the same name, is the Chauvet Cave. The cave was only explored in December of 1994 and it revealed the most stunning examples of early cave art, depicting cave lions, mammoths, bison, cave bears, horses and the most superbly executed woolly rhinos. While it has never been my good fortune to see these depictions, they have been described as exceptional both in quality, condition and quantity – 53 of the images are of woolly rhinos. Chauvet and the other caves of Europe surely rank as the world's first known art galleries, dating back to the Upper Paleolithic (Late-Stone Age). Although artistic creation may not have been the original inhabitants' intention, who is to say the creators were not a little satisfied with their handiwork. In my opinion, as an artist rather than a scientist, they are breathtaking in both their line and form.
In 1940, a cave was discovered near the village of Montignac in France by four teenage boys, Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel and Simon Coencas, as well as Robot, Marcel's dog. What they had stumbled upon was beyond their wildest imagination, for within its vast, pitch-black interior the caves were to reveal some of the best known Upper Paleolithic art ever found in Europe. Some of the artworks had been incised into the stone, but most had been painted using mineral pigments. The paintings of the Lascaux Caves, which are estimated at being over 17,000 years old, comprise some 2,000 images of which 605 have been precisely identified. Of the images, 364 are equines and among a collection of other images are seven felines, a bird, a bear, one human being and one rhino. The most stunning images are of four huge black bulls – one is 5.2 metres long, making it the largest animal cave art known. The black bulls, or more correctly aurochs (Bos primigenius), now a long-extinct giant ox, are known from the fossil record to have lived in the region and are the dominant feature among the 36 other animal species to be found in 'The Great Hall of the Bulls'. It is believed that the aurochs were driven to extinction by man.
Another Asian species, the giant unicorn rhino, (Elasmotherium) or thin-plate beast, stood over 2 metres high at the shoulder, up to 6 metres long, weighed 5 tons and had an enormous single horn, up to 2 metres long. They first appear in the fossil record some 2.6 million years ago. This long-legged rhino displayed horse-like behaviour and occupied the steppes of Siberia. So, Elasmotherium may be the only species of (now extinct) rhino known to early humans that can lay claim to the title of unicorn as it resembled a horse and had a single large horn on its forehead. Apart from one image in the Rouffignac Cave in France, no extensive cave art exists to reveal what it may have looked like. We have to rely on the reconstructed form based on the fossil remains and the written record of one medieval traveller by the name of Ahmad ibn Fadlan. He set out from Baghdad in June AD 921, as the secretary of an ambassador, destined for the towns of the Bulghars at the three lakes of the Volga. His journey was both illuminating and hazardous and upon eventually reaching the Volga River in May AD 922, he wrote:
Near the river [the Volga] is a vast wilderness wherein they say is an animal that is less than a camel and more like a bull in size. Its head is like a camel, and its tail is like the tail of a bull. In the centre of its head it has a thick horn, which as it rises from the head of the animal gets to be thinner until it becomes like the point of a lance ... I saw in the king's house three large bowls which looked like [they were made of] the onyx of Yemen. The king informed me that it was made from the base of the horn of the animal. Some of the people of the country told me that it was a rhinoceros.
Elasmotherium and the woolly rhino both died out about 10,000 years ago. Apart from possible climatic change, although their extinction does not coincide with the end of the last ice age, the woolly rhino, the Elasmotherium and the woolly mammoth were, in all probability, bundled into extinction by humans.
The Liber de Spectaculis (On the Spectacles) is dated to AD 80 and was written to celebrate the 100 days of games held by the Roman emperor Titus to inaugurate the Flavian Amphitheatre, or the Colosseum as we know it. Written by the poet Martial, it gives a complete account of what was intended as an illustration of Titus's power and benevolence:
Now while the rhinoceros is entertaining to observe, when undisturbed it is naturally diffident [shy] and seems to be a disappointing animal for the games. A strict vegetarian, in nature it attacks no other animal for food but is content to munch the placid shrub. This is not very promising for the arena. But the unexpected aspect of this preposterous quadruped is its explosive anger and incredible power when annoyed. Its temper is uncertain: you might have to work at disturbing it, but when sufficiently provoked it attacks ferociously, propelling its tonnage at 30 miles per hour, an attack which hardly anything in nature can withstand, while bellowing a variety of frightening noises.
Excerpted from The Rhino Keepers by Clive Walker, Anton Walker. Copyright © 2012 Clive & Anton Walker. Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsNote to the Reader,
List of Acronyms,
1 The Flight of the Unicorn,
2 The Last Living Rhino,
3 Extinction at the Hand of Man,
4 Path of Blood,
5 Valley of the Rhino,
6 Silent Desert,
7 The Rhino Wars,
8 The Rise of the Phoenix,
9 Silence Will Speak,
10 Which Way the Rhino?,
Maps and Graphics,
Black Rhino Historical Distribution Map,
White Rhino Historical Distribution Map,
White Rhino Numbers in Africa,
Black Rhino Numbers in Africa,
Rhino Poached in South Africa,
Rhino Hunted and Poached in South Africa,