Here rhinos have a home, though it's not in the NFL

November 23, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

UMFOLOZI SOUTH AFRICA — UMFOLOZI, South Africa -- The ton and a half of rhinoceros grazing placidly next to the dirt road in this game park looked unconcerned by the fact that his kind had been rejected as mascot of Baltimore's potential NFL team.

But, viewed from the car just a few feet away, it was hard to see how anyone could not think that rhinos would be the perfect name for a football team, certainly better than Bombers, which, in the South African context, seems to elevate terrorists to a position of admiration.

Not only, like the archetype of a defensive lineman, is the animal huge but surprisingly quick and agile, it also has a classic American hero personality -- easygoing and friendly until aroused, then you'd better watch out.

The rhinoceros resembles one of those big aw-shucks farm boys who was so mild- mannered that he resisted the entreaties of the high school football coach to come out for the team. But once he was finally convinced to put on a pair of shoulder pads, the other teams never knew what hit them.

This beast was one of two dozen spotted on an afternoon drive through what can be called the rhinoceros capital of the world. The fact that he had his head down and was mowing the grass down to about a half-inch above the ground let you know that he was a white rhinoceros.

The white, or square-lipped, rhinoceros was on the verge of extinction in 1897 when Umfolozi and several other game parks in this, the Natal region of South Africa, were set aside to protect it. It only survived because the tsetse fly carried a disease which affected cattle and not wild animals, making this land unfit for farming.

But then the rhino and the rest of the game had to survive attempts to slaughter them in a misguided effort to wipe out the tsetse. Ironically, it was the pesticide DDT, considered an enemy of the environment, that finally took care of the tsetse, thus ensuring the rhinos' survival.

Now the white rhinoceros does so well in Umfolozi that rangers in this park pioneered the method of tranquilizing them with darts so they can be captured and shipped to other parks and zoos. Over 500 have been sent out this way as virtually every white rhino in the world can trace its genes back to Umfolozi.

Indeed, so plentiful is the white rhino that game-viewing status in Umfolozi comes only when you spot the now-near-extinct black rhino.

Despite their names, the two animals are actually the same color. The main difference is in their mouths. The white rhino has a wide mouth -- some think white might have been a bad pronunciation of wide -- suitable for grazing on the grass.

The black rhino is a browser so he has a hooked-lip for eating the foliage off bushes and tree limbs. This also means he holds his head up, looking more like a fullback compared to the white rhino's head-down offensive lineman stance. The black rhino is also a bit nastier in temperment.

Ironically, it is the rhino's main weapon, their impressive horn, that threatens their existence. Ground-up rhino horn is believed to have medicinal qualities by many in the Far East. The animals are slaughtered by poachers seeking to service this lucrative market.

Word comes from Zimbabwe the rhino population in that country has declined from 2,000 two years ago to 200 today. A small amount of poaching has recently been recorded in the previously safe South African parks.

To save them, some parks have taken to sawing the horns off tranquilized rhino, making them useless to poachers. The horns eventually grow back and some have suggested that the harvested horns be sold, flooding the market in order to lower the price, making the beasts less lucrative to poachers.

The bush of Africa actually provides many potential nicknames for a football team that would seem more appropriate than Bombers. There's the quick and nimble impala, as plentiful in game reserves as squirrels in Druid Hill Park. Or how about the python, perfect for a team that never fumbles. Lions are taken, but leopards or cheetahs are still available.

If you demand alliteration, you could go with the Baltimore Buffalos, not the American bison, but the African cape buffalo whose unique horns are nature's version of the football helmet.

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