Shooting a Rhino

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Published in Curious

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When George Orwell aimed his gun at the elephant, his finger tentatively feeling for the trigger, there was a lot going on. 

He was a symbol of Empire, colonial brutality and the ultimate irony of tyranny.  He was also a man grappling with his own masculinity in a desperate search of his balls. Unfortunately for the elephant Orwell decided this search lay in the firing of the gun.

Later, in writing the story Shooting an Elephant, Orwell admitted his fears and self-hatred. He acknowledged that his face grew to fit the mask of a tyrant.  But he is not alone. There is a long history of people who have looked for their balls down the barrel of a gun.  Usually when it’s pointed at something without the advantage of firearms.  Hemingway and his ilk, for example, scoured Africa for decades for their balls, then feeling they’d found them, hung the proof on their walls. 

But, this was all a long time ago.  Orwell wrote his story in 1936.  It may or may not even be true.  It may be pure allegory, or you may believe his wife who said, “Of course he shot the fucking elephant.”  True or not the episode provides an insight into people and our hubris. 

Countless animals could have been saved a lot of bother had the hunters contemplated a little longer before blasting their guns.  They may even have felt a far deeper gratification than surrogate balls on a wall.

There was a light mist over the bush when we left on safari at the dawn.  It left a dampness that glistened in the rising sun. The open vehicle bumped and jumped through the rough African bush.  We travelled away from the well-used tracks, down steep gullies and up the other side again.  I trusted the ranger knew where we were going and how to get back.

As we ventured deeper into the wilderness Matt, our ranger, pointed out animals and birds as we passed.  A journey of Giraffes grazed on the crest of a hill.  A dazzle of Zebra stood alert in the distance.  A herd of Impala’s skipped across the road, impossibly close to the front of the truck.  We braked hard.  Matt told us they’re known as the MacDonald’s of the bush. The markings on their behinds look like an M and everyone loves to eat them.

Soon we came to a clearing.  We stopped.  There were a few thick bushes dotted around, but I could see no signs of wildlife.  We sat in silence. Still.  Listening. 

We heard slushing water nearby.  We remained rigid.  A bush ahead rustled. All eyes fixed on the bush.  A horn emerged, followed closely by the rest of an enormous Rhino. The steel hide glistened with wet mud.  It meandered forth, flicking mud off its tail.  Behind it another appeared, a calf.  Then another arrived, this one bigger than the first.

 Matt the ranger told us in hushed tones that these are White Rhino.  He says the females live together raising young, while the males are solitary.  In the early 1900s there were less than 100 White Rhino left.  Their numbers have increased due to less ball searching and more anti-poaching measures.  He went onto discuss the differences between the White and Black Rhino. But I didn’t hear him over the sound of my heartbeat. I felt intoxicated. A sweet concoction of awe and terror; knowing these creatures could demolish us all with a few well-placed shoves.  Others in the truck clicked their cameras in earnest.  

The smaller adult proceeded to rub the length of her body against the rough bark of a fallen tree. An air of nonchalance exuded as she luxuriated in the moment. The youngster trotted close to her and started to graze.

I felt the terror subside, leaving pure awe in its wake.  In unison, the three Rhinos moved, this time towards us.   Silence descended again.  All I could hear was the sway and crunch of the grass as the mighty beasts ambled closer. Then they stopped. All three stood in a row in front of the truck, looking back at us. Their snuffily breathing punctured the quiet.  The larger Rhino moved a few steps to the side and began grazing.  That is when the little one stepped towards the truck.  A hushed gasp fell across the observers. 

Surely the mother would warn her baby away from humans and trucks. But she just blinked at us while her inquisitive youngster sniffed the front grill in detail.  The calf, barely as tall as the tyre sniffed with great interest for several minutes. No one made a sound. Not a whisper, a coo or a camera click, as if we all understood the significance of such a moment.  She trusted us. 

The Rhinos sniffed and grazed next to us for several minutes before sauntering off. Slowly the observers reached for their cameras again and began to click. 

I realised as they left that I hadn’t taken any photos. I had missed my shot. But I had acquired something far deeper: humility.

Something happens when you look into the eye of a wild animal.  Far from discovering your balls, you recognise your own fragility.  From that moment there is an overwhelming sense of humility, of one’s own insignificance in the world. But this epiphany does not mean a loss of dignity, such as Orwell, Hemingway and others feared when hunting for their scrotum.  Quite conversely, it offers a profound rejuvenation of the soul borne from the responsibility of trust.

“The main motive for “nonattachment,”’ Orwell points out in Shooting an Elephant, “is a desire to escape from the pain of living, and above all from love. . ..”.   Although in the story he is talking about Eastern gurus, I can’t help thinking that he is also speaking of the disconnection required of the hunter from its prey in order to carry out the kill.

Sadly, those hunters pulled the trigger too fast. They denied themselves the quiet trust that mother Rhino bestowed on us that day. 

In that moment, while I felt so insignificant, my spirit grew in ways I neither expected nor understood.   With time I have come to understand that the experience was about truth in humility. 

Wisdom tells us that pride is artificial. It is based on lies.  Orwell felt that sting of pride fucking with him on that day in Burma.  He understood those lies were no substitute for strength of character and he hated himself for not railing. He may have been searching for his balls down the barrel of a gun, but ironically that is where he lost them.

I returned from safari that day forever changed.  I had no trophy to show.  I carried no proof, except a new understanding of this world and an inescapable attachment to the pain of living and above all to love.

“It does us all good to get looked at now and then by a wild animal.”

Bailey White

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