Guarding the last male rhino, Ajayi decides to snooze for a while. He has never napped at work in his three years working at Ole Pejeta’s conservancy and the rhinos under his watch have never been harmed. The end of his shift is not until sunset when he will travel for 614 kilometers to his hometown, Lodwar. His mom had promised him a captivating surprise. He pondered the possibilities: a patient girl, home-cooked stew or a new pair of knitted socks. At the end of his shift, he will sign the routine papers quickly and check yes on the rhinos’ safe return to their sheds, and no under mating. He sets his alarm for a twenty-minute nap and wishes for an app to warn of imminent threats.
The three by the creek–Sudan, Najin and Fatu–are the only white Northern rhinos left on earth. Foraging a few feet from Fatu and Najin, Sudan looks debilitated. An oxpecker snaps at annoying gnats on his hunchback. Its red and yellow beak are in stark contrast to Sudan’s monochrome skin. The bird stands on Sudan’s back, puffing its feathery chest and looking arrogantly at the two females. It flits with agility, fluffing grayish wings and blinking red eyes and then lands on Sudan’s head and sings a trilling note. The squared mouths of Sudan, Fatu and Najin nibble wet alfalfa. Their jaws work so slowly that upon watching the lazy teeth plucking the stalks, Ajayi’s head begins to droop.
He takes off his beige jacket and furls it on a grass-free patch. He hides his rifle among the untamed grass and curls his tall, thin body into cashew-curve. His barley colored skin and khaki uniform set him in perfect camouflage with nature. The baobab above resembles a single sprig of broccoli with a trunk so giant and wide that it restores water and nutrition like a camel hump for months to come. To shelter next to a baobab is to give yourself a guarantee of life. Isn’t it called The Tree of Life? The bark clears Ajayi’s nostrils. Now that his body rests upon earth, a pleasant smell of soil infiltrates his lungs elongating his sleep. Ajayi drools, then unconsciously switches off the alarm and turns to his other side. Soon his snores mingle with the frogs’ croaks. Above him, the dense branches scrape off the flagellating sun. On one of the splintered boughs, a pink plastic bag billows like a girl’s prom dress.
Sudan moves a little farther, alone. His tired legs and hoary spot-marred skin defy life expectancy. The flesh at his jaws and legs are sagging and his horn has grown a few inches. His numerous wrinkles–like an old man’s furrowed forehead– tell excruciating memories. His sauntering now is like a veteran– proud of his medals and achievements, proud to have lived until this moment. Sudan passes his only offspring. They clot together in mud-speckled dampness. Their feminine bodies are minute compared to his. Sudan flounders alone towards the knee-high posts that mark the white rhinos’ confined area.
Ole Pejeta hosts Africa’s precious wildlife spread across 90,000 acres. Predators, chimpanzees, elephants and giraffes ramble from one acre to another, unrestrained. Seeing two posts missing from the ground, Sudan follows the oxpecker’s navigation. He keeps walking unwatched by overprotective human eyes. His plump feet, round buttocks, and his prancing tiny tail journey into the unknown. His physiognomy however is not graceful. One can tell upon looking at rhinoceroses that they are not happy living things. Sunflowers are, also peacocks, ostriches, deer, rabbits, and baboons. Frogs are heedless, worms nosy, falcons serious, and camels rigid, but the rhinos, no one can describe them as happy, cheerful, let alone satisfied. Perhaps ugly, dull or nonchalant, but not when Ajayi is around. He rubs behind their ears, tickles their tired backs and scrubs the dirt out of their coarse skin every Friday morning. Because of the ongoing religious holiday where masses flood to Mecca for pilgrimage, the rangers are down-numbered today. Black rhinos fill the territory Sudan is now approaching. Their three guards, Khalil, Kumar and Ron, share a large bowl of okra stew and whole wheat bread on a cloth of old newspapers. Sudan is no longer visible amidst the Marula trees, the pond and the baobab as he staggers towards the herd of the southern rhinos. A velvet crow darts on the conservancy’s wired fence offering a clichéd shrill.
Two poachers in khaki shorts and sullen blue shirts loom. Blood trickles on the soil. An amorphous rhino lies on his side whining. Blood gushes from a large slit in place of the now missing horn.
Ajayi wakes up. He gasps upon only seeing Najin and Fatu still grazing and jumps to his feet. Snatching his rifle, he slides it across his body and straightens his back. Everywhere except his throbbing chest is quiet. There had been a time when Sudan would disappear only to be found relaxing in his shed, eyes fixated on emptiness as the oxpecker parasitized his skin. His quadrangle lips shut, his tail swatting flies. Back then, Ajayi would kneel beside Sudan; his luminous coal-black eyes meeting the trimmed horn, frightened. He would stroke Sudan’s ear like a mother’s disciplinary twitch of a naughty child. “Don’t do it again. You scared me.”
Ajayi leads Najin and Fatu to their enclosure, his mind a mirage, his feet a vehicle trekking him to unpredictability. Inside their shed, Najin and Fatu advance towards him, heads slightly lifted from the ground as if to tell him of their concern, of his fault and of that boiling turmoil inside them that will not lull until seeing Sudan once again. To them, Ajayi is the culprit. A shed without a father is like a fruit basket without bananas, like a hall without a chandelier. Ajayi squats, looks in the wide terrace between Najin’s eyes, where her double horns had been fined, and says, “I will get him back, I promise”.
In the months after Ajayi started the job, everything else he’d ever worked for seemed trivial. He felt himself less a soldier than a modest hero, guarding species at the brink of demise: a park ranger. To the park’s young visitors, he seems to be a cop. Not a single youngster comprehended the merit of lugging a rifle around in an open zoo, with its strap hanging diagonally and its muzzle pointing towards the ground.
“But this is no zoo,” he said once to a seven-year-old boy.
“What is it then?”
“A conservancy,” winking, “a prison for extra special animals.”
“Why?” the boy whispered back. His family was obsessed with a newborn black rhino in the neighboring territory.
“Because they are rare. This, for example, is the last male of the white northern rhinos. There are many poachers who watch us, waiting for the right moment to attack.”
“What do they want from him?”
Ajayi pointed to his nose, attaching his forefinger to it.
“His horn. It’s worth gold.”
“Poachers sell the horn to the Chinese who grind it. They believe it cures diseases like cancer.”
The boy walked towards ashen Sudan with an empathetic look and then followed with his hand the aged contours of the rhino’s face. Ajayi would later swear that Sudan looked back and a tear had trickled down his senescent skin. Why else would the boy convince his family to donate money for Sudan’s costly treatments?
Ajayi reaches the posts that mark the end of the white rhinos’ grassland enclosure. Beyond spreads the vast open bush that takes up more than half the conservancy’s space. He notices the gap, like two missing teeth of a six-year-old kid and starts running. Faster than the wind blowing through the gull fruit native of this territory to make a whistling, if warning sound. Giraffes stand in chunks of two or three. A stream of ants marches in an imperfect line that billows or shrinks with every rock and sapling along the way. Ahead, a horizontal heap of black rhinos who lower their pointed mouths to graze the profusion of grass. A young black rhino walks by the shadow of his mother reminding Ajayi of Sudan’s dead son, and his failure to conceive another child. Of Ajayi’s own sterility.
Scientists want Sudan to give them a male white northern rhino before he expires. They dream of him ejaculating the rarity of his species, intro-fertilizing an impetus in Najin or Fatu, or any black rhino. Don’t they know that rhinos don’t yield to incest? Sudan is not only Najin’s dad, but also Fatu’s grand-father. “It is okay in animals,” they said.
One wonders if Ajayi feels like Sudan, a trodden being. His low sperm count deemed his marriage unsuccessful. In Lodwar a sterile male is as useless as a defunct well pump.
In the waiting area, Nadia impatiently rocked her legs fidgeting about the tests’ results while Ajayi was watching the news of the fallen crane in Mecca, the death toll of a hundred casualties.
“You will not leave me if I can’t bear children. Will you?” Nadia asked.
“Of course I won’t.”
Ajayi’s gaze was on a crying woman on TV. She wiped tears with the top of her white triangular scarf. The reporter spoke of the loss of her two kids who were playing meters away from the holy Kaaba when the colossal crane fell.
“Mr. and Mrs. Sabir,” a nurse called.
Inside, the doctor invited them to sit. Feigning ignorance of the results, he opens the white envelope.
“What’s up doctor, is there anything wrong with me?” Nadia blurted out.
The doctor paused. He pulled out the documents. To Nadia’s trembling voice, he cleared his throat.
“No. You’re fine.”
He looked at Ajayi and broke the news. Ajayi for the first time in his life felt like an atom, a squashed ant against the sole of an unnamed shoe. He wished only to fade into his chair and disappear.
How would he go back to his mom, being so irresponsible and weak? Walking through the black rhinos, Ajayi waits for his eyes to catch Sudan’s silver skin. The black herd looks eternal. He walks on the pungent path that has regular marks of brogans, behemoth hooves, and scattered pebbles. The aroma of manure is wafting all around, not a single lump of excreta visible to the eyes. It might have been mixed with soil–fertilizing its growth and helping plants to evolve into their ecosystems. Or, it might have splotched the back of the rangers’ shoes and rhinos’ hooves. Ajayi holds his breath. The excrement smells stronger.
“Ajayi, come join us,” Khalil calls out over the scant remaining okra. Kumar is already picking his teeth with a thread from his jacket. Ron licks his fingers. In the center is a newspaper smudged with tomato sauce, lamb bones, and scraps of bread.
“Thank you, but I am full.”
Khalil comes toward Ajayi, and asks, “Why are you here, today? Are your rhinos in their shed?”
“Yes. I am just having a walk. The weather is good as you see.”
“You look like you’re exercising your muscles before the road trip.”
How Ajayi wishes to share his burden with Khalil the same way he shares his residence roof. Puffy greyish and white clouds cover the blue patch of the sky.
“Khalil, help us with returning the rhinos to their enclosure!” Kumar calls out.
The three of them hurry. In seconds, the black rhinos elevate their snouts from the grass and begin to move away. The landscape clears, Ajayi keeps searching. When the drizzles turn into showers, he takes position behind a broken conservancy jeep. Its logo of a Marula tree against the peak of a mountain gives him a sense of warmth, of belonging.
Amidst the tumultuous clouds, he glimpses a helicopter descending slowly. From its front window, Ajayi spots a rifle. He remembers when Khalil taught him of the poachers’ tactics: “If they can’t get past the gates, they use helicopters.”
“You don’t say they will take him inside the helicopter?”
Khalil laughed. “Of course not.”
“They shoot him from the cockpit, then they land and use a bone saw to cut his horn.”
“Did it ever happen before?”
“Yes, and the rhino died not from the bullet, but from the horn’s wound”.
Ajayi hands reek like the jeep’s metallic rust. He wipes them onto his pants and holds his rifle tenaciously. The area is evacuated for fear of rain. Not a single black rhino dallies. The helicopter’s whopping intensifies, then on a lavish branch of a Marula tree, the oxpecker bounces. Beneath it, projects the horn of Sudan. It is him, really, munching lucerne.
Ole Pejeta seems at siesta, rifles at rest. A lock’s clatter signals the black rhinos’ safe arrival. Ajayi is temporarily relieved at the thought of having other rangers in the vicinity. They for sure will hop to help if Ajayi has bad luck facing the poachers. The helicopter is whirring. Sudan, like a scrawny child miscalculating the strength of a bully, ignores it. Ajayi slides the rifle’s cool satchel from his chest and bends down.
How much had he longed to be a marksman, a true hero, but since two of his uncles died in a gang fight, his dad made it essential to give him proper schooling. His dad had funded him until high school, then traveled to the Middle East to sustain the family. On a school trip to Ole Pejeta, Ajayi kept a brochure that read: Want to be a park ranger? He shelved it away until Nadia tortured him with her sauntering in the streets of Lodwar, pushing a double-stroller. Only then did he lease his own house, stayed at his mom’s, and dusted the brochure. It was clean except for a bit of grease blotching the bottom right side from the oiliest French fries he’d ever tasted in his life,
Squinting at the helicopter, Ajayi sees the door open and the rifle’s muzzle protrudes. He holds the green button of his transmitter, presses the side button and clears his throat.
“Yes, hello, what is it? Is there anything wrong?”
The words are trapped in some area of his brain forbidding him to speak. It was similar to his sixth grade History class wherein the teacher asked him to name the British explorer who discovered Victoria Lake. Although he knew the answer quite well, his stutter made him repeat the “J” thirty times to the impatience of his teacher, who picked someone else amidst the laughing students.
The rifle is now pointed a few meters from Sudan. Ajayi turns off the transmitter and lays on his belly, crawling. His face rubs earth and his body slithers between the spikes of itchy grasses. Then he stands, thinking, “Why to crawl, do I fear them?” He rises, the helicopter approaches the ground, and the park shakes with the sound of consecutive bullets.
Khalil, Kumar and Ron hurry to the scene. Two poachers of skin color like theirs and dialect like their own whimper and curse. Their boots are soaked in blood. How sad is to witness the deflection of someone from your own ethnicity, who breathes the same air, eats the same dishes, but is enemy to your land’s ethos?
What matters to Ajayi is the shots he didn’t miss. The only other thing Ajayi recalls is Sudan’s look. A positive person would call it gratitude, but to Ajayi, it was berating. Something like, “Why didn’t you let them do it?”
Ajayi is dapper in jeans and a white shirt. Khalil drives him to the bus station. He hands his suitcase to the driver who is busy organizing the travelers’ suitcases in the bottom compartment. Ajayi mounts the few stairs and walks the aisle to take a seat by the window. As he sits, a Facebook notification beeps. He reads the brief religious prayer his dad posts every Thursday evening and looks closer to his location: Lodwar 614 km away. He exhales relief and closes his eyes as the driver ignites the engine. He replays the entire incident in his mind and feels especially content, grinning in the dark remembering how the two men floundered upon getting shot. How he patted Sudan and led him to the shed with the bird whistling victory.
Then, the memory of 1992 flashes before his eyes when his mom had called the family for breakfast. On the center of table sat three tiny eggs, pinkish sunny-side-up. Ten year old Ajayi had scurried to the trash can and found the shells of the spotted eggs.
“You didn’t take my bird’s eggs?”
“You shouldn’t have.” Sobs began to swallow his words, inflating him with anger. “You. . . you killed them!’’
“If we don’t eat them, some eagle will have devoured them.’’
“No, I promised their mom. You killed them!’’ he cried and went outside. He remembered how his dad had found him crouched under the awning of an Acacia tree and apologized. It was uplifting how marriage provided a replacement of warmth if one of the parents failed. He sobbed until he felt his dad’s starched shirt soaked in salty tears. He remembers despite how punctual and work-devoted his dad had been, that day he was not the first to let go of the embrace.
He still does not know if his mother ate the eggs or, out of guilt, poured them on her flowerbed soil. No one asked. But when he got back home that day, his mother hooted, “Speak up your plans next time, people don’t read each other’s minds.” He wanted to say, “And you speak up about your interference with nature.’’ But he didn’t.
In the darkness with the passengers’ mixed snores and infants’ staccato cries, with Khalil’s Facebook footage of Ajayi’s courage going viral, of the smell of after-work sweat, and ladies’ pleasant incense, Ajayi sees the eggs cracking into oxpeckers, like a carnival blast. And Sudan lying as always, jaw a few inches from the ground, disinterested.
*Factual Note on the Story:
On March 19, 2018, Sudan was euthanized after suffering from infections and “age-related complications”. Upon his death, the world witnessed the extinction of the last male white Northern rhino. Najin and Fatu are safe and sound in Ole Pejeta conservancy in Kenya, but still under the constant threat of poaching.