Oh, Shrikes!


We continue with the bird taxonomy lesson/rant with another family on another continent – shrikes. The all-knowing Wikipedia informs me that the name is derived from the Latin word for ‘butcher’  – or, at least, its scientific family, Laniidae, is. (Linguist nerds: the Latin word is Lanius, which happily also means executioner.)

Now, “butcher” might seem a trifle macabre for a bird of such lovely colors. It might seem an unfair judgement of a perhaps overly – practical beak and a glint in the eye that appears slightly evil when viewed in the wrong (or right) lighting. Taxonomists, one might shake one’s head. When they have any imagination, it’s too much.

In the shrike’s case, however, “butcher” appears to be entirely accurate. In Africa, they’re known as the fiscal – which happens to be the word for hangman. It’s not an unfair likeness to a serial killer that caused it. They are in the habit of picking up insects or small prey and literally skewering it on acacia thorns. In the absence of acacia, barbed wire will do, or really just any sharp point. It’s really a very practical adaptation: this way, they can rip their catch into smaller, manageable fragments. Heck, it even works for short-term storage. Stick it on – well, a stick, and then keep coming back for a nibble before it rots entirely. In the case of the toxic lubber grasshopper, it’s perfect – one to two days of dead impaled grasshopper later, all the poison has degraded and voila, dinner.

Satay, anyone?

(Note: shrike itself has a rather less gruesome origin. It’s simply the near-screaming sound of the bird’s call.)


Here’s a joke. Try not to laugh. How many jeeps does it take to spot a rhinoceros?

None. The rhinoceros spots the jeep, and the jeeps get out of its way.

Ha, ha, ha.

Moving on! Rhinos. Rhinos, rhinos, rhinos. A group of five species of odd-toed ungulates, three of them are critically endangered. The three species found in Asia include the Javan rhinoceros– with 60 wild animals and no captive ones between them and an ‘extinct’ next to their name, they’re one of the most endangered mammals in the world: while they used to be one of the most widespread of rhinoceros species, covering most of South-East Asia, now they’re limited to a tiny national park on the edge of Java, in Ujung Kulon Nationa Park– the Sumatran rhinoceros, the hairiest, smallest, and (surprise, surprise) rarest rhinoceros species, limited to less than a 100 mostly at Taman Negara National Park, and finally, the Indian rhinoceros, which thankfully is only a ‘vulnerable’, with more than 3,000 living in Assam and parts of Nepal.

The African rhinoceroses– not as depressing. Well, relatively. The southern white rhinoceros is the only species that isn’t threatened in any way– again, relatively. While not in the danger zone, it is listed as near-threatened.

Its close northern subspecies? Not as good. Seven, total, in the world: three in the wild, four in a conservancy in Kenya, which just happen to be the only reproductive members of the species. Like I said, not depressing!

Now, in a dramatic change in topic worthy of the Eleventh Doctor, my first ever safari in Africa, in Lake Nakuru National Park, began with a rock.

Well– as my friend so eloquently described, a lump of animal.

See for yourself.


Back to the usbject. That is, actually, a white rhinoceros. With two babies.

Not a rock, then.

It might has well have been one, though. After glaring at it for a couple minutes, daring it to come closer, we left. In the evening, when returning from the elation of the chui and something else I haven’t talked about yet, it was still there.


That rhino, and its kids, had not moved in four hours. Not even to roll over, or, you know, choose a sleeping spot closer to the road.

A little more about white rhinoceroses in my next post. Now, let’s move on to the other odd-toed ungulate of the African plains: the black.

Or hook-lipped rhino. But that doesn’t sound as dramatic.

Either way, it’s critically endangered, though the levels can’t conceivably be comapred to the Javan or Sumatran: round about 4,000 are left in the world, with a patchy distribution of introduced, re-introduced, and resident animals across the east coast of Africa. It has a bunch of subspecies, all of them endangered, and some tipping towards extinction: the western black’s already gone over the edge– the Chobe black’s either there or close to follow, with a possibility of one remaining individual.

 So when we saw a group of cars on the Masai Mara in prime black rhino country, who can help it if our heartbeats quickened? And with justification, too: I’m just going to let the sheer majesty of this creature, with its two meter long horn, speak for itself.


Aaaaand…. another picture.


Deep breaths, everyone. Deep breaths. I know the levels of awesomeness contained within this animal are too much to bear.

Ladies and gentleman, I present to you: the biggest rhino on the Masai Mara.

And no, I’m not kidding. This is the biggest rhino you’ll see out there, with the biggest horn. It was cooling itself down in the river with a good ol’ fashioned mud wallow when a jeep flushed it out; it then proceeded to glare at all vehicles in turn for interrupting what I’m guessing was a gorgeous bath, its horn menacingly positioned on its face and dangerously long.

I mean, look at that thing! That baby is worth at least a million dollars. Which is why I was so glad when, five minutes of gawping later, a ranger’s jeep showed up and our naturalist pointed out the notch in his ear for tracking purposes: this rhino is being taken care of– even earning it a Masai nickname, Karambe!

And it deserves it. Poaching rates are skyrocketing within the black rhinoceros population. The horn, while highly prized as a trophy ornament, also is popular in a variety of Asian medicines– on the black market, of course, and with growing demand, more and more horns are need. And the thing is? This supposed cure-for-anything is made of keratin, the same stuff our fingernails are composed. The Chinese, when they buy these cures, are literally eating fingernail.


Anyways, literally hundred of these magnificent animals are killed every year. I’m so glad I got a chance to see this one, because while I sincerely hope it dies a natural death, the odds are not in its favor.

So, how many jeeps does it take to spot a rhinoceros? Find out in my next post!