January 2022




Symbiosis in the animal kingdom is well documented and is a prime example of how everything is connected in some way or another. Personally, it is one of the most fascinating aspects of the natural environment. Considering how many people share a passion for observing wildlife, it’s not often you get to photograph a rare moment between two species which may well possibly be the only photo of such an interaction:

We found ourselves in the south of the reserve where we had been watching a rhino bull wallow in the mud. With the late afternoon light behind us, we waited for the large mammal to rise to his feet. This took some time. We couldn’t help but do some birding while the rhino enjoyed his time in the mud. Three-banded plovers, wood sandpipers and common sandpipers were in our immediate vicinity.

Finally, the rhino rose to his feet and took a few steps while assessing the wind. Then, a bird appeared on his back. This one was different to what we are used to seeing on rhinos. A tail wagging, a white breast to belly and a long beak. On closer inspection to was the unmistakable common sandpiper which was hunting the swarm of flies on the rhino’s back.

Usually we see oxpeckers, even starlings, on large mammals. In my seven-and-a-half-years of guiding I have been really fortunate to have been in areas with healthy rhino populations and this was a first for me. After doing some research, this behaviour has been documented just a few times by one person in the 1990s but they had no photos. This may be the only photo of this special symbiosis.

By Marc Bowes-Taylor
Field Guide