The hands-on safari

  @FortuneMagazine October 24, 2013: 4:16 PM ET
PUR28 safari

Travelers can serve as a veterinarian's assistant by helping notch a rhino's ears.

(Fortune)

I had to get out. Parked in a Land Rover on safari in South Africa, sitting less than the length of my office away from a two-ton white rhino, I felt trapped. Not literally -- we were not backed into a corner, and he was not contemplating a charge. He was minding his business and paying me no mind. But I was trapped by the confines of the vehicle, frustrated and fidgety. I had vowed to return to Africa -- not to bear passive witness but to explore hands-on. Which is precisely how I found myself, 13 years after that first trip, in the wilds of southern Africa clutching the horn of a live rhino.

One of the hottest trends in tourism these days is so-called experiential travel, trips that allow travelers to place themselves in increasingly unique situations, sometimes helping do a greater good in the process. The opportunity to get up close and personal with a living, breathing rhino is the latest evolution of tourism-driven conservation. One of the Big Five animals that are a must-see for safari-goers (along with the lion, elephant, leopard, and buffalo), the rhino is an icon of Africa, as symbolic as America's eagle. But it is also one of the world's most endangered species. More precious than gold, rhino horns sell on the black market for upwards of $30,000 a pound, fueled by demand from the Far East, where the horn is coveted as an aphrodisiac, a hangover remedy, and a cure for cancer, despite the fact that it possesses no medicinal value. South Africa is home to about 80% of the world's remaining rhino population, which totals just over 20,000, but its dwindling numbers shock: Between 2000 and 2007 an average of 15 rhinos a year were lost to poaching, but by 2010 that had jumped to 333. In 2011, 448. Last year, 668. This year poachers are on pace to slaughter as many as 1,000 rhinos.

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