Rhinos are usually the strong, silent type ... until they have a disagreement  that's when things start sounding a little weird.

With much of South Africa hard hit by drought, watering holes in national reserves and game parks have become one of the few places where animals can access water, so this is usually where the most interesting wildlife interactions take place – and it's where visitor Beryl St Arnaud caught this rhino commotion on camera.

"Everything was so dry," explains St Arnaud. "It was particularly heartbreaking to see the male bully the mom and baby so much."

In this particular reserve* many tourists position themselves in a wooden hide overlooking the high-traffic waterhole, hoping to catch a glimpse of the park's resident lion pride, or to watch the plains game move in and out of the area. Although rhinos are a fairly common sight here, this is the first time that St Arnaud has witnessed an interaction like this. "Most people had no idea why [the male rhino] was behaving like this. Some speculated that he could smell us in the hide, or perhaps the lions' scent was in the vicinity, making him want to protect [the female] and baby. No one had a definite answer for us. They eventually had nothing to drink and walked away with him through the very dry bush," she told Latest Sightings.

So what was really going on? We reached out to Karen Trendler, a rhino expert and wildlife rehabilitation specialist, for some answers. "An animal feels vulnerable at a waterhole and is usually in a more reactive state," she explains.

The instigator in this encounter was a young bull, and it's possible that his behaviour was a mashup of territorial bluster, defensive submission and the urge to get to know the lady rhino a little better. "He seems to be showing conflicting defensive behaviour and wanting to approach her  ... she then gives him a hard time and becomes protective of her calf," Trendler adds.

While water in the reserve is scarce, it's unlikely that the young bull was attempting to keep the female and her calf away from the waterhole. The rhinos look to be in good condition, and don't appear to be competing for resources. "Generally, defence of water resources by rhino is not common and not in their interests – especially as a bull would want the female to survive for mating and survival of the species," says Trendler.

Simply put, the rhinos are probably just sussing each other out and protecting their personal space. It's behaviour that Trendler has witnessed before when introducing new calves to the rescued rhinos she works with at the Fundimvelo Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage. New arrivals typically rely on noise and gestures to establish hierarchy and to signal how close the rest of the group can approach.


*EDIT: Given the surge in rhino poaching in South Arica, the name of the reserve has been removed in order to avoid revealing the location of the rhinos.

Top header image: Ray Muzyka, Flickr