Helplessly stuck in a patch of mud, this tiny zebra foal appeared doomed to a prolonged and agonising death.
Stuck in the mud: A bull rhino spots a zebra foal stuck in mud near a watering hole at the Madikwe Game Reserve and decides to start prodding the hapless youngster with his horn
Then along came the most unlikely of rescuers – a gigantic bull rhino who had been attracted by the creature’s desperate struggles and mewling cries.
It was the work of a moment for the enormous animal to hoist the foal out of the mud and to safety. But tragically this was one rescue that did not have a happy ending. Oblivious to its own strength, the rhino ended up impaling the zebra on its horn.
Up you come: After a few seconds prodding the foal, the bull decides to hook it with his horn and yank it from the sticky morass – a move which seems to have come too quickly for the weakened youngster
Brutal: Although now free, the foal is almost sent flying by the bull rhino’s sudden movement
Tragic: The young zebra slumps heavily down onto the rhino’s horn. It is not clear whether this is the point that the foal was disembowelled by the bull’s clumsy rescue
Roel van Muiden, a field guide and wildlife photographer, spotted the foal stuck in a deep and pitiless patch of mud while he was showing visitors around the Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa.
Nearby a bull rhino was chasing some females, then being chased away in return, but the foal’s mother and her herd were nowhere to be seen.
‘The foal must have been there for quite some time,’ wrote Mr van Muiden in Africa Geographic.
The bull rhino, he went on, finally gave up on his futile advances. Wandering down to the water, he found the hapless foal. Curious, the huge beast began prodding the youngster with his horn.
After a while the bull, growing impatient with his toy, sank his snout deep into the mire before quickly lifting the foal from the mud. This was no altruistic rescue mission, having helped it escape the morass he merely dropped the animal and wandered off.
But then he came back to the exhausted youngster for another look. Apparently wanting to see the foal from another angle, he used his horn to move it into a different position, and disembowelled it.
Dropping it again, the bull flopped to the mud himself for a roll-around, almost crushing the dying baby zebra. The stricken animal didn’t last much longer.
Boredom: The bull rhino had earlier got nowhere with his advances towards a couple of nearby cows
Mr van Muisen said many things went through his mind as he watched the tragedy unfold, but his foremost thought was to ‘let nature be nature’.
‘I have had many comments from people seeing the photos asking why I did not retrieve the foal from the mud,’ he said.
‘The zebra’s herd was gone so even if I could have, he would not have survived as his mother and harem were nowhere to be seen and thus he would have died from starvation.’
Mr van Muisen added that the foal’s mother probably knew her child was caught in a hopeless situation. She probably had good reason for abandoning it to its fate, he said.
Despite the foal’s sad and early end, he said he felt lucky to see what he described as ‘an amazing interaction between two species.’
‘I have been guiding for almost ten years and may go on for many and still never witness something as amazing and melancholy as this.’