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Do rhinos really stomp out fires?


Is that rhino on its way to a fire?
Is that rhino on its way to a fire?
StuPorts/ThinkStock

There is a scene in the 1980 movie "The Gods Must Be Crazy" where a rhino acts as a "self-appointed fire prevention officer" of the bush. Noticing that a human has started a small camp flame, the rhino rushes in and quickly stamps it out. (You might've seen an homage to the scene on an episode of "The Simpsons" when a stampeding rhino changes course to put out a fire.) All this makes sense -- as everyone knows -- because rhinos have a strict "safety first" motto. Clearly, they're the right animal to have by your side when you've set the roast on fire in the oven, but a real drag during your bonfire. Do not invite the rhino to your Guy Fawkes Night bash.

Only one problem. While this behavior is the stuff of legend, it seems to be strictly myth. And in fact, the legend is possibly quite different from the one that entertains us on the screen. In a 1974 survey of scientific literature on the rhinoceros, there is a mention of the Burmese belief that the rhino was attracted to campfires. Once finding them, the rhino would "trample and devour" the fire -- basically becoming a fire-eating legend [source: Van Strien].

But it's important to note that these tales are pretty much just that: stories passed along by indigenous groups. Nobody has actually seen rhinos attack -- or consume -- a fire with any gusto. It's also prudent to point out that there are several different types of rhinos, and the black rhinos native to Africa have never been accused of eating fire. It just might be that the legend of the fire-eating Asian rhino somehow morphed into the fire-stomping African rhino [source: Gaines]. But it is true that rhinos are not fond of humans; they fear them, and their reaction might just be to attack [source: Okori]. A fire isn't going to stop or busy them, in other words.

Let's end by giving the rhino its due, because some 2004 research has shown that the ancient rhino (which was shaped more like a hippopotamus) had no predators, thanks to its enormous size and lethal horns [source: Goldbaum]. In fact, the modern rhino is hard-pressed to find anyone willing to step to it. Perhaps that's one of the reasons the myth continued: Nobody wants to think that an animal has no weakness, right? Pretend the big bad rhino can be distracted with fire, and it's a little easier for us humans to handle.

But let's be clear: Instead of imagining the rhino as the concerned public safety officer portrayed in myth and entertainment, understand that its role is much closer to deadly king of the jungle.


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