Last Saturday I told stories at the Edinburgh Zoo as part of their World Rhino Day festivities. It was a surprisingly gorgeous day for September, so I told outside on the terrace around the corner from the zoo’s two greater one-horned rhinos, Bertus and Samir. It was a busy day for the rhinos who were also hosting a women’s rugby team and the artist, Becksy.
Two weeks previous, I told stories for International Vulture Awareness Day. Both events were well attended and great fun to participate in, but preparing for each felt quite different. Local storyteller and youth worker Russell McLarty talks about “story deprivation” as something that afflicts some places to their detriment. Well, it turns out animals can be story deprived to.
I’ve started my residency by setting out to find traditional stories and folktales for the zoo’s residents. I struck storytelling gold with Carrion Dreams 2.0, which contains over 50 traditional tales about vultures and reference many others. But it’s not just Benjamin Joel Wilkinson’s work. Vultures are well-storied around the world, which surprised me. I had a wealth of choice for those sessions.
Compared to vultures, rhinos are story deprived. I was only able to find six stories in total about rhinos and that was after searching online and off. One of those tales was merely written in the tradition of a traditional tale: Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Story, How Rhinoceros got his Skin. Nonetheless, it is a brilliant story for telling and led my zoo sessions with it. In four others, the rhino is but a minor character: A Caterpillar’s Voice, Plop! and the The River that Went to the Sky. I did find this brief bit of story on an African tourism website: Why the Rhino is Bad Tempered. However, it’s only in the story of The Prince and the Rhinoceros that the greater one horned rhino is front and centre in a traditional tale.
The greater one-horned rhino is indigenous to Northern India and Nepal, so I asked my colleague Naomi Appleton, an expert in the Buddhist Jataka folktales if she’d come across any rhino stories. The answer was no. The animals in Jataka stories tend to be monkeys and elephants, horses and other animals that would be found in or in proximity to human settlements. And now that I think about it, vultures do fit this bill. Up until their recent shocking decline (largely from the vet drug diclofenac), vultures were commonly found in and around human habitations in many different countries, while rhinos are mostly solitary.
I’m not sure what the meaning of story deprivation might be for animal species. The multitude of folktales about lions, tigers and elephants has not stopped these species from being vulnerable to extinction through human actions. But it’s something to think about as I prepare for future Animal Awareness Days.