An Unlikely Friendship: The Oxpecker and the Rhino in a Tender Moment

Capturing the Symbiotic Bond Between Two Unlikely Companions


While driving through the South African bush, Zaheer Ali stumbled upon a lone rhino munching on grass. On the rhino’s head perched a small oxpecker. Although Ali had his camera at the ready, he initially didn’t think the scene was particularly photo-worthy. However, that perception changed within minutes.


The red-billed oxpecker is commonly seen hitching rides on the backs and heads of black rhinos. These birds feed on ticks and fly larvae on the rhino’s tough skin, effectively cleansing the large mammal of unwanted parasites. In Swahili, the red-billed oxpecker is known as “Askari wa kifaru,” which translates to “the rhino’s guard.” Recent studies have shown that these 8-inch-long birds play a crucial role in keeping their large friends safe.


According to research published in Current Biology, oxpeckers compensate for rhinos’ poor eyesight by alerting them to impending danger. When the birds sense humans approaching, they emit a sharp warning call or hiss, prompting the rhinos to become more vigilant. This symbiotic relationship helps protect the critically endangered species from poachers who hunt them for their horns, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine.



What caught Ali’s attention that day was something he had never witnessed before. “I watched as this tiny bird sharpened his beak on the horn of the rhino,” Ali said in a Zali Safari blog post. “I picked up my camera and waited for the right moment and took the shot as the bird lay on the horn of the rhino.” The bird seemed to lean in to snuggle the rhino, both animals appearing completely relaxed and content in each other’s company. By chance, Ali had captured an image that perfectly symbolized the symbiotic relationship these two unlikely friends share.