Perhaps the most famous illustration of a rhinoceros ever made was an ink drawing or woodcut done nearly five centuries ago by the German artist Albrecht Durer. Interestingly enough, Durer had never laid eyes upon a living rhinoceros, but based his detailed work on the inferior sketch penned by an unknown artist who had. Thus, one can understand why Durer’s Rhinoceros suffered a few anatomical inaccuracies – its skin was a covering of huge armored plates with rivets along the seams and it also sported a small, twisted secondary horn at the base of its neck. Despite that, we easily recognize Durer’s representation as being that of an Indian or greater one-horned rhinoceros, and the image has certainly withstood the test of time. And well it should have, as the subject’s story is quite interesting.
Early in the year 1515, Alphonso Alburquerque, the governor of what was then Portuguese India, arranged for a special gift – a live rhinoceros – to be given to King Manuel I of Portugal. Animal gifts to royalty were fairly common in those times, with many people of nobility keeping exotic personal menageries. Called Ganda, the female rhinoceros had been captured in what is now the state of Assam. She was put aboard the Nossa Senorada Ajuda along with her keeper, Ocem, and the ship set sail from the port of Goa in January. It ventured westward across the Indian Ocean, rounded Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and arrived in Lisbon 120 days later.
It would be safe to say that Ganda was something of a sensation in her new home, her kind not having been seen in Europe since the days of the Roman Empire. She resided in the royal menagerie at Ribeira Palace, but the King ordered that she not be kept near the elephants, as the two species were believed to be mortal enemies. However, within a matter of only a few weeks, he decided to verify this supposed fact and arranged for a battle between the beasts. The fight was held in a courtyard and attended by the royal family and their guests. The youngest elephant in the King’s menagerie was led into the arena from its stable, and the tapestries hiding the rhinoceros were drawn open. An observer by the name of Valentin Ferdinand wrote that the rhinoceros appeared furious and immediately charged her foe, so violently that she broke free of her chain. The young elephant, whose back was initially turned to Ganda, reacted to her charge by “uttering a tremendous cry”, turning tail and bolting to safety through a thick set of iron bars.
How this affected the King is not recorded by history. However, instead of keeping his new pet rhino, he decided to re-gift Ganda to Pope Leo X. She was put aboard a ship bound for the Holy City, but this time adorned with a gilded chain, a green velvet collar, and a garland of roses and carnations. The sea voyage began in December, the ship docked briefly in Marseilles in January, and then headed for Rome. Unfortunately, a storm encountered in the Gulf of Genoa sunk the ship and drowned all who were aboard, including Ganda. But all was not lost. Her body washed ashore, was recovered, stuffed and ultimately delivered to the Pope.
This historical account refers to the greater one-horned or Indian rhinoceros, which today is a threatened species. If you’d like to know more about what the International Rhino Foundation is doing to help save this species and help support these efforts, go to: http://rhinos.org/indian-rhino-vision-2020.