The rhino ("kifaru" in Swahili) grazes on the African savanna and
shelters in dense thickets of thorny brush. Ticks lurk in both spots,
waiting to fling themselves onto a host. Kifaru's skin is thick, but
very sensitive and well supplied with blood just under the surface, so
it bleeds easily. Ticks and other skin parasites make Kifaru itch
horribly, so he spends a lot of time and energy scratching himself on
rocks and trees, trying to get rid of them. This is where the oxpecker,
or tickbird, can be a big help. Kifaru is also very shortsighted and has
a hard time seeing enemies if they approach, but the oxpecker on
Kifaru's back can, and provides some warning by hissing and screaming.
Because the rhino can survive without the tickbird, Kifaru is a
facultative partner in this mutualistic relationship.
The little oxpecker ("askari wa kifaru" or "the rhino's guard" in
Swahili) "cleans" the rhino by plucking ticks from Kifaru's skin, but
does so selectively; he prefers big, fat ticks that are already engorged
with blood, ignoring the little ones that irritate Kifaru just as
badly. The oxpecker also searches any wounds or sores Kifaru may have
and removes botfly larvae and other parasites, but in the process he
also removes scabs and tissue, causing fresh bleeding. In fact, the
oxpecker gets his blood meals as much directly from Kifaru himself as
from the parasites he removes. This makes the tickbird the obligate
partner, almost a parasite himself. He needs Kifaru with his parasite
burden as a primary, if not a sole, food source.
Postcard published by Tushita.