This is the second of two stories on the human toll of poaching.
MOKOPANE, South Africa — Kumba doesn’t like the sound of men’s voices. A masculine tone makes him wary, causing him to take a step away from the green iron bars of his enclosure.
He much prefers manager Gaby Benavides and the other female staff members at the Rhino Orphanage in South Africa. Kumba will come closer when they approach, anticipating a feeding or a walk, and when he’s left behind in his enclosure, he bleats plaintively, a sound that’s endearingly like a cross between a rubber squeak and a kazoo.
He’s a bit of a mama’s boy, which is understandable when you consider that only a few weeks ago, his mother was killed by poachers, who hacked off her horns and left her bleeding in the grass.
As rhino poaching explodes in South Africa, hundreds of young rhinos are left behind as orphaned casualties. Only adult rhinos have large horns, which develop with age. Rhino calves have no horn or only have nubs, making them of little interest to poachers.
Yet they are affected by the poaching, usually witnessing their mother’s death and disfigurement.
“You do see they’re more afraid of people, the ones who have seen a tragic scene,” says Benavides. “Kumba, you can see, is wary. If he hears a branch break, he jumps.”
The fact that the poachers aren’t interested in the rhino calves doesn’t mean they aren’t injured. In addition to the mental trauma, the calves can be hurt physically. That was the case with Ntombi, a female calf that arrived at the Rhino Orphanage with deep cuts — about 21 in all, from machetes and axes — which she probably suffered attempting to protect her mother as her horn was being cut off.
“They think she was trying to protect the mom and because she was being a nuisance, they hacked at her,” Benavides says. “The smaller they are, they stick to the mom.”
The work is difficult, and the Rhino Orphanage is isolated, deep in the bush about 100 miles from the border with Botswana. The nearest town is about 30 miles away. There are ticks, mosquitoes and poisonous snakes. For security reasons, the location is not given away easily. To get there, you must pass a security gate and fence, then navigate a web of dirt roads.
The security is necessary. Though the juvenile rhinos have only small horns, at a street value of $65,000 per kilogram, that’s enough to attract poachers.