Rhino orphanage in South Africa takes in littlest victims of poaching

by @kenichiserino January 8, 2015 5:00AM ET

With no horns, rhino calves witness slaughter of parent, are left to die unless someone gets them to this remote refuge

South Africa
Kumba, an orphaned rhinoceros, is one of several being raised by an orphanage in Mokopane
Kate Brooks / Redux Pictures for Al Jazeera America
Security personnel do a perimeter check of the orphanage to look for signs of forced entry.
Kate Brooks / Redux Pictures for Al Jazeera America

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.

At a private ranch in Limpopo, a fetus taken during the autopsy of a poached pregnant rhino.
Kate Brooks / Redux Pictures for Al Jazeera America

More than a thousand rhinos will be poached this year — the worst tally since the annual number started increasing in 2008. Young calves left behind are completely dependent on their mothers and die unless they find another adult female to feed them or are taken to a rhino orphanage. The very young ones need to get to safety and nourishment within hours.

“We need to save every single rhino that we possibly can, says Alison Thomas, director of Outraged SA Citizens Against Rhino Poaching. “When orphans are involved in a rhino poaching incident, if they are not able to fend for themselves or suckle, then they die.”

Thomas estimates there are 50 rhino calves being cared for in six orphanages across the country.

And they need a lot of specialized care. The youngest rhino calves eat every three hours, each time consuming 2 liters of special milk. Rhino milk is high in fat but low in sugar. Cow’s milk can’t substitute, and a special formula must be prepared.

Rhino Orphanage staffers Simone Mizer, 22, and Jaime Traynor, 21, weigh the ingredients on an electric scale before mixing and pouring the milk into bottles. They repeat this every three hours for the youngest rhinos and every four or five hours for the older ones, night and day. The women alternate who doesn’t sleep through the night. But they say the sacrifice is worth it.

After all, they’re trying to save a species.

“So at the end of the day, it isn’t even work for us,” Mizer says.

The two are at an age when many of their peers are enjoying nightlife or, at the very least, not mixing rhino milk formula at 3 a.m. But they would not exchange the experience for anything, they say.

“No one gets to say they fed a rhino at 2 in the morning or slept with them,” Traynor says. The staffers sometimes have to sleep with the rhinos to monitor their well-being, particularly right after they arrive. This means pulling a small mattress into a cramped room with an infrared light for the rhino’s warmth and sleeping next to a very large animal that has likely just gone through a traumatic experience.

“When he kicks me, I wake up [thinking], ‘Is he all right?’ Plus you don’t want to be squashed,” Traynor says. “He’s pretty big, and you don’t want to be stepped on.”

Kumba being fed milk formula.
Kate Brooks / Redux Pictures for Al Jazeera America

A rhino mother normally teaches her calf to eat grass. But in the absence of their mothers, the calves must learn from those working at the orphanage. When Benavides arrived there, one of the rhino calves refused to eat grass and would consume only milk formula from the bottle. A rhino that will not eat grass is a rhino that won’t survive in the wild.

“They trust you like a mom,’’ Mizer says. “They follow you around like a mom.”

Benavides struggled to get the calf interested in grass until she realized she needed to meet the creature halfway. She crammed vegetation into a blender, creating a grass smoothie that the rhino could eat from a bottle. The rhino soon learned to graze for itself and finally left the bottle behind.

That was a relatively high-tech solution. In other cases, an orphanage staffer must get down on hands and knees and mimic eating grass. The same goes for teaching the rhinos how to bathe in the mud. A staffer has to get right in and show the young rhinos how it’s done.

Benavides says that while the Rhino Orphanage gets a lot of interested volunteers, finding the right fit is difficult. One person lasted just a few days, while others commit, only to back out at the last moment.

Volunteers can be a problem for some orphanages. Thomas says that some rhino orphanages engage in voluntourism, in which volunteers — often from the West — are charged fees to work.

“What some of them are doing is using volunteers to bring in the finances,” she says. “Then you have too many people in contact with the rhinos, 10 people are looking after one animal. It’s no good for the rhino because they can’t be [returned to the wild].”

The increased interest in putting a halt to rhino poaching has encouraged more fundraising, but with it has come more fraud, since some anti-poaching organizations collect donations with little oversight or auditing. This has included rhino orphanages.

“I think people need to understand that there are some good orphanages and some really bad ones. The more we have opening up, the more problems we are having,” Thomas says.

In the meantime, Benavides and her team will continue trying to save rhinos, one orphan at a time, despite knowing that as many as three rhinos each day are slaughtered in South Africa.

“Its hard work, but we are going to win someday,” she says.

Three of the rhinos at a private reserve in Limpopo have been orphaned, their parents killed by poachers. The reserve has less security than the national parks do.
Kate Brooks / Redux Pictures for Al Jazeera America