At least some orphans of the rhino war get a second chance
One calf was found after hiding in its mom's carcass for two weeks
Behind the latest grim statistics on South Africa’s unrelenting rhino poaching crisis, we don’t always hear about the casualties of war that were left behind to die.
Nationwide, 1,028 rhinos were butchered for their horns last year – including large numbers of cows with dependent calves or unborn babies.
But in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal – one of the country’s hottest poaching zones − nearly a dozen rhino calves have been given a second chance at life after being rescued by wildlife rangers.
JP van Heerden, a senior Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife game capture officer, says it is difficult to estimate what proportion of rhino calves survive after their mothers are gunned down by the poachers who hurriedly hack away the horns with pangas or axes.Rhino calves normally remain with their mothers for about three or four years after birth, at which point the young rhinos are shooed away to fend for themselves in the big wild world.
Sometimes, poachers will also kill calves for their horns. But when they are racing to claim their booty and escape capture, they seldom bother to kill the very young calves with tiny horn stumps.
And because they are dependent on their mothers for milk and protection, many of these lone orphans will not abandon the rotting corpses of their mothers.State of affairs
Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa said a total of 1‚028 rhino were poached in South Africa from January 1, 2017 to December 31, 2017‚ compared to 1‚054 in the same period for 2016‚ representing a decrease of 26 animals.
"While there has been a decrease in the number of rhino killed for their horns in the Kruger National Park‚ the number of rhino poached unfortunately increased in KwaZulu-Natal‚ Northern Cape‚ Mpumalanga‚ Free State and North West," she said.“If we don’t recover them very soon after they are orphaned, the young ones stand little chance in a wild environment. They either starve or get picked off quickly by lions, hyenas and other carnivores,” said Van Heerden.
Most of the eleven orphan calves currently being cared for in the rhino capture bomas in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi were lucky enough to be rescued quickly.
But there are also times when poached rhino corpses remain undetected by anti-poaching units for days or weeks in this 96,000-hectare game reserve.“We had one very remarkable case of a white rhino calf that managed to survive for two weeks before it was rescued. When we found the calf, there was abundant evidence of hyena tracks on the ground very close to the dead mother. It was a miracle that it survived so long and we think that it may have hidden at times in the body cavity of its mother for safety,” said van Heerden.
He said those that survive still require careful attention, especially the very young ones that have not been weaned.
“These ones have to be bottle-fed throughout the night and monitored regularly by vets.”Van Heerden said carers try to wean the calves off bottled milk and get them drinking from a trough as soon as possible, because the ultimate aim is to return them to a wild environment and avoid the risk of calves becoming “imprinted” by regular human contact.
Once they are weaned, the calves are introduced to a more natural diet of grass species (for white rhino) or fresh leaves and twigs (for black rhino).
Van Heerden said Ezemvelo generally keeps the calves in the bomas and a semi-natural rehabilitation enclosure for about four years, before releasing them back in other game reserves.
Sadly, they are unlikely to return to Big Five reserves like Hluhluwe-Imfolozi because there is a high risk that sub-adult calves will not have developed the survival skills needed to drive off prides of lion.