Haven amid the horror for orphaned rhino calves

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Haven amid the horror for orphaned rhino calves

A Limpopo sanctuary offers a second chance to rhinos affected by poaching - but their work is bittersweet

Journalist

Six years ago, Arrie van Deventer was a history teacher in Limpopo, with a big interest in conservation and wildlife. But it took one distress call from a neighbour after a rhino was shot outside a nearby farm, leaving a calf orphaned, to make the decision to swap the classroom for the bush.
Living on a farm already, it was not a difficult decision.
Soon after that, Van Deventer founded The Rhino Orphanage in Limpopo; they realised the need since they could not find a facility to care for orphaned rhino calves. Now his orphanage is run as a specialist, non-commercial centre that rehabilitates orphaned and injured rhino before releasing them back into the wild. 
The centre is a response to the rhino poaching crisis and the limited  facilities to take in orphaned calves, such as Nandi, Van Deventer explains.When she first arrived at the orphanage in 2012, she had 21 axe wounds on her face and neck. Although doctors gave her a 5% chance of survival, Van Deventer never left her side.
In the end Nandi made a full recovery, and was successfully released back into the wild.
“We see horrific things,” Van Deventer said. “It gets better with time but you never get used to it. You just have to learn to cope with it. There’s more good than bad, so the one heals the other.
“Animals surviving trauma or a massive surgery are some of the good things. Also, when they fight to stay alive and one day live in the wild again. That’s what we do, that’s what we’re here for.”Now viewers will get to see exactly what it takes to run the facility and some of the traumatic and often funny experiences of Van Deventer and his team, as the orphanage features in three episodes of the new wildlife series The Wild Ones on M-Net. The series covers a range of conservation issues.
In the first episode viewers will meet 24-year-old Jamie Traynor, who started working at the centre in 2014. Now a fulltime first-year veterinary science student, Traynor said being able to sleep in close proximity to a baby rhino is one of the perks of the job.
“Rhinos younger than six months make for great cuddle buddies,” she jokes.
“The best part is when you start sleeping on opposite sides of the room and then eventually once you’ve formed a bond, they come and sleep right next to you.”This is a vital part of their rehabilitation after they’ve lost their parents. Often the calves refuse to leave their mothers’ carcasses, which adds to their trauma.
Traynor said the first night for a new arrival was the toughest.
“The most heartbreaking thing is to hear them cry for their mom. They sound like dolphins when they cry; it’s an odd sound to come from such a big animal,” she said. 
Another part of the bonding process is “bashing”, when they push somebody around.
“Their release is the best part, but it’s also bittersweet because we know that there’s a possibility that they could get poached,” Traynor said.
While the facility is expensive to operate, it’s Van Deventer’s passion for wildlife that keeps him going.
“I do this for the animals. There’s maybe 12,000 rhino’s left in the world, if that many, but we don’t have exact figures. If you see the trauma and the hell they go through … somebody has to look after them.”
 Just this week a four-day-old rhino calf was brought to the facility after its mom was poached.For the safety of the animals at the orphanage, Van Deventer could not reveal the number of rhinos currently at the facility.
Van Deventer and Traynor believe the new series in which the orphanage features will give audiences a different perspective of the magnificent animals.
“They’re just amazing. They have incredible personalities. All people see is an animal that’s part of the big five who eats and sleeps all day. But rhinos are so funny and clumsy; they can make you laugh. I wish more people could see that side of them,” Traynor said.
• The Wild Ones premieres on M-Net channel 101 on May 6 at 3pm.

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