A project aimed at rehabilitating orphaned rhino calves – one of the tragic consequences of South Africa’s poaching crisis – has been launched.
The Rhino Orphan Response Project, developed by the Endangered Wildlife Trust and internationally recognised rhino expert, Karen Trendler, takes in the orphaned, and often injured, calves, and rehabilitates them until they are ready to be released into the wild.
While calves suckle for the first 18 months of their lives, they usually stay with their mother until they are about three years old.
But sometimes, orphaned calves are prematurely born, as their mothers are poached during pregnancy.
Based in Roodepoort, Gauteng, the project aims to facilitate a rhino calf response network, based on international wildlife principles, to rehabilitate the calves.
“The project aims to improve the response to these situations – to get to the scene as soon as possible and provide the best possible treatment needed,” Trendler said.
“We want to get them back into the wild, as this is the best thing for rhino conservation. They must breed.”
The project is not so much an orphanage as a rescue service for poached rhinos.
“We go out to a scene where a rhino was poached, and if there is a surviving calf, we take over,” Trendler said.
“Sometimes we have to treat them for gunshot wounds and facial injuries from where the horn was removed.”
The project was funded by the Heron Bridge Private School and the Roodepoort Hiking Club, and consists of veterinarians, animal welfare staff, conservation staff, rhino owners, and anti-poaching staff.
Last year 443 rhinos were poached in South Africa – 32 in KwaZulu-Natal alone. In 2010 there were 333, while in 2006, there were only 13.
To combat this, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has launched a Rhino Security Intervention Plan, and runs the Boma-Imfolozi Game Capture Pen, which gives injured rhinos a place to rest and recuperate.
“We’ve been trying to get the project going for about a year now, but as poaching has escalated and the problem of orphaned calves becomes greater, we needed to have a more organised approach.”
Trendler said limited rhino rehabilitation expertise and failure to focus on orphaned calves can lead to unnecessary death, prolonged suffering, and further trauma to the animals.
“There has been a proliferation of so-called ‘calf-rescue’ projects, but many of these projects exploit rhino calves as a marketing tool.
“Taming and humanising them means they can’t be released back into the wild and therefore require permanent sanctuary.”
Trendler believes that with a co-ordinated rescue response network in place, many of the rhino orphans could be successfully treated and rehabilitated.
After they are released into the wild, the calves still need to be monitored. “They might need more support, or they might not get along with the other rhinos in the area,” Trendler said. “We also have to make sure that the area they are released into has massive security to protect them from further poaching.”