- Taz Watson
We had the privilege of spending the day with rhino rehabilitation expert, Karen Trendler, who rehabilitates orphaned rhino calves until they are strong enough to reenter the wild. Karen has had over 25 years experience in wildlife rehabilitation and crisis response. She is an angel that nurtures and cares for injured, abused and traumatized orphaned baby rhinos who have just lost their mothers to brutal poaching attacks. The work that she and her team of dedicated volunteers do is invaluable. They are giving these little babies a second chance at life and equipping them as best they can for survival in the wild.
Karen explained to us that the bond between a mother and her baby is so strong in rhinos that the calves get frantic when they are separated. Calves mourn the loss of their mothers so intensely that some of them refuse to eat, ram fences in a feverish panic and even develop stomach ulcers from stress. Despite being large, leathery, prehistoric-looking creatures, they are sensitive, gentle and deeply loving. While watching the calves suckle specially prepared milk from 2 liter bottles, it was hard to fathom how someone could ever hurt one of these precious babies. They are so needy and so dependant. All of these orphaned rhinos have had a very traumatic and painful introduction to the world, but thanks to Karen and her team, there is some hope for them.
When newly orphaned calves are brought to the orphanage, they are kept in individual enclosures with hay, water and a thermal light to keep them warm. While the enclosures are warm and adequate, the babies are extremely traumatized, confused and scared and they spend hours crying for their deceased mothers. They cannot be alone. They have never experienced a single moment of their lives without their mother, whom they are deeply dependent on. To try and ease some of the emotional pain, Karen and a select few volunteers will sleep at the gate of the enclosure for as many nights as is necessary to ensure that the baby feels the support and presence of someone who cares. Young calves also require milk on a regular basis, so Karen will wake up every few hours to prepare milk for them to suckle on. With time the calves begin to warm to the idea of having humans as surrogate mothers. It is not an easy process though, as initially they are petrified of humans – which is the way it should be. However, baby rhinos require a lot of attention and physical affection. For this reason, part of the workers’ job entails spending time with the calves. When we were there, we watched as a 2 month old baby lay cuddled up to Vicky, a British volunteer, who is the one bonded to this particular calf. It was a sight that was both heart-warming and heartbreaking. This treasured little rhino, who has endured a great deal of trauma and stress, has found some comfort in a young girl who patiently bears his weight on her legs as she strokes his entire body.
The aim of the orphanage is to get the young rhinos on their feet and independent as soon as possible so that they can be reintroduced to the wild. Karen insists on minimal human contact so that they remain wild animals that can adjust to their natural habitat easily once released. For this reason absolutely no tourists are allowed to visit the orphanage and Karen doesn’t allow too many volunteers to bond to a single rhino. Additionally, the calves are bonded with other calves, and in some cases an adult. This will make the adjustment back into the wild easier and their distrust for humans will return – which is the aim. Rhinos that have been hand-raised have shown to become bad mothers to their own young, which could ultimately threaten the rhino populations more. Thus, carefully keeping the wild nature alive in the animal is essential. Karen is doing an incredible job at this and being exposed to her dedication and compassion was humbling.
For more information on The Rhino Orphanage see http://therhinoorphanage.co.za.