Ithuba is six and half months old. He’s a white rhino calf and the first inpatient at the new rhino orphanage at Thula Thula private game reserve in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. He’s had a bad night and his carers are concerned about his situation. There’s a real sense of tension in the air. His mother was shot and killed by poachers about two months ago. Injured, traumatised and alone he was lucky enough to be brought to this state of the art facility just in time.
The Fundimvelo Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage is one of several in the country being pioneered by leading wildlife expert Karen Trendler. It’s part of a national project by the Endangered Wildlife Trust to rehabilitate the growing number of rhinos that survive poaching incidents – in particular the many calves orphaned when their mothers are slaughtered for their horns. As the poaching crisis has escalated, the poachers have become more desperate. Helpless young victims, like Ithuba, are being more violently injured and left mentally scarred in the wake of these horrific attacks.
The tension on the reserve, founded by the late wildlife conservationist Lawrence Anthony, has been further heightened by the fact they’ve just had news there’s been a credible poaching threat to Ntombe and Thabo, two older rhino orphans that roam on the property with a pair of armed guards as their constant companions. In recent days, partly due to the full moon, poaching in the area has been on the increase. There are also fears the government’s perceived push towards legalising the trade in rhino horn might be helping fuel the steep rise in poaching incidents so far this year.
Representatives of a leading private anti-poaching firm are visiting Thula Thula to assess security. Today everyone working here is having a polygraph test. It might seem excessive, but in a world that’s been completely torn apart by the poaching, such things are becoming the norm.
‘When we realised how many calves were being orphaned, injured or severely traumatised by the poaching we had to find suitable facilities for them. You want to maximise the survival of every calf. Rhino numbers are dropping so fast every single calf counts. As the rhino numbers drop, the conservation value of each calf is an increasing percentage of the population, so every calf becomes critically more important, explains Karen Trendler, who is here to check on Ithuba’s progress.
‘You want to ensure each animal can be reared in a way that it can go back into the wild and breed,’ she tells us as we’re driving through the reserve. ‘You’re among the first journalists to know that we’ve actually got a calf here,’ she confides. ‘He’s been here for two months, but we’ve kept it quiet because he’s so traumatised’.
The rhino orphanage is situated well away from tourist facilities on the reserve – by design. This place is definitely not about turning cute rhino calves into a cash-cow tourist attraction. The young patients here will have as little contact with humans as possible during their stay. Only a small team of regular carers will be allowed to bond with them – rather like surrogate mothers. During our time we’re not permitted to get too close nor enter the enclosure where Ithuba is being cared for. Every care is taken to ensure we don’t contribute to the stress he’s been through. Frustrating as this might be to us as photographers we completely understand the need for such precautions.
‘We realised there’s a massive shortage of really good rhino care facilities,’ she explains. ‘There are enough rhino orphanages, but the problem is getting them to do it the right way. Unfortunately a number of them are doing ”pay and play”, where they’re bringing in paying volunteers. It’s fantastic for the kids to have that experience, but the problem with too many people being with the calf is that when it gets to sexual maturity it becomes an absolute monster. They’re too humanised, too tame.’
‘One of the risks of over-taming a calf is that they stand and wait for the poachers to shoot them. For us, the thing that’s worked in the past is that we have two or three keepers only, and then when gradually you break that bond with humans, they can go wild, they can interact with other rhino, they can breed. If you have too many people, eventually he’s humanised, he’s dangerous and it’s a loss to the population. We’d like it to be done properly, for the calf, and for the rhinos long term’.
It’s a sad fact that female rhinos are more vulnerable to poaching than males, especially if they are pregnant or have a tiny calf. These rhinos will stay close to water, making them easy to find. ‘They will also try to protect the calf. A male, if he gets a shock, will just take off, a female will stay and try to protect her calf. The bases of horns on females are slightly wider too, so poachers go for females. We can probably say that for every female poached she’s either pregnant, so you’re losing a foetus, or she’s got one calf, or possibly two calves, because sometimes she’ll have a small calf at foot, and an older calf. It’s sickening.’
The good news this morning is that Ithuba is a lot more relaxed. We watch as Karen calmly reassures him with gentle pats and soft calls as she checks him out. He’s so chilled with her that he soon feels confident enough to bound over in our direction and sniff us out – his little horn poking through the bars in our direction.
It’s hard to imagine what this little guy’s been through. From what they’ve been able to piece together there were two rhino cows involved in the poaching incident. The poachers shot Ithuba’s mother, who died, and then he took off into the bush with the other cow. ‘From the level of trauma we see in him we think perhaps he came back and was exposed to more trauma with the poachers,’ she suggests.
‘We’re seeing very clear signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in orphaned calves,’ she says. ‘PTSD has been scientifically documented in elephants that have been through a traumatic poaching, and the guys that work every day with these rhino calves will tell you that we’re seeing manifestations of trauma here too. We’re learning as we go along how to deal with this, but we’re really reverting to very simple principles, like giving the calf a warm, secure, quiet environment and not changing handlers so that the handlers become his security.
Karen tells us they’re also now seeing a marked increase in violence towards rhino calves in poaching incidents. ‘As with any kind of violent crime, we’re seeing an escalation in the violence. In the same way that house breakers become increasingly violent, the poachers are becoming increasingly violent. Years ago the calves were dehydrated, they were hanging around mum, but they weren’t injured. We’re now seeing calves are being injured, and injured very badly. So we’re not just dealing with traumatised calves. Also, we’re finding in the last six to eight months that they’re now taking calves with small horns,’ she adds.
The situation changes according to the age of the calf and the circumstances of the poaching. ‘We’re finding that the younger calves, up to four months old, will do absolutely anything to get back to the mother when she is poached. So we’re getting a lot of very young calves with facial injuries, because they will do anything to get back to the mother and the poachers just hit out to get rid of the calf. The next age group, the calf will run away, wait a while, then try to get back to the mother. So we’re seeing a lot of chest wounds and into the forelegs. Then the older calves will keep running, but they’ve got a bigger horn, so very often what the poacher will do is shoot the mother then take aim at the older calf as well, so a lot of the older calves have spinal injuries or injuries in the hind quarters.’
‘Over the years I’ve probably raised four or five hundred rhino calves and injured adults,’ Karen explains. ‘Rhinos are incredibly tough creatures. They’re being poached at a hell of a rate, but because they’re so tough some of them are actually surviving the poaching. So you have rhinos with bullet wounds and you also have calves that are being orphaned. The national rhino project I run is basically a response project. Where there is either a live rhino or a calf we provide assistance, often going to the scene. Up to about six, seven months, a calf has to have milk, so there’s no option, we have to pull it out’.
Ithuba was named at the reserve where he was born and where it’s hoped he’ll return to the wild one day. His name roughly translates as ‘chance’ and if ever a rhino needed a second chance it’s this one. Alyson McPhee who leads the small team of carers looking after him explains he was in a really bad way when he came to them as he’d been 8 or 9 days on his own before he’d been rescued. Rhino calves are dependent on their mothers for a long time, which is why so much effort is needed in their rehabilitation. ‘They suckle for 18 months, then hang around with their mum for three, four, five years. It’s an exceptionally close bond,’ she says. ‘It’s that bond we’re trying to replicate here, so you can imagine it wears the carer out if you only have one person in the role.’
Karen explains in more detail how this works in practice. ‘This little calf has three carers, Alyson McPhee, Axel Tarifa and Megan Richards. He has a different relationship and a different view of each. Alyson is mum, she’s stability, she’s the one he goes to when life is awful. Axel is the older brother, the big bull, for playing, for knocking around. If he feels he’s being pushed around he goes to him for protection. Whereas Megan is more like another little female in the group…
‘He has somebody with him 24 hours a day. It’s not bunny hugging, it’s ”appropriate surrogate mothering” . We looked in the wild at what the calf has, and then we replicated what’s appropriate. In the wild he has a big solid mum that he leans against for comfort, she’s there all the time, there’s a huge amount of touching, tactile security. He is never in the wild on his own. There’s always a big mum around, if he wanders a distance she’ll call him back, and that’s what we’ve got to try to replicate. Calves that don’t get that security, just like human babies, won’t go and explore their environment, won’t go and play. We can see with this little guy, that sense of security is growing, as he feels he’s got that care, he’s become more playful, more investigative. He’ll go and do his own thing, and then if he gets scared he’ll come back. That’s appropriate surrogate mothering.
We watch quietly as Ithuba, tired of all the morning’s attention, leads ”big brother” Axel to a quiet spot in the enclosure, lies down and drops his head ready to snooze. Axel will sit with him the whole time – just as a rhino cow would do in the wild. It’s a heart-warming scene. To date this little rhino’s progress is promising – testament to the special care he’s getting and the resilience of the species.
‘You know we’re seeing a fascinating thing,’ Karen tells as we prepare to leave. ‘These rhinos are so adaptable. Previously the idea was that a rhino would not adopt another rhino, but we’re finding with the older calves that the young bulls will take on youngsters. We’ve even had females protecting young calves – though she may not allow them to suckle,’ she says ‘Within the population it’s so fascinating to see rhinos adapting like this.’
You can follow the work of Thula Thula rhino orphanage on its Facebook page.