In recent years rhino poaching has become a major threat to rhino populations not only in Kwa-Zulu Natal but on the continent. The poaching crises as well as factors such as the drought burdens the conservation community with feeding costs but also consequences of poaching which often result in orphaned calves. Our Trust is no exception having had two calves orphaned from poaching and another two a result of the drought, all of which were sponsored by the Zululand Conservation Trust conservation funds.
The following is a testament to our efforts to save our rhino and in particular, the protection of the orphans who are left behind.
The story of Ithuba and Thando
Ithuba’s mother was poached on 1 April 2015, her carcass was less than 24 hours old when the anti-poaching unit found her. At the time we were unsure if she had a calf or not as there was no sign of a second animal at the scene. Two days later we received a report that a rhino cow was chasing and attacking a young rhino calf. We realised that this orphan had found her and was trying to get her to feed him while this female already had a calf of her own. She was attempting to drive the orphan away as she could not feed two rhino calves at once.
One of the difficulties we faced in this situation was trying to determine which one was the orphan and which one belonged to the female, as both were 6 month old male calves. If we captured the wrong animal we could very quickly have two orphans instead of one. Over the next couple of days we were able to finally distinguish from the two as the orphan had begun losing condition as he was battling to keep up with his adopted family, after not receiving milk for days. We called in our wildlife vet and begun the process of trying to sedate the orphan without causing too much disturbance to the female and her calf. However all three rhino were very unhappy in the presence of humans and it soon became apparent that this would not be as easy as we initially thought. White rhino are not normally this skittish around humans so we assumed that this mother and her calf had most likely been present when the poachers shot Ithuba's mother.
7 days after the orphan lost his mother we had made no progress and his condition was becoming critical. The decision was made to sedate him from a helicopter rather than waste any more time. Luck finally smiled upon us and we were able to safely sedate him and take him to the rhino orphanage.
Once the orphan, who we named Ithuba, meaning chance, had arrived at the orphanage he showed an incredible resilience to the ordeal he had just faced. Once his injuries had healed and we were confident that he did not suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder he was allowed more room in the larger boma. The team that cared for him described him as being a very independent and confident young rhino who thinks about things very meticulously.
Later that year on the 5th September, in the midst of severe drought, tragedy struck again.
We received a frantic call early in the morning that a tiny rhino calf had been found stuck in mud at a drying up dam, and the calf’s mother was nowhere to be seen. We immediately dispatched two teams, the first to rescue the calf and the second to find the mother. Upon arrival at the dam we saw just how stuck the little calf was. He was neck deep in mud and unable to move at all. We feared that if he had been trapped for an extended period of time that exhaustion could overcome him. Luckily however removing him from the mud proved fairly easy and he was able to stand on his own.
We then found ourselves facing the dilemma of what to do with him. His mother still hadn’t been found which meant that unless she came back looking for him soon he could fall victim to starvation or predators. We reluctantly decided that before we intervene, it would be best to allow nature to take its course in the hopes that his mom would return, or at least be close enough that we could reunite them. The remainder of the day was spent searching for the mother using everything at our disposal, we had a helicopter flying the reserve, rangers on the ground, managers in cruisers and everyone was on high alert.
One of our rhino monitors stayed with the calf throughout the day monitoring his condition and ensuring nothing attacked him. Many hours later with the sun beginning its final descent towards nightfall and still no luck, we were forced to act on the calf. It was feared that if we left him over night alone in the bush that we may never find him again. With reluctance and the sting of failure we gave up our search and turned our efforts to capturing the calf so that he could be relocated to the rhino orphanage for care. Our monitor who had valiantly followed the calf the entire day radioed in his whereabouts and we moved in.
The calf was sedated and gently loaded onto a vehicle to rendezvous with the rhino trailer who would take him to his new home. Finally, deep into the night we arrived, he was immediately put onto a drip and monitored overnight as we made the long journey back. The next day the calf’s mother had been found having moved quite far from the dam, confirming our decision to move him. He would not have found his mom in the night, and our decision saved his life.
Since then the orphan was named Thando, meaning love and he has recovered well from his ordeal. Once he had grown a little he was introduced to Ithuba. White rhino are very social animals and fare poorly on their own, especially calves. He quickly bonded with the slightly larger Ithuba and since then has given us zero doubt towards his recovery. Ithuba and Thando have been introduced back into the wild together, being young males their chances of being picked on by an older male is reduced by coming back together.
Our 1st black rhino orphan, Nandi
Unfortunately 2015 tragedies did not stop there…on the 27th November 2015 Black Rhino female Sithutha was shot and killed. The anti-poaching guards were following poacher’s tracks when they discovered her carcass which was two days old. The rhino was shot once in her left flank and a second shot in her head. Her horns had been forcibly removed.
All around the poached victim were tiny rhino tracks, teams were dispatched immediately to find this orphaned calf. Looking back on the records we realised that this was a new mom, and she had left behind a 2month old baby girl. It was crucial that we find this small rhino as she would be very vulnerable for her size and traumatised by the experience of losing her mom to poachers.
After the entire day of tracking and flying, she was eventually located and transferred to the rhino orphanage for care. A huge thanks must go to the reserve managers, anti-poaching unit, rhino monitors and reserve staff who spent hours responding to this urgent ordeal. Once Nandi had recovered and grown in strength she was introduced to a little male black rhino called Storm. They formed a strong bond and were moved to the Zululand Rhino Orphanage in early 2017 and we are looking forward to their release into the wild in 2018.
Another drought victim, Isomiso
On the 21st September 2016, a day that was to be celebrated as Ithuba and Thando’s home coming, took a turn for the worst. We received a radio call from a field guide announcing that he had found a dead rhino calf, we were currently in the worst drought we had experienced in the last 80 years so the possibility was high. We arrived at the location to find a tiny, weak and malnourished white rhino collapsed in a heap next to his mom, thankfully he was not dead, but his condition was critical and a decision had to be made.
The effects of the drought had been drastic on this poor rhino mom, even though we had implemented a supplementary feeding programme to combat the effects of the drought, the stress had got to this new mom and she had stopped producing milk for her new born boy.The effects of the drought had been drastic on this poor rhino mom, even though we had implemented a supplementary feeding programme to combat the effects of the drought, the stress had got to this new mom and she had stopped producing milk for her new born boy.
It was clear to see that this rhino would never survive in his current condition, he was 3 months old, but was the size of a 2 month old rhino. The team moved in, chasing the mom off and capturing the small and tiny skeletal figure that was named Isomiso, which means drought in Zulu.
Isomiso was immediately put on a drip and it was confirmed that he was malnourished and badly dehydrated. We had made the right decision, and he was on his way to the rhino orphanage where we all hoped for his survival. The trauma had effected his eyesight, which he only regained a month into rehabilitation, but we are happy to report that he has since turned into a strong healthy rhino.
Read more about the Zululand Conservation Trust’s very own Rhino Orphanage which was built out of necessity when the regional rhino orphanage was closed following a poaching incident.