A tale of five orphans

(A version of this article was originally published in The Horn, spring 2009. Author: Natasha Anderson, Rhino Monitoring Coordinator, Lowveld Rhino Trust)

As Zimbabwe’s economy has collapsed, rhino poaching is flaring up and rhino population gains are being eroded. Because this menace is not being adequately dealt with through regular law enforcement, a real crisis now exists. Over 100 rhinos have been killed by poachers in the Lowveld since 2000 – 40 of these in 2008 alone. One of the unwelcome side-effects of the increase in poaching has been the rise in the number of orphaned, and sometimes injured, rhino calves that must be treated and rehabilitated.

Of Zimbabwe’s current rhino population, the Lowveld conservancies in south-eastern Zimbabwe conserve 390 black rhinos (80% of the country’s tptal) and 140 white rhinos (50% of Zimbabwe’s total).

Black rhinos have been “flagship species” for the formation of large conservancies in the Lowveld region of Zimbabwe, and for the conversion of these areas from cattle ranching into wildlife production. Rhino conservation efforts in the Lowveld, coordinated by the Lowveld Rhino Trust, link the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (as the overall management authority for rhinos) with private sector wildlife operations and NGOs operating in the Lowveld. The active management includes drug-dartings (115 undertaken during 2008) for various security-related and management-related reasons such as translocations, removal of snares, de-hornings, and ear-notching to facilitate monitoring; for instance.

On 5 October 2008, 4-month old Millie was captured from beside the carcass of her dead mother, who was killed by cyanide when poachers poisoned a waterhole. Millie may have suffered slight poisoning and was very slow to take to the bottle. Fortunately, she was a very gentle calf so it was possible to sit with her in the pen, sometimes for hours, trying to get her to drink. Eventually she began taking the bottle willinglyCredit: Lowveld Rhino Trust

Calves are particularly vulnerable to being caught in snares set for bushmeat, while their mothers are targeted for their horns. Ensuring the welfare of injured or orphaned calves is vital, as is their survival in terms of increased global rhino numbers. The rhino management operations by Lowveld Rhino Trust include the facilitation of drugs, vets, helicopters as well as food for the animals that need intensive care.

Calves that are still reliant on milk are bottle-fed skimmed milk with special supplements, a process that often takes long hours of patient training. Any injuries are treated. The calves are socialised with others, and are kept in secure bomas overnight and let out into fenced paddocks during the day. The intention is not to create a permanent sanctuary of captive rhinos; rather, to rehabilitate and foster where necessary orphan rhino calves so that, once weaned and / or recovered from injuries, they can be released back into the wild populations.