THE LUCKY FIVE BEGIN THEIR ‘REHABILITATION’

So what is Rehabilitation? Well, rehabilitation is the treatment and care of a sick, injured or orphaned wild animal and its preparation for release to a successful life back into the wild.

Now that Ubuntu, Ringo, Masingitta, Chipoko and Nkonzo were all safe at the facility, it was down to the team of experts, including vet nurses, vets, conservation staff and security personnel, to keep them safe, replace their mums and love & care for them until they were old enough to do this by themselves. Normally, in the wild, a rhino calf would stay with their mother for at least 2 years.

When a rhino calf is around 3 months old it weighs about the same as a St Bernard dog and is about the height of its mother’s legs. Calves put on a lot of weight pretty quickly and can grow to between 1800-2700kgs (around the same weight as a car!) by the time they reach full adulthood, which for male is said to be around 9 years and for females is around 4 years. They can live in the wild for up to 40 years.

Some calves had been injured or were dehydrated (this happens when they don’t have enough water) when they were found so they had to have some medical attention from the vets. Then it was over to the vet nurses to monitor and care for them.

The first thing we do for any orphan is to try and make them feel safe. These orphaned rhino calves have gone through the scariest time of their lives, losing their mothers to poachers, often being hurt just trying to stay close to their bodies. When they come to us, they are often very frightened, sometimes afraid of the dark or scared of men (because of being attacked at night and hearing men’s voices). They will sometimes run around their holding pen desperately calling out and looking for their mothers who are no longer there.

To help the calf feel less afraid, we will cover the its eyes and block its ears to help make the rescue less scary. New noises and things they see can be very worrying for them, so it is better for them not to see or hear too much. The calf will usually be given special medicine to keep it calm and it is put on a drip. The drip is the bag hanging up, that you can see in the pictures, it is a bit like them having a drink of water, but it goes straight into their bodies where it can help straight away when they haven’t had anything to drink. The calf will then be taken to the orphanage where any cuts will be looked at and it is put in a padded room, which is a safe place for it to start to get better.

Rhino calves usually get all the food they need from suckling.

Here at the facility the vet nurses had to feed the calves with bottles of milk made up – just like a human baby’s, but much bigger! The baby rhinos find taking their first ‘human’ bottle very difficult and they can take a number of days to actually find the right action to suck the milk from the teat. During this time there can be milk squirting all over the place until they get so hungry they manage to get the proper sucking action to get the milk they so desperately need!

In the video Ringo & Ubuntu are being fed………just listen out for all the funny noises they make when they are enjoying their milk!

Fairly soon it is time for them to start weaning (this means they start eating proper food, as well as milk) and they are introduced to young grass called Teff. They will also continue to have the milk until they are around 18 months old.

It is important that young calves, dependent on their mothers’ milk, drink as quickly as possible, but every single patient takes the bottle differently. Dependent on milk means that the calf only has his mother’s milk as food and doesn’t eat anything else, just like a human baby. Rehab staff will try as soon as they can to get them drinking, and make a mixture of cow’s milk powder, glucose (which is a kind of sugar) and something called protexin, which helps to stop the calves getting an upset tummy. Depending on their age, these calves will be given warm milk feeds every few hours throughout the day and night.

It is also very important to monitor the calves’ weight, and adjust their nutrition levels (how much we feed them) depending on whether they are putting on or losing weight. Scared baby rhinos can often get Colic (which is like a tummy ache),but we can usually quickly recognise the signs.

We also check their dung and urine, (that’s the proper names for their poo and wee) and provide mud wallows to help keep parasites off their skin, and wallowing keeps them happy, as it is something fun for them to do. Once they are old enough, they can start to eat grass and pellet feeds. Pellet feed looks a bit like dry pet food. The calf will then also meet other calves, so it get used to spending time with animals, which stops them needing humans so much. This is what we want, to get them ready to go back to the wild.

There are many things that young rhinos need to grow up to be fit and healthy adult rhinos. Along with being kept safe and having food that is good for them, they also need lots of love and attention, exercise and enrichment (things to keep them busy)

Whilst it was just Ubuntu on his own, the vet nurses were his ‘friend’ helping him to get his exercise!

The walls in their pens have padding when they first arrive because sometimes they become scared and start running around. The padding stops them hurting themselves.

The people working at the orphanage have to care for the rhinos through the whole day and night, and most young calves need the comfort of a warm body and a friendly voice, especially those that wake up frightened. Usually, calves will form a bond to one carer or even another animal like a sheep or goat. This makes the rehabilitation easier.

Another thing that rhinos love to do is to rub their tummy if they have an itch!

One of their favourite things to do is to have a mud bath in what’s called a wallow. This is a very important thing to do because, as well as for enjoyment, it gives their skin a protective ‘mud coat’ which keeps them cool, it helps to stop insect biting them and also can get rid of any parasites.

Rehabilitation is very tiring and it can take up to a number of years. People have lots of different feelings when they are doing it, from sad and scared to happiness and love, but it is very, very rewarding. Every single calf is different in how they behave after going through such a horrible experience and we have to make sure to rehabilitate them in a way that will allow them to go back to the wild in the future.

All the time at the facility there is something really important happening whilst the rhinos are being rehabilitated. That is SECURITY!

I will explain all about Poaching and Anti-Poaching in another report but for now I just want you to know that this is the main reason that we need to take care of these rhino calves – because their mothers have been poached for their horns.

There are anti-poaching patrols on foot, on horseback and in vehicles, all trying to keep the orphans safe at the facility.

Next time I will tell you all about how The Lucky Five were made ready for and how they were released into the bush to become wild rhinos once again!

Check out Adventure Guide Dermot’s article on Anti-Poaching Training.

(The sections written in red boxes are adapted from “The Science & Love involved in rehabilitating an orphaned rhino”, by Anna Mussi – the rehabilitation manager at Rhino Revolution South Africa) which you can find in our resources section)

The Crash