Not mother’s milk: This two-month-old white rhino was struck by pangas and axes when her mother was poached earlier this week. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Not mother’s milk: This two-month-old white rhino was struck by pangas and axes when her mother was poached earlier this week. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Whenever a rhino is slaughtered by poachers for its horn, there’s a high chance that her orphaned calf will die soon afterwards. Some calves die of injuries inflicted by the poachers, others succumb to starvation and many are killed by lions or hyena.

While efforts to thwart poaching usually focus on trying to prevent the killings, wildlife organisations have now united to rescue, heal and rehabilitate the calves that are left behind.

The newly formed Now or Never African Wildlife Trust aims to rescue every orphan and take them to a rehabilitation centre for care until they are strong enough to return to the wild. It can take up to three years before a calf is old enough to survive alone, which is why so many baby rhinos remain at the side of their murdered mothers.

Founder members are the Rhino Orphanage, Care for Wild Africa, Saving the Survivors, Youth 4 African Wildlife and Google, which will help with free advertising and exploring technology solutions.

Pooling their efforts should make them far better at fundraising. It will also help to share best practices and improve the medical expertise required to save injured calves.

"We have gone past the tipping point. We have to save all the orphans — every single one," says Chris de Bruno Austin of Care for Wild Africa.

The trust’s short-term goals are to buy a helicopter to be on 24-hour standby for rescue missions and to build a network of vets.

The trust’s members have two reserves where recovered calves can be protected, and plan to increase that to 10 safe havens by erecting fences and hiring security guards.

Security will be its biggest expense, to ensure that none of the rescued calves are poached after they are released into the wild. "There’s no point spending R200,000 a month on helicopters, R50,000 on a sortie to bring it in and hundreds of thousands of rands on vet bills and then to lose the animal," De Bruno Austin says.

The trust will also visit schools and communities around game reserves and national parks to stress that rhinos are a valuable resource that needs protection, not a cash-cow to target.

Rehabilitation care for young calves is still an experimental field. Veterinarian Prof Johan Marais of Saving the Survivors is becoming an expert in rhino surgery, and saves up to 100 a year through treatments including face repairs for animals whose horns have been hacked off.

"If you look at the amount of rhinos left in the world, it’s absolutely important to rescue, treat and heal every single rhino we come across now.

"If you save a young calf, you are not only saving one animal. When you put it back into the wild, it can have five or six calves after that," he says.

But with about 1,000 rhinos poached each year, rescuing perhaps 300 calves will
still see the black and white rhino population inching towards extinction.

While the Now or Never African Wildlife Trust doesn’t want to get involved in politics, the experts acknowledge, they cannot succeed in the face of unchecked slaughter.

The Rhino Orphanage founder Arrie van Deventer says conservation is riddled with politics and central government definitely needs to make more of a commitment to combat poaching.

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