Moving is stressful for everyone – and rhinos are no exception.
Vets in South Africa have just moved more than 30 orphaned young rhinos to a sanctuary designed to protect the animals from poachers who killed their mothers.
The move took six weeks and required extraordinary planning, including the help of animal friends accompanying the orphans.
“We can’t move them all at once and say ‘boom, there’s a new home,'” said Yolande van der Merwe, who oversees her new home.
“You have to be very careful with them because they’re sensitive animals,” she said.
Van der Merwe, 40, runs the Rhino Orphanage, which takes care of calves orphaned by poachers, rehabilitates them and then releases them back into the wild.
This month, after its old lease expired, the nonprofit moved to a larger building in an undisclosed location among game farms in northern Limpopo province.
Benji, a white calf just a few months old, was the last rhino to be relocated.
At birth, rhinos are small, no taller than an adult human knee, and weigh about 20 kilograms.
But they eat a lot and quickly gain weight, which increases to half a ton in their first year of life.
Given Benji’s recent loss, staff feared he would freak out during the process, which saw him drugged and loaded into the back of a 4×4.
Luckily, Benji’s friend the sheep Button was by his side throughout the move – and his presence helped ensure everything went smoothly.
“Most of the time, their mothers were poached,” said Pierre Bester, a 55-year-old veterinarian who has worked for the orphanage since its inception 10 years ago.
“[They]all come here and you deal with them differently … you put them in daycare centers, you give them a boyfriend and then they get by.”
– ‘Love and Care’ –
South Africa is home to almost 80 percent of the world’s rhinos.
But it’s also a hotspot for rhino poaching, driven by demand from Asia, where horns are used in traditional medicine for their purported therapeutic properties.
Rhino horns fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the black market.
According to the government, more than 450 rhinos were poached across South Africa in 2021.
At the shelter, orphaned calves are nursed back to health by a team of caregivers who sometimes work 24-hour shifts and sleep in the same enclosure as the animals to help them adjust.
“Rhinos have their calves walking 24/7, and that’s the kind of care they need,” van der Merwe said.
“So we have to give that intense love and care to get her through the trauma,” she said, adding that some hatchlings were showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
If they are fit enough, the animals are released back into the wild. Up to 90 percent usually make it.
At the new sanctuary, Benji and his friends enjoy larger enclosures with more room to roam.
They are fitted with special beacons to monitor their movements as part of a series of security measures to keep poachers at bay.
The orphanage asked reporters from AFP not to reveal its new location.
“It’s a war out there,” Bester explained.
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