The perilous 1,000-mile journey to save Africa’s endangered black rhinos
28 October 2022
This World Wildlife Day, which calls on the world to ‘Listen to the Young Voices’ of the next generation, let us also not forget the desperate calls of the many young rhino calves left orphaned by the brutal act of poaching.
In February 2017, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (Ezemvelo) released three young adult rhino orphans into their new home at iSimangaliso Wetland Park (iSimangaliso). A respectful silence fell over the release site as veterinary and game capture teams watched the strong and healthy rhino walk off into the picturesque expanse of the park, slowly stopping to graze on the sweet grass along the way.
This beautiful scene is in stark contrast to the scenario in which these orphans were found four years ago. Then, left for dead after their mothers had been brutally slain by poachers in separate incidents, the two female calves and one male calf had little hope of survival alone in the inhospitable wilderness. Fortunately, they had the dedicated team of Ezemvelo on their side, who took them to a place of safety, healed their wounds, reared them into young adulthood, and prepared them for reintroduction to the wild.
Ezemvelo, custodians of the second largest and founding population of wild rhino, has a vital role to play in the protection and proliferation of the world’s African rhino species, and to them every rhino matters. The increase in the number and frequency of poaching incidents within the formally protected area network continues to place an increasing strain on Ezemvelo’s internal veterinary capacity. Whereas before the onset of the current rhino poaching crisis they would possibly have encountered one orphaned rhino every three years, now Ezemvelo has to be prepared to take in as many as five orphans per year.
Although the process of rhino orphan rehabilitation is lengthy and requires extensive resources, Ezemvelo’s veterinary services – supported by Peace Parks Foundation through the Rhino Protection Programme – remain dedicated to seeing these once traumatised animals rehabilitated and reinstated as wild rhino that breed naturally and add to a growing rhino population. This is entirely possible if the rehabilitation process is managed carefully.
Many of the orphans are now reaching an age where they need to be prepared for release. In order to facilitate the transition process, Ezemvelo, with funding provided by Peace Parks Foundation, constructed a large rehabilitation camp. The purpose of the camp is to provide the young adult rhino with a safe area resembling their natural habitat where they can be rewilded, without threat from natural predators or other wild rhino. Having reached the appropriate age, the three young rhino were moved into the camp last year. They were accompanied by one adult female rhino who taught the orphans natural white rhino behaviour. It was encouraging to see them settle well into their new natural environment and quickly change their interaction patterns with humans – soon developing a flight response to human intrusion.
iSimangaliso was chosen as their final release site as the park offers an ideal habitat for the rhino orphans’ reintegration into the wild. Since its listing as a World Heritage Site in 1999, iSimangaliso has undertaken an extensive rewilding process with rhino being a keystone species. The park has a lower population density of rhino, which minimises the social pressures on young animals introduced to the area. Threats to life from apex predators, as well as from illegal poaching activities are also low in this area. In addition, despite the severe drought in KwaZulu-Natal, there are parts of iSimangaliso that have received decent rainfall, providing good grass, water and a softer, friendlier refuge for the orphans.
The iSimangaliso Authority – custodians of rhino in the park, together with Ezemvelo, is closely monitoring the young rhino to make sure that they are successfully adapting to their new environment. The monitoring process also allows the veterinary team to gather crucial information on the process of reintroduction, so as to ensure the continued successful rewilding of rhino orphans in future.