We wanted to know more about what baby rhinos experience when they are rescued so who better to ask than a person responsible for their wellbeing and care namely Dr Jana Pretorius. A highly experienced wildlife vet, she runs the Rhino Pride Foundation located in the Mpumalanga, South Africa. Many of her answers might surprise you, but you will certainly acquire a greater understanding of baby rhinos and the challenges they face after reading her answers.
BRR: On average how many baby rhinos do you rescue in a year?
JP: The figures differ vastly. Since the end of last year we haven’t had any new orphans and since COVID and lockdown, we have had none as we are in the process of developing and building the new sanctuary and orphanage. It differs each year and we have seen a spike in poaching now not only for rhinos but for bushmeat as well. Usually it works out at about one coming per month or so, but we have seen a spike in numbers now and if I had been able to take orphans it would have been higher than usual, but unfortunately we have not been able to take any orphans.
BRR: How do you feed the orphans when they arrive and what is their average age?
JP: There’s huge variation. Usually if they are older than 15 months we won’t try and feed them on milk, we’ll just rather put them with other orphaned rhinos that are already used to humans then they calm down quite quickly. We give them additional food and then it’s simple but if they are younger than a year maybe up to 14 months then obviously we teach them to drink milk. Most of the babies we get are around 2 to 3 months purely because if they are older then they do get killed as well for their little horns. Usually if they are over a year you can see a little stump of a horn. Older calves cause too many problems for the poachers as well so even if they don’t take the little stump of a horn they’ll still kill the calf because they’ll put up a fight and they are quite big at that age so that is why they get killed. That is why the orphans we get tend to be a year old or younger.
BRR: Is it harder to care for a very young rhino than a slightly older one?
JP: No, it’s the other way round. When they are very young they are not as imprinted on their moms as older ones and they are still very impressionable. The older they are the harder it is. The older ones don’t necessarily want to accept human contact straight away and also it is more difficult because they are big and they’re heavy and they can cause injuries. One way of doing it is to introduce them to already tame rhino calves but introducing the older ones to the bottle is often a problem. We have raised older ones giving them milk in a bucket or even just giving them milk powder. For some reason some of them will take that but not the milk. It’s fine either way as long as they are getting the milk powder in the quantities they need. If we still have trouble then we give them what I call the calf buffet. We put out lucerne, teff, pellets, dry molasses and the dry milk powder as well and then we see which one they eat and we start introducing what they need. They need the milk powder even if it is in a powder form for their growth. We don’t force the older ones onto the bottle because some of them just don’t want to.
BRR: Is the milk powder you use the same as the one they use for baby elephants which is a non dairy based milk?
JP: We use a foal milk replacer as the rhinos are very similar to horses.
BRR: Do you allocate one person to take care of and bond with an orphan?
JP: We don’t have one specific person caring for one orphan. It’s not the most ideal situation because if they bond with only one person and that person goes away then you have the same stressful situation as they experienced when they were first separated from their moms. So we have other rhinos for the orphan calf to bond with and they also feel more secure with their own kind. It’s a fairly hands off approach but this way you can change people around and it doesn’t matter to the rhinos because to them you are just a bottle. That’s quite important for their future socialisation and integration with wild rhinos.
Obviously with very young rhinos you are going to spend quite a lot of time with them and we do change the people so they don’t get too attached to one person. Once they are settled and drinking we’ll often bring older orphans to be with them. We have one called Sheba. She was taken from her mom when she was three days old. Her mom was still alive but couldn’t look after her. She (the mother) had previously been shot so they think it was post traumatic stress together with fighting with the bull and they became separated. Even though they tried to put them together again the mom just kept on taking off into the mountains. Sheba came to us and she is now so imprinted on humans even though she’s with other rhinos. She is very successful with helping the little rhinos.
BRR: So will you keep Sheba or will you return her to the wild?
Sheba belongs to somebody else and she will eventually go back to them but we won’t send a rhino back unless they can go with another one that they’ve bonded with and not before they are 5 to 6 years old. Essentially there are so many different ways of reintroduction to the wild so Sheba will have to go back at some point. Another of our older orphans who came with her younger brother who was a few weeks old and although she was wild she became friendly towards us and we could feed the other babies while she was lying down with them around her. She is named Rachel after “Rageltjie de Beer”, a South African heroine who gave her life so her brother could live through a cold night during the Boer war. Rachel eventually had her own calf and she also adopted one of the orphans while she had her own calf. It was a calf that was almost a year old and it was very wild. She kept on running away from us and breaking out and then one day we saw that Rachel had actually allowed her to drink with her own calf. She raised them both and that is the ideal. Rachel is an amazing mother. She would have taken a third calf called Fiona but we decided she wouldn’t have enough milk for her so we had to take Fiona away and hand-rear her. Other cows will adopt and we’ve been lucky with another one. That’s why it’s nice to have this system because then you don’t have to handle the calf. In that respect we are the only orphanage that does this. Also the little calves being in little groups once they have bonded can go out again and they learn proper rhino behaviour from the wild rhinos so it’s all integrated. If a cow wants to adopt one of the babies we let her if she has milk but even if she doesn’t our last one, Mia, would stay with the cow and only came up to the kitchen for her milk at certain times of the day.
BRR: How does being an orphan affect the development of a baby rhino?
JP: Something we have realised is we tend to feed them more so they grow bigger. They are definitely heavier than the wild calves of the same age We haven’t worked it out totally because we use the same formula that everyone uses but I think that in nature they do drink less from a younger age than we think because we have seen how when we have got calves from a certain age and we have added an orphan from the same age that the wild calves are usually smaller. I just think that also the other problem is they might be drinking more because of all the babies who are drinking milk so they might not be grazing as much as the wild counterparts.. That is why we try and put them with bigger rhinos that are not drinking milk so they can graze with them, then they start grazing from an early age. We work on an average that works for all animals to establish how much milk they need and so their physical development is fine unless they have had a lot of stress.
We had one rhino who was one year old and it seems he was hand reared and I spoke to the orphanage where he was reared and he and his friend had both experienced major setbacks after separating them. It seems like when they are stressed out for the second time after losing their mothers a new stress has an even bigger effect. We had to feed him for a year longer than normal with milk to get him to grow and he didn’t bond with another rhino for a long time. His friend had exactly the same problem. Now we have a rule that the babies cannot go before they are a minimum of four years old and then they have to be with a friend they have bonded with.
For their mental and emotional development bonding with other rhinos is important so we try and socialise them as quickly as possible with other rhinos because they teach them proper manners and proper rhino behaviour.
BRR: Are there any studies on how effective this policy has been?
JP: Well we have released a few with some other wild rhinos which they have bonded with. We haven’t really done studies because very few of them have actually left. One of those that we did release into the wild was the one Rachel adopted and raised..
BRR: How long has your sanctuary been open?
JP: 2008 was the beginning of the poaching and we started taking in rhinos. Our first orphan we received in 2003 however.. We have had a number of orphans that have gone back to their original homes but they are not really in the wild. They are in highly secure camps. Nobody really wants to take the rhinos back because they don’t feel they can protect them, they don’t have the security to protect them.
BRR: Do you get orphans sent to you from Kruger National Park (KNP)?
JP: KNP are in a disease control area and at this point they are not allowed to move out of the area. They found bovine tuberculosis (TB) in some of the rhino carcasses that they tested in KNP. It’s a problem that has been around for about 60 years. What happened was that TB got into the kudu from cattle and then it started spreading from kudu to buffalo, to lions and other species and eventually rhinos. They always thought that rhinos couldn’t get bovine TB but unfortunately even though they might have been the last species to get it, the problem is that you can’t test for it unless you do a post mortem and with all the poaching of rhinos in KNP they have found carcasses that tested positive for TB.
BRR: You mentioned stress and its effect on rhinos. How is stress expressed by rhinos?
JP: They die. They actually don’t show it easily but they start losing weight and if you are not perceptive you won’t see it till it is almost too late. So what happens is when we get an orphan its standard procedure they go on anti-ulcer treatment, an H2-blocker for up to 6 months. If you don’t do it they’ll die. Very often we don’t know they have ulcers because they don’t necessarily show signs of colic and when that ulcer starts bleeding they die very quickly They don’t always even have to lose a lot of weight. The problem is it’s hard to see when rhinos lose weight because they have such a thick skin and we often don’t notice they’ve lost weight. It’s very typical that we give them the equine equivalent of omeprazole for ulcers. Even adult rhinos get ulcers from stress. I actually had to fly to Rwanda for a black rhino that wasn’t doing well and unfortunately I was the last vet to get hold of the rhino so it was months down the line and they couldn’t get this rhino to put on weight and in the end he died before I landed. He was a hand reared rhino that came from a zoo in Europe and the stress of being released in the wild after living in the zoo was too much for him.
People think that releasing animals from zoos back into the wild is going to result in happy free animals when it is actually extremely stressful for that animal to go into the wild without an adequate period of adaptation. It’s exactly the same as taking a wild animal into captivity. The rhino in question was hand reared and he was very attached to humans. I only got there in time to do the post mortem and so saw his stomach was an ulcerated mess. It shows you how easily they stress but you can’t really see it as they don’t show it in different behaviour because they are very quiet animals in general. They don’t show when they are sick. That’s a natural instinct for them not to show they are sick because then they are targeted by predators.
We had a rhino cow that Hans saw when he drove up the fence. She was eating at the fence and five minutes later the neighbour drove up and Hans got a call to say you have a dead rhino next to your fence. She had actually had an abscess burst on her kidney and it seemed to have happened a few days earlier so she had developed peritonitis and she still didn’t show it. We’ve had two gunshot victims and they also developed peritonitis and both only showed colic symptoms twenty or so minutes before they died.
One of the guards that we have is extremely observant and we had an equine virus going through the rhinos and unfortunately we lost a rhino to it. After the first one died, the guard could tell us which one was sick before we could see symptoms and that meant that we could pre-emptively treat them and we pulled all the others through. So if you have someone that understands animals that well and can notice the subtle differences it’s a great help. So with the babies we’ve noticed and it’s often the smallest of changes that you are aware of so you still need somebody to constantly be around so they can see these small changes in behaviour because they are usually minimal. That’s one of the reasons why we don’t have volunteers because every time a volunteer comes in there are specific things that happen during the two weeks or a month that they are around and then they leave and the next one comes so unless there’s continuity you lose a lot of small but possibly critical information. You lose experience in this way as you have 12 volunteers in a year, each with a month’s experience whereas you should have one or two permanent staff with a year’s experience.
BRR: What is the most difficult aspect of rearing orphan rhinos?
JP: They are actually very robust little animals, we don’t see a lot of medical problems if you stick to the basic principles of a companion and anti-ulcer treatment. We do find is that the older orphans seem to have a longer period before they adapt so their stress levels especially from the age of a year up, is the most difficult thing because you can’t easily treat them with medications if they are not taking anything from you. It’s always stress that is the biggest problem with the baby orphans so you always work to minimise the stress and if you can overcome the stress and the adaptation to taking a bottle then you are there. We don’t have too strict a routine because they are all different. We had one orphan who bonded with a wild cow and when she was hungry she would come and find us but if she didn’t want milk she would go and look for the cow and eventually the cow learned that the little one needed to drink milk and so she would come with the baby to the kitchen.
The first three months that we have them is the most vulnerable period and then after that they are bouncy little things and they get up to whatever they want to after that. The only other thing they might get but we don’t see it a lot is colic and as with horses it’s very serious once they start showing signs of colic, otherwise we don’t have many difficulties with them.
BRR: Does feeding them from the bottle negatively affect their immune system?
JP: Their immunity that they get from their mother they get from the milk they drink in the first 8-12 hours of their life. After that any antibodies in the milk are only for gut protection so for that we use probiotics. It’s only a newborn calf that hasn’t drunk from its mom that might be a problem but even then they seem to cope fairly well over time.