ENTABENI SAFARI CONSERVANCY, South Africa >> They are the most vulnerable victims of South Africa’s rhino poaching scourge, the baby rhinos that survive the shooting deaths of their mothers.
Many probably die of dehydration or other perils in the wild, but some lucky ones end up at The Rhino Orphanage, where workers become mothers to the traumatized young ones, feeding, walking and comforting them until they are ready to return to the bush. They learn to recognize voices, sleep in a stable, feed on a milk substitute, roll in the mud and play with each other and their human minders, who try not to get knocked over by these big, rambunctious babies.
“These rhinos would be dead if there weren’t a place to send them,” Gabriela Benavides, a Mexican veterinarian at the orphanage, told The Associated Press.
Benavides spoke at an enclosure where three rhinos named Faith, Lunga and Matthew, all less than one year old, lounged, trotted and slurped water from containers. The rhinos approached visitors behind a low wooden barrier, allowing themselves to be touched and stroked on the rough skin of their heads.
South Africa, home to most of the world’s rhinos, has been under heavy pressure from poachers who killed more than 1,200 of the country’s rhinos in 2014 and are killing them at a high rate this year to meet rising demand for their horns in parts of Asia. Consumers believe rhino horn, which is ground into powder, has medicinal benefits, but there is no scientific evidence to support that. The horn is made of keratin, a protein also found in human fingernails.
South Africa’s national parks service rescued 16 rhino orphans in 2014; a dozen were put in specialist care and four were placed with surrogate mothers in state-run enclosures, Edna Molewa, minister of environmental affairs, said in May.
Founded in 2012, The Rhino Orphanage says it has successfully raised and released nine rhinos back into the wild.
Poachers will “go for any little bit” of horn, even from a baby rhino whose horns are emerging, said Dex Kotze, a board director of the non-profit orphanage. He said it can cost roughly $32,000 a month to maintain the orphanage, and that several similar centers have started operating elsewhere in South Africa.
“We try to keep it as secret as possible while at the same time raising awareness,” Phaka said. “It’s kind of hard trying to raise money for something people are not allowed to see.”
Limited human contact with the rhinos also assists in their return to the wild, which happens when they are two or three years old, the age at which they would usually become independent.
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