The race to save wildlife from extinction has begun. While conservation efforts can be complicated by many motives, The Rhino Orphanage is among the first noncommercial centers to rehabilitate sick, injured and orphaned baby rhinoceroses with one goal: Return them to the wild. The refuge has tackled the poaching crisis innovatively, aiming for regional biodiversity and future survival.
Its ntlo ya lerato motto translates to “house of love” and its preserve is nestled in South Africa’s northernmost region, Limpopo Province, bordering nations affected by rhino poaching: Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Limpopo is dotted with Kruger National Park cultural heritage sites. Area nature and wildlife reserves make it an ecotourism and wildlife-viewing destination. To avoid overexposure the orphanage has kept a low profile.
“We are a non-tourism, no-public-interaction facility with strong policies against the Pay ‘n’ Play industry,” said Yolande, a team member. “Our aim is to rescue, raise and rehabilitate rhino calves (left) behind after poaching or natural deaths of their mothers (so) they can return to the wild successfully.”
The Rhino Crisis Explained
The need to release rhinos back into the wild is clear, as the global poaching crisis has already left an indelible stain on humanity:
• Stats from Save the Rhino revealed that, beginning in 2008, poaching increased annually. It peaked at 1,349, in 2015, and numbers have fallen since. Still, two rhinos die each day.
• For “National Geographic,” Rachel Bale said South Africa is home to up to 80 percent of the world’s rhinos—and most poaching efforts. By late 2017, more than 1,000 of its rhinos had been slaughtered for their horns alone.
• The problem has worsened worldwide, with BBC noting that the last Sumatran rhino died in November 2019.
Illegal horn trade is one part of the story. Recreational and medicinal use of rhino horn, mostly in Vietnam, has also caused a spike in poaching across southern Africa. Writing for “The Guardian,” Nicky Reeves cited a modern twist in the traditional medicinal market to say it “has risen hugely over the past 15 years.”
Why has rhino poaching increased? Here are a few reasons:
• Reeves said unethical dealers exploit rumors of rhino horns curing people of serious diseases (i.e., cancer) and that crushing poverty, in nations populated by rhinos, fuels the trade further.
• Quartz.com noted that rhino horn has become a “luxury” item the wealthy use as a health supplement, party drug and cure for hangovers.
• Meanwhile, Sheree Bega at Independent Media found that when enforcement increases, poachers move elsewhere. Coordinating rescue efforts across vast regions has proven tricky or, as Bale said, been compounded by corruption.
Still, The Rhino Orphanage has found a remedy.
Unlike some wildlife refuges, the orphanage exists solely for the rhinos and has shunned allegedly “ecofriendly” human entertainment components. Rehabilitation staff hand-manage baby rhinos at a protected location, feeding them milk substitute and allowing them to graze in the bush. Team members split rhinos into groups based on age and human-dependency level.
It has encouraged natural behaviors, too, such as wallowing. Mud play, Brenda Gregorio-Nieto and the Associated Press reported, helps baby rhinos: Control their temperatures, protect against parasites and prevent sunburn. It has also enabled them to learn from and socialize with other rhinos, setting them up to reunite in the wild. These critical, protective measures make rhinos less of an easy target.
Known to locals, Tom Head explained in “The South African,” rhinos have poor eyesight and rely on smell to avoid danger. Beginning at 15 ft., added Bale, rhinos hardly distinguish humans from trees. Those reliant on human interaction, then, are inherently vulnerable. Any refuge which allows its charges to become too accustomed to humans later places them in danger.
Smarter scientific approaches have had a powerful impact—on survival.
The Threat to Earth & Humans
Poaching destroys Earth’s biodiversity and threatens human survival. Orphaned wildlife are a critical sign of natural diversity disappearing. The 2018 World Wildlife Fund “Living Planet” report said this causes tremendous problems for all. Others agreed, saying wildlife and plants play a role:
• BBC found that biodiversity is essential to sustainable agriculture.
• U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said all species add “value” to ecosystems.
• U.S. Nat’l. Park Service said lichen species assist in monitoring air quality.
• At ThoughtCo.com, Debbie Hadley said aquatic insects aid in monitoring water quality.
The economic and intangible value species like rhinos provide extends further. The National Wildlife Federation said all species play an invaluable role in servicing ecosystems. Losing even one is a risk to an entire ecosystem. Whether admired, revered, considered useful or not, the BBC concluded, species survival is essential to human survival. The window for taking action, WWF said, is closing quickly.
The Rhino Orphanage has adopted its own role in saving the natural world, as a ntlo ya lerato, and its rescue strategies offer hope for the Earth and environment. Online at TheRhinoOrphanage.co.za.
Actman, Jani. “It’s Now Legal to Sell Rhino Horn in South Africa. …” (Aug. 20, 2017, Wildlife Watch). NationalGeographic.com
African Wildlife Detective. “Rhino Poaching Facts. …” (2019, Rhino Poaching). Africa-Wildlife-Detective.com
Associated Press & Brenda Gregorio-Nieto. “Baby Rhino Gets a Mud Wallow at San Diego Zoo Safari Park” (Aug. 10, 2019, News: Local). NBCSanDiego.com
Bale, Rachel. “More Than 1,000 Rhinos Killed by Poachers in South Africa Last Year” (Jan. 25, 2018, Wildlife Watch). NationalGeographic.com
BBC. “Malaysia’s Last Known Sumatran Rhino Dies” (Nov. 23, 2019, Asia). BBC.com.
Bega, Sheree. “Rhino Poachers Move to Easier Killing Fields” (July 29, 2017, South Africa: Gauteng). IOL.co.za.
Dang, Vu Hoai Nam & Martin Reinhardt Nielsen. “What the Vietnamese Really Believe About Rhino Horn and What That Means for Poaching” (May 1, 2019, Africa). Quartz.com.
Hadley, Debbie. “What Aquatic Insects Tell Us About Water Quality” (Aug. 12, 2019, Animals & Nature). ThoughtCo.com.
Head, Tom. “How Far Can a Rhino See?” (Nov. 8, 2018, Lifestyle). TheSouthAfrican.com.
Hermon, Leigh. “Baby Rhino Orphans Find a New Home in Limpopo” (Aug. 21, 2018, Conservation). CountryLife.co.za.
Marshall, Michael. “What Is the Point of Saving Endangered Species?” (July 14, 2015, Earth). BBC.com.
National Park Service (U.S. Dept. of the Interior). “Lichens and Air Quality” (Dec. 27, 2017). NPS.gov.
National Wildlife Federation. “Ecosystem Services.” (Educational Resources: Wildlife Guide). NWF.org.
Ntlo ya lerato (Sesotho to English). Translate.Google.com.
Reeves, Nicky. “What Drives the Demand for Rhino Horns?” (March 3, 2017, U.S. Edition, Science: The H Word). TheGuardian.com.
The Rhino Orphanage. “Intro.” TheRhinoOrphanage.co.za.
The Rhino Orphanage. “Our Mission.” TheRhinoOrphanage.co.za.
Save the Rhino. “Poaching Stats” (Rhino Info). SaveTheRhino.org.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “Why Save Species?” (Dec. 12, 2018, Endangered Species). FWS.gov.
World Wildlife Fund. “Living Planet Report 2018: Aiming Higher.” Grooten, M. & R.E.A. Almond (Eds.). WWF.org.
World Wildlife Fund. “Species Directory.” (Species). WWF.org.
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