What it takes to rear orphaned wild rhinos

Rhinos drinking water at a rhino orphanage.

What happens in the wild when a young rhino becomes orphaned?

Likely it will be killed by predators.

To prevent that, game rangers in Kenya rescue such infant animals and take them to animal orphanages.

One of the best-known is operated by Daphne Sheldrick at Nairobi National Park.

For decades, Sheldrick has reared and restored to the wild many animals, including buffalo, antelope, civet cats, warthogs, mongooses, elephants, and rhino.

For example once she had in her care two baby black rhino, Magnette and Magnum.

The calf was brought to the orphanage having somehow become separated from its mother.

When the rangers finally located Magnette’s mother, five days had passed.

By then, the likelihood that the mother would accept the calf was remote because of the length of separation and the smell of humans on the animal.

Another example was Magnum the calf of a rhino named Scud, who had lost the use of her right foreleg, possibly by stepping into a hole while at full gallop.

Although extensive efforts were made to heal the injury, bone infection developed, and Scud had to be euthanatized three weeks after giving birth to Magnum.

Rearing an orphaned rhino

Young rhino are eager to please and easy to handle, but rearing them is no living-room project.

At four-hour intervals during the day, they nurse from a king-size baby bottle, drinking a full-cream milk formula.

They also dine on shrubs and bushes.

Though baby rhino are only about 18 inches [about 40 centimeters] tall and weigh between 60 and 80 pounds [between 30 and 40 kilograms] at birth, they put on weight at an astounding rate—gaining two pounds [a kilogram] a day!

When full grown, a rhino weighs more than a ton.

Their keepers accompany these young rhinos on long walks through the park each day.

These walks are not merely for exercise; they serve an important purpose—the integrating of the rhino into the wild.

Let us consider how this is done.

Rhino have weak eyesight, but they possess a keen sense of smell and a phenomenal memory.

Thus, rhino first come to know each other by scent.

Rhino mark the boundaries of their territory by leaving dung piles (middens) and by spraying their urine on bushes.

Under normal circumstances, a calf is protected by its mother, its unique scent trail mingling with hers until the next calf is due.

By then, the baby will be fully integrated into and accepted by the established rhino community. For newcomers like the situation is different.

They must add their droppings to the established middens of the rhino who live in the area before physical contact with them takes place.

So during their long daily walks, the rhino orphans make their own contribution to established middens in the bush.

In this way their scent is discovered, investigated, and finally accepted by the local rhino population.

The relocation of hand-raised rhino into the wild is, therefore, a complicated process that can take several years.

What Future for the Orphans?

According to the World Wildlife Fund, in 1970 there were about 65,000 black rhino in Africa.

Today there are few thousands.

This drastic decline has been caused by poachers who have slaughtered rhino for their skin and horn.

On the black market, rhino horn is worth more than its weight in gold. Why is it highly prized?

For one thing, in some countries in the Far East, many believe that powdered horn can reduce fever.

Chemical tests have shown that there may be some truth in this but only if administered in amounts far higher than those found in current remedies.

Of course, there are many other medicines that reduce a fever.

Rhino horn is also sought after for cultural reasons.

In one country of the Middle East, the curved dagger is a coveted emblem of manhood.

As a result of poaching and other factors, some of the young rhino have become orphans.

However, because of the protection measures and interventions like David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust we hope as the keepers of this orphaned rhinos do, that they will eventually join the local rhino community and live long and poach free lives.