Rescue, Rehabilitate, Release – the story of a rhino orphaned by poaching
Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC) has for the first time, successfully released two rhino orphaned from poaching. As the gates opened, and the tentative pair crossed the threshold into the reserve, the magnitude of the moment became apparent. Tears and laughter were shared as Gertjie and Matimba were given a second chance at life, and procreation.
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Gertjie's journey from trauma to triumph
Gertjie and Matimba were brought to HESC in 2014. Gertjie, at three months old, was the first to arrive. Matimba came a few months later and was only one month old. Despite Matimba being the youngest orphan at HESC, it was Gertjie who made an indelible impression on all who cared for him. “Gertjie was a very special rhino. He was so gentle and playful. He stole all our hearts,” said a clearly proud Roode.
There is very little scientific precedent when it comes to what age or stage is best to release rhino back into the wild, but in preparation of the release, the already minimal human contact and interaction is almost completely stopped.
“When we are thinking of releasing our rhino, we usually discuss it with the veterinarian before a final decision is made. Most hand-reared rhino calves are ready for release from the age of five years. This is just to ensure that they are big enough to fend for themselves in the wild. Other than that we also keep an eye on their behaviours to see if they will be able to survive in the wild. We have seen Gertjie and Matimba a few times since their release, and as far as we can tell they’re doing very well and are sticking together,” said HESC General Manager Karen Swiegers.
I’m so happy today, I’m really quite emotional. To see these two orphaned rhinos, which we hand raised, now free in the wild- it’s overwhelming!
On arrival at the centre, baby rhino require constant companionship and bottle feeding every three hours. At eighteen months they’re weaned onto grass and lucerne.
“The first few nights are spent with a curator by their side trying to reassure the traumatised animal and building a bond with the calf in order to get closer to it. After the bond is formed, a sheep is introduced to act as a surrogate mother. The sheep can stay with the rhino 24/7 without changing shifts or leaving. This helps to calm the orphan down. Most calves arrive quite dehydrated and require drips, vitamins and antibiotics. Some calves arrive with wounds from predators or from being shot, which will then require weekly veterinary care,” explained Swiegers.
The bond between Gertjie and Matimba was instantaneous and they are now like brothers.
“We would never have considered releasing these sub-adults alone. You never see the one without the other. Matimba was the more protective and aggressive of the two, whilst Gertjie had a good calming effect on Matimba”
Linri Janse van Rensburg, HESC head curator
They're being destroyed by us, the human race. The rhino is an iconic species, and we have to do everything in our power to save them.
HESC, and the reserve where the rhino now roam free, has one of the best anti-poaching units in the country, but the continued safety of the rhino cannot be guaranteed.
“You can never release an animal and say it’s going to be safe for the rest of its life, but that animal needs to be out in the wild. Our main goal is always to release. Rehabilitation is only half the job. We choose a property that has a good anti-poaching unit and state-of-the-art fencing, to keep them as safe as possible," said Corlet Grobler, HESC anti-poaching unit K9 trainer.
Why you should care about rhino conservation
The rhino poaching crisis began more than a decade ago, with escalating numbers of rhino slaughtered for their horn throughout Africa until about 2015. For the past three years, the total number of rhino poached has thankfully decreased, but the war against poaching is far from over.
South Africa has nearly 80% of the world’s rhinos and has been the country hardest hit by poaching criminals. More than 1,000 rhinos were killed each year between 2013 and 2017. But things are improving. According to the latest government stats, 2018 is the first year in the last five, that the number of rhinos poached has dropped below the 1,000 mark, with 769 rhinos killed. While this decline is welcomed, the truth is, more rhinos are killed in South Africa, than are born. In this environment, every rhino counts, and every rhino saved is a success story.
“Rhino is an iconic species. Having the big 5 brings tourists to our country and boosts GDP. How can we tell future generations that we once had the ‘Big 5’, but we now only have the ‘Big 4?’” says an incredulous Grobler when asked whether she thinks all the time and money spent is worth it.
And with tourism contributing R130 billion to the country’s GDP in 2017 – more than that of agriculture, forestry and fishing – protecting our wildlife economy is more than a matter of preserving our heritage, it’s an economic imperative.
Investec's viewpoint and contribution
Investec recognises that building a more inclusive wildlife tourism economy will not only protect South Africa's natural resources, such as the rhino but also uplift local communities. They aim to incorporate local rural communities in high tourism areas into the value chain by educating, training and creating new enterprises and employment opportunities for local participants. Investec’s conservation strategy focuses on funding a number of biodiversity projects that help to ensure the sustainable co-existence of Africa’s rich wildlife and the vulnerable communities with which they compete for limited natural resources.
The chance to see rhino orphans being released is truly special. These are conservation moments that need to be captured, documented and treasured for their significance to the future of humanity
Investec Rhino Lifeline has refined its focus since it's establishment seven years ago, to concentrate on two key areas: youth education and rhino rescue. We partner with specialists, supporting their efforts by raising awareness, funds and donations and leveraging Investec’s international brand and presence to maximize our impact. Investec Rhino Lifeline supports the rescue of orphans by partnering with experts, like those at HESC, who are committed to rehabilitating and eventually releasing them back into the wild.
About the author
Caroline Edey-van Wyk
Colloquially known as Investec’s “storyteller,” Caroline curates and produces all the content that underpins Investec's Out of the Ordinary brand promise. She works across the business but specialises in the areas of Sustainability, CSI, Sponsorships and HR. Caroline holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree in Political Science and Broadcasting - cum laude. Before she joined Investec she was a broadcast journalist at Sky News and eNCA.