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Caring for Nicky, the Blind Baby Rhino

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National Geographic/Marcus and Kate Westberg
National Geographic/Marcus and Kate Westberg

This post originally appeared on National Geographic.

Nicky is just like any other baby rhino. He likes to play and is curious about the world around him. Only the world doesn't look the same to this little black rhino because he was born blind.

With his lack of vision, Nicky is particularly vulnerable and at risk from predators in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya.

To keep him safe from harm, Nicky has been living at the family home of Mike Watson, Lewa's CEO, since he was one month old. He has his own boma (enclosure) with a padded play area and a straw-lined room for sleeping. His best animal friend is a yellow Labrador, one of the Watsons' family dogs.

The Watson family and two experienced handlers, Yusuf and Tonga, care for Nicky around the clock. He is never left alone for a minute and there is always someone on hand to look after his needs and show him the way. He spends his days running around, taking afternoon naps and wallowing in his mud bath.

When we arrived, Nicky was sound asleep under his blanket, tucked in tightly just the way he likes it. It wasn't long before he woke up, stretched his short legs and began bounding around, occasionally banging into things. Nothing seems to dampen his playful spirit, except for the rain. He really doesn't like getting wet.

During our stay, the downpour was the least of Mike's worries when poachers killed four rhinos on the conservancy. This tragic loss served as a reminder of the importance of hand-raising Nicky in a secure environment. Already, he is acting as an ambassador for black rhinos in the fight for the survival of his species.

By early next year, Mike and the Lewa staff are hoping to raise enough funds to fly in a specialist to perform cataract surgery to restore Nicky's eyesight. In these troubling times, when the life of every rhino counts, it was heart-warming to witness the care and compassion shown for this blind baby rhino.

We spoke to Lewa's CEO, Mike Watson, about Nicky, how he came to live with the Watson family, and the hope for his future.

So what's the story with Nicky? How did he come to reside in the boma that he currently calls home?

Nicky's story is closely tied with the story of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Since the early 1980s, Lewa has worked to protect rhinos from poachers and ensure the survival of these endangered animals, particularly the black rhinos that are one of Lewa's two "flagship species," along with the Grevy's zebra. Black rhinos are being poached at a horrifying and unsustainable rate and our primary goal is to ensure the survival of these majestic creatures.

Several months ago, two of Lewa's rangers observed a new-born black rhino calf that was displaying unusual behavior: running into things, straying away from his mother, and generally getting confused. The Lewa veterinary team intervened and confirmed original suspicions that he was blind.

The chances for a blind male black rhino's survival in the wild are very slim, so Nicky was picked up by the Lewa wildlife and security teams and brought to a "boma" or enclosure, where he could be raised in a safe and protected environment. The first few days in his new home were difficult for him, but now he's thriving, growing, and getting into all kinds of trouble.

How big is Nicky now?

Nicky is growing at a spectacular rate. He now weighs over 120 kilograms [265 pounds] and consumes a combination of milk formula, as well as grass, leaves, and shrubbery.

What exactly is wrong with Nicky? Can you tell us something about his prospects for surgery -- what can be done, and when will it be done -- and what his future might look like? How long will he stay at the boma?

Nicky's eye condition is caused by cataracts. This is a congenital condition that can likely be repaired through surgery. We're hoping to arrange for a specialist veterinary surgical team to treat Nicky in the early spring of this year. If the surgery is successful, the transition from blindness to sight will likely be tough on him, but in the long run it will drastically improve his quality of life.

Because Nicky has spent his early years both blind and raised by humans, it's unlikely that he will ever live a completely normal wild rhino life. However, it's our goal to make sure that he is as happy and healthy as possible. Also, because of Nicky's good temperament and comfort around humans, we suspect that he will make a wonderful ambassador for his species; allowing people to have an opportunity to interact with a black rhino and feel a connection to these creatures. At the end of the day, the demand for illegal rhino horn will stop when compassion for the animals overcomes the international appetite for wildlife products.

Has Lewa Wildlife Conservancy had any previous experience raising blind rhinos?

Lewa has a long history of hand-raising baby rhinos, the most recent being Lola and Elvis. These siblings are now living wild on Ol Pejeta and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, respectively. While blindness is not common in black rhinos, it does happen. Lola and Elvis' mother Mawingo is blind and was unable to care for her offspring. In fact, she was translocated to Lewa many years ago because of fears that she could wander into a hazardous area and there would be no one to rescue her. The Lewa rangers keep a close eye on Mawingo, who is doing well and has given birth to several healthy calves.

Nicky seems to enjoy sleeping under his blanket. What is the blanket for? Does he sleep well?

Nicky's blanket provides both warmth and comfort that he would get from his mother in the wild. He loves to sleep tightly wrapped up in it. If it falls off in the night he wakes up his minder by jumping on top of him and squealing until it's put back on.

What does a typical day look like for Nicky?

Nicky enjoys his life. He wakes up early in the morning both hungry and ready to play. He goes crazy for a couple of hours running around, bumping into things and playing with his handler. He then sleeps again for another couple of hours, wakes up, takes a walk with the minders, and occasionally our family dogs, then takes a mud bath -- his favorite activity.

Can you tell us about Nicky's "minders"? Do they try to treat Nicky in any particular way?

Nicky has two primary minders, both of whom are gentle and patient people. They have an in-depth understanding of the species and Nicky's day-to-day needs. Nicky is highly dependent on them, just as he would be on his mother in the wild. He is never alone and always has one minder with him to make sure he stays safe and happy.

How is Nicky's biological mother doing? Was it traumatic for her to lose her calf?

Nicky's mother was obviously upset when he was taken away. She stayed in the same area looking for him for a couple of days, then moved on. Lewa's rangers have been keeping a watchful eye on her and suspect that she may already be pregnant with another calf.

Is there anything that Nicky particularly likes or dislikes?

As I mentioned above, Nicky loves to play in the mud and loves meal time. He doesn't have many dislikes, except for the rain. He really hates to go out in the rain and will do just about anything to avoid it.

For those who are interested in supporting Nicky, what should they do?

There are several ways to support Nicky and other black rhinos like him:

• Sign the Wildlife Conservation Society Pledge against wildlife crime.
• Help Nicky's CrowdRise campaign by going to: www.crowdrise.com/babyrhinoproject
• Give to Lewa by going to: www.lewa.org/support-lewa/
• Spread the word about poaching and the tragedy behind the illegal trade in wildlife products by "liking" the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy on facebook and sharing our status updates with everyone you know. Get the word out there!
• Stay up-to-date with conservation news and wildlife developments on Lewa by signing up for our eNews. Just got to www.lewa.org and click on "Subscribe to Lewa News"

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