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Natalie Lapides Headshot

The Rhino Orphanage: Sadly, a Necessity

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Pregnant or mother rhinos are most vulnerable to poaching. They cannot move as quickly with a calf or when heavily pregnant, and will usually stay near water. When they are poached, their calves become collateral damage.

The age of a rhino calf usually dictates the type of injury they get when their mother is poached. Tiny calves will do anything just to be with and touch their mother, and therefore get severe head and face injuries, often by pangas or axes. Even when a tiny calf escapes more or less unscathed, they will repeatedly come back to the carcass, as they are completely lost and scared without their mother. They will nuzzle her body and try to nurse until the carcass is bruised and worn, and will stay with their mother's body for days. Slightly older calves will first run away, scared, before charging to protect their mother, which translates to chest injuries and bullet wounds. The oldest calves have small horns, making them a target for poaching along with their mothers, and poachers shoot them as they run away, leaving bullets in their backs. These emotionally and physically damaged calves necessitate a rhino orphanage, where they can slowly try to nurse them back to health before releasing them into the wild, where they belong.

I visited and volunteered at one such orphanage, where calves are nursed back to physical and emotional health. The people there do amazing work, and selflessly care for traumatized orphaned baby rhinos day and night. Initially, baby rhinos mourn their mothers, crying and often refusing to eat, but the wonderful people working and volunteering at the orphanage bond with and comfort them. They will stay by their sides all night if necessary. The baby rhinos often associate men's voices with the painful experience of losing their mother and being injured; therefore, the workers at the orphanage are all women, and most are young, close to my age. These girls wake every three hours to feed the baby rhinos, keep their indoor and outdoor spaces clean, mix milk formula at body temperature, and run with the playful baby rhinos so they get their much-needed exercise. The rhinos have minimal contact with people, only bonding with one or two workers; they drink customized milk formulas, have lots of space to play in, and get as much time as possible with other rhinos. All of this requires a lot of time, money, and hard physical work. Of course, nothing can replace the unique bond between a mother and her calf, and humans cannot teach baby rhinos what they would normally learn from her, but the poachers have eliminated that option.

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Long term implications for rhinos coming from an orphanage and the resulting rhino populations are unknown. Beware that not all rhino orphanages are good: some have initiated a "pay and play" with rhino calves. This is essentially a terrible black market around the calves, where people pay to play with them or feed them. This can disrupt their social development and make them unable to function properly as adults in the wild. The rhino orphanage I volunteered at has very few visitors, and does not allow anyone to play with their rhinos.

The ultimate goal of the orphanage is to become obsolete, with all its previous occupants living happily and healthily in their natural environment, and no more orphaned baby rhinos arriving. Though the work they do is fantastic, I also hope that rhino poaching slows or stops and their industry is therefore no longer needed. For that to happen, however, we need to keep raising awareness, and working to stop poaching at all levels. We need to involve local communities in protecting rhinos, stop the middlemen, educate the end users, and raise funds to keep rhinos safe.

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