Rhino Calves Orphaned by Poaching Suffer PTSD

South African conservationists are increasing efforts to rescue and rehabilitate orphans

Rhino calves, orphaned by poaching, are suffering increasingly violent attacks at the hands of poachers and are showing worrying signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), according to wildlife rehabilitation expert Karen Trendler, who leads the national Rhino Response Strategy on behalf of South Africa’s Endangered Wildlife Trust.

“We’re seeing clear signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in orphaned calves,” says Trendler. “PTSD has been scientifically documented in elephants that have been through a traumatic poaching, and we’re now seeing manifestations of trauma here too.”

a white rhino calf and his keeperPhoto by Ann and Steve ToonIthuba, a white rhino calf orphaned by poaching with carer Axel Tarifa

According to Trendler, the level of violence in poaching incidents involving rhinos with calves is escalating: “A few years ago the calves [involved in poaching incidents] were dehydrated, they were hanging around the mother, but they weren’t injured. We’re now seeing calves being injured, and injured very badly. Also, we’re finding in the last six to eight months that poachers are now taking calves with small horns,” she adds.

“The situation changes according to the age of the calf and the circumstances of the poaching,” she explains. “We’re finding the youngest calves, up to four months old, will do absolutely anything to get back to the mother when she is poached. So we’re getting a lot of very young calves with facial injuries, because the poachers just hit out to get rid of the calf. Older calves will run away, wait a while, then try to get back to the mother. So we’re seeing a lot of wounds in chests and forelegs. The oldest calves will keep running, but they’ve got a bigger horn, so very often the poacher will shoot the mother then take aim at the calf, so a lot of the older calves have spinal injuries or injuries in the hind quarters.”

Last year South Africa lost 1,215 rhinos, according to government figures (in 2007 the figure was a mere 13). Many rhino conservationists believe these official figures significantly understate the real scale of the problem: Many carcasses are not found, and others have deteriorated too much to be positively identified as poaching victims. Furthermore, a significant proportion of South Africa’s rhinos are in privately owned reserves, and in some cases their owners choose not to report poaching incidents, either because they don’t want police who may be implicated in poaching on their land, or because they themselves may be involved in illegal activity. The illegal trade is run by international criminal syndicates, supplying ever-increasing demand for the horn in Asian countries, especially Vietnam and China, where it is used for “medicinal” purposes and reportedly sells for up to $65,000 per kilo on the black market.

Fewer than 21,000 white rhinos and just over 5,000 black rhinos survive in Africa, and conservationists fear the annual loss due to poaching combined with natural mortality is now overtaking the birth rate.

As Trendler explains, rhino cows are more vulnerable to the poaching than bulls, especially if they are pregnant or have small calves. “These rhinos will stay close to water, making them easy to find. They will also try to protect the calf,” she says. “A male, if he gets a shock, will just take off, a female will stay and try to protect her calf. The bases of horns on females are slightly wider too, so poachers go for females. We can probably say that for every female poached she’s either pregnant, so you’re losing a fetus, or she’s got one calf, or possibly two calves, because sometimes she’ll have a small calf at foot, and an older calf.”

karen Trendler with rhino calf and keeper in the backgroundPhoto by Ann and Steve ToonKaren Trendler of Rhino Response Strategy checks notes on Ithuba.

Until recently, reserve managers and anti-poaching patrols that discovered poached rhinos were largely ignoring the possibility that a calf may have survived. Trendler has been instrumental in raising awareness of the need to search for orphaned calves, with a view to capturing and rehabilitating them.

“Rhinos are incredibly tough creatures,” she says. “They’re being poached at a hell of a rate, but because they’re so tough some of them are actually surviving the poaching. So you have rhinos with bullet wounds and you have calves that are being orphaned. The national rhino project I run is basically a response project. Where there is either a live rhino or a calf we provide assistance, often going to the scene. Up to about six, seven months, a calf has to have milk, so there’s no option, we have to pull it out [of the wild].”

“When we realized how many calves were being orphaned, injured or severely traumatized by the poaching we had to find suitable facilities for them,” Trendler adds. “You want to maximize the survival of every calf. Rhino numbers are dropping so fast every single calf counts. As the rhino numbers drop, the conservation value of each calf is an increasing percentage of the population, so every calf becomes critically more important. You want to ensure each animal can be reared in a way that it can go back into the wild and breed.”

Fundimvelo Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage in KwaZulu-Natal is one of several new facilities being pioneered by Trendler, who reckons to have treated more than 400 rhinos in her 25-year career as South Africa’s most highly respected wildlife rehabilitator. Ithuba, an eight-month-old white rhino calf, is the orphanage’s first inpatient. The orphanage, on Thula Thula private game reserve, is situated well away from tourist facilities on the reserve. It’s not about turning cute rhino calves into tourist attractions. Ithuba and the other rhino calves that arrive here will have as little contact with humans as possible. Only a small team of regular caretakers will be allowed to bond with them — rather like surrogate mothers. During our visit we’re not permitted to get too close nor enter the enclosure where the rhino is being cared for.

“We realized there’s a massive shortage of good rhino care facilities,” Trendler explains. “There are orphanages, but the problem is getting them to do it the right way. Unfortunately a number of them are doing ‘pay and play,’ where they’re bringing in paying volunteers. It’s fantastic for the kids to have that experience, but the problem with too many people being with the calf is that when it gets to sexual maturity it is too humanized, too tame.”

“One of the risks of over-taming a calf is that they stand and wait for the poachers to shoot them,” she says. “For us, the thing that’s worked in the past is that we have two or three keepers only, and then when gradually you break that bond with humans, they can go wild, they can interact with other rhinos, they can breed. If you have too many people, eventually he’s humanized, he’s dangerous and it’s a loss to the population. We’d like it to be done properly, for the calf, and for the rhinos long term.”

From what his rescuers have pieced together, Ithuba was in a poaching incident that involved two cows. It appears the poachers shot his mother dead and then he took off into the bush with the other cow. “From the level of trauma we see in him we think perhaps he came back and was exposed to more trauma with the poachers,” says Trendler.

The calf has somebody with him 24 hours a day. “It’s not bunny hugging, it’s ‘appropriate surrogate mothering,’” Trendler explains. “We looked in the wild at what the calf has, and then we replicate what’s appropriate. In the wild he has a big solid mum that he leans against for comfort, she’s there all the time, there’s a huge amount of touching, tactile security. If he wanders a distance she’ll call him back, and that’s what we’ve got to try to replicate. Calves that don’t get that security, just like human babies, won’t go and explore their environment, won’t go and play. We can see with this rhino, that sense of security is growing, as he feels he’s got that care, he’s become more playful, more investigative. He’ll go and do his own thing, and then if he gets scared he’ll come back. That’s appropriate surrogate mothering.”

“What’s fascinating is that this little calf has three [caretakers], Alyson McPhee, Axel Tarifa and Megan Richards, and he has a different relationship with each of them,” Trendler adds. “Alyson is mum, she’s stability, she’s the one he goes to when life is awful. Axel is the older brother, the big bull, he’s for playing, for knocking around. If he feels he’s being pushed around he goes to him for protection. Whereas Megan is more like another little female in the group, he plays with her now and again.”

The rhino orphanage is a partnership between Thula Thula private game reserve, the international animal welfare organization Four Paws, and the Fundimvelo Community Trust. The orphanage comprises a main house to accommodate the veterinary nurse volunteers and security guards, an office and a meeting room for the local Zulu chiefs, a fully equipped clinic to treat and care for up to 20 injured or orphaned rhinos, and three bomas (enclosures) where the orphans will be able to walk around in total security. The rhino rooms will be equipped with webcams so that guests at Thula Thula’s two lodges will be able to observe the rhinos without disturbing them.

“It’s a huge investment to rear a calf,” says Trendler. “There are massive resources involved in rescuing it, having the facilities, having veterinary back-up, having the protection.’‘

Trendler explains that rhino orphanages can be soft targets for poachers. Indeed, our visit to Thula Thula coincided with heightened concerns over security, as a result of intelligence suggesting an imminent poaching threat. The reserve was undergoing a rigorous security review by a specialist anti-poaching consultancy, including polygraph tests of all staff. ‘The security costs to protect an orphanage are probably more than the actual [operating] costs,’’ Trendler says.

For private reserve owners, rhinos are an important tourist draw card, but also an expensive asset. Rhinos fetch tens of thousands of dollars at auction, so the cost of replacing poached animals is high, and there’s a real economic incentive for owners to place poaching orphans into orphanages, with a view to reintroducing them to their reserves after rehabilitation.’‘

‘‘If you look at it from a completely financial point of view, if you look after that calf properly from the day it comes in, its value at the end far outweighs what you’ve invested in it,’’ says Trendler. ‘‘The humane side we don’t have to justify, all of us do it because we don’t want the calf to suffer.”

While Trendler clearly remains dedicated and passionate about saving orphaned rhinos, she admits the relentless poaching is taking its toll on everyone concerned: “There’s donor fatigue, there’s public fatigue, there’s media fatigue…. And certainly we’re seeing within the rhino community fatigue and burn out, compassion fatigue setting in. The guys are tired, they’re worn out.”

“I’m by nature an optimist, but there are times when I think we are losing this war. There’s an optimism that we can save them, but there’s a realism that we could see rhino[s] go.

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