The severity of rhino poaching in South Africa often makes the headlines, but what happens to the young who are left behind? Volunteers at The Rhino Orphanage Larize Nel and Michelle Sole let us know why they’re happy to leave a regular life, and normal working hours, to raise baby rhinos.
When The Rhino Orphanage was founded by Arrie van Deventer in 2012, it was the world’s first dedicated sanctuary for black and white rhino orphans whose mothers had been killed by poachers. In March 2020, when lockdown was instituted in South Africa and the borders closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the vital international volunteers at The Rhino Orphanage had their visas revoked and returned home. In desperate need of help, Arrie turned to social media looking for local volunteers willing to spend lockdown at the orphanage. Of hundreds of applicants, Larize joined the orphanage, and seven months later, she’s still there.
Having studied environmental sciences and with a PhD in zoology, Larize was previously part of dehorning operations in a bid to save adult rhinos. “I have a huge love for rhinos,” she says, “This call gave me the opportunity to gain even more experience with the orphans.”
A hard day’s shift
One of the crucial jobs at The Rhino Orphanage is bottle-feeding the youngest calves at three-hour intervals. Twenty-four-hour shifts are not uncommon as the calves have to be supervised at all times, and volunteers will often sleep alongside them. The rest of the day is filled with taking the younger rhinos on bush walks where they can spend time grazing, feeding the older rhinos teff grass and pellets, restocking the next day’s feed, cleaning the sleeping quarters and topping up the mud baths, among many other manual tasks.
“Being clean is a thing of the past,” says Michelle, who had previously also worked at the orphanage in its early days and has since returned, “You soon accept that you will always be covered in dirt and dust!”
“There is a lot of maintenance involved in caring for rhinos as they are powerful beasts, so there is always something to fix,” she adds, “It could be a water trough that has taken a beating or a boma fence that has been worked loose from a rhino playing!”
Michelle describes the early days at the orphanage as pretty intense as the team was so small. “It has been great to come back here and see the positive developments that have been implemented as a result of great management and donations,” she says.
Spending time with the orphans and ultimately gaining their trust is a huge privilege that cannot be taken advantage of.
‒ Larize Nel, volunteer
It was a baby rhino called Ntombi that first drew Michelle to the orphanage. Ntombi’s mother had been poached, and during the attack, Ntombi suffered 18 hack wounds from a panga and axe. Her injuries were life threatening, and she needed around-the-clock care to survive.
“Emotionally it’s one of the hardest jobs I can think of,” Michelle explains, “You have to pour your heart into a wild animal that is often terrified of people because of a traumatic experience, and sadly not every rhino calf makes it. Those that do, you work hard to build a bond with, knowing that one day you will have to cut that bond and let this incredible creature return to the wild where they belong.
“This is the hardest part: you know you will never see them again and that they are now at the mercy of humans, the same humans who killed their mothers. Not a day goes by that I don’t worry about the rhinos I have helped raise and hope that they will be safe.”
Here I am part of an incredible team of people who are saving a species.
‒ Michelle Sole, volunteer
This life takes an emotional toll, but it also has its joys. “Spending time with the orphans and ultimately gaining their trust is a huge privilege that cannot be taken advantage of,” Larize says.
As COVID-19 continues to impact the world at large, Michelle is happy to spend her days back at the orphanage. “Here I am part of an incredible team of people who are saving a species,” she concludes.
BMW is a proud partner of The Rhino Orphanage through the donation of BMW X3 vehicles to assist in rescuing baby rhinoceroses.