Rhinoceros calf Jessie was just four months old when she arrived at a shelter in northern South Africa, bleeding from a cut to the shoulder and deeply traumatised.
Rescuers suspect the animal was wounded by poachers who took out its mother, hitting the calf with a machete to keep it away. Jessie was lucky to escape alive and land in a unique centre devoted to rehabilitating rhino orphans.
“It took two days of giving her Valium for her to calm down,” carer Zanre Van Jaarsveld recalled. “She was very dehydrated too.”
The Rhino Orphanage is tucked away in the lush forests of South Africa’s Limpopo province, hidden at the end of a red-dirt track dotted with potholes.
“If farm workers give information to poachers … they will make more money than they would make in a year’s wages,” said founder Arrie Van Deventer.
Security and vigilance are, therefore, key to protecting the orphanage, which survives on private donations.
Van Deventer, a former history teacher turned game breeder, started the project after he was called to help with a poaching incident in 2011.
Today the orphanage is home to a number of rhino calves. Most are of the square-lipped species, also known as white rhino, but some of the rarer critically endangered black rhino are also housed there.
The mission is clear: rescue, rehabilitation and release. No tourists allowed, very few visitors, and minimal human contact.
“If they get too accustomed to people it makes it more difficult to release them into the wild,” Van Deventer explained, adding the grounds were also closed to the public for “security reasons”.
Four staff and two volunteers, all women, work around the clock to nurse the rhinos, sometimes even sleeping next to the youngest calves in an open-faced barn.
“We’re their mothers,” said manager Yolande Van Der Merwe, 38. “They sleep very close for warmth and comfort … As soon as they are left alone they start screaming.”