Kenya’s Rhino Orphans
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN KENYA
WHAT happens in the wild when a young animal becomes separated from its parents? Likely it will be killed by predators. To prevent that, game rangers in Kenya rescue such infant animals and take them to animal orphanages. One of the best-known is operated by Daphne Sheldrick at Nairobi National Park. For decades, Sheldrick has reared and restored to the wild many animals, including buffalo, antelope, civet cats, warthogs, mongooses, elephants, and rhino.
Last year she had in her care two baby black rhino, Magnette and Magnum. Magnette is the calf of Nairobi Park’s Edith, who is still living. The calf was brought to the orphanage in mid-February of 1997, having somehow become separated from its mother. When the rangers finally located Magnette’s mother, five days had passed. By then, the likelihood that the mother would accept the calf was remote because of the length of separation and the smell of humans on the animal.
Magnum was born on January 30, 1997, and is the calf of a rhino named Scud, who had lost the use of her right foreleg, possibly by stepping into a hole while at full gallop. Although extensive efforts were made to heal the injury, bone infection developed, and Scud had to be euthanatized three weeks after giving birth to Magnum.
Young rhino are eager to please and easy to handle, but rearing them is no living-room project. At four-hour intervals during the day, they nurse from a king-size baby bottle, drinking a full-cream milk formula. They also dine on shrubs and bushes. Though baby rhino are only about 18 inches [about 40 centimeters] tall and weigh between 60 and 80 pounds [between 30 and 40 kilograms] at birth, they put on weight at an astounding rate—gaining two pounds [a kilogram] a day! When full grown, a rhino weighs more than a ton.
Their keepers accompany Magnette and Magnum on long walks through the park each day. These walks are not merely for exercise; they serve an important purpose—the integrating of the rhino into the wild. Let us consider how this is done.
Rhino have weak eyesight, but they possess a keen sense of smell and a phenomenal memory. Thus, rhino first come to know each other by scent. Rhino mark the boundaries of their territory by leaving dung piles (middens) and by spraying their urine on bushes.
Under normal circumstances, a calf is protected by its mother, its unique scent trail mingling with hers until the next calf is due. By then, the baby will be fully integrated into and accepted by the established rhino community. For newcomers like Magnette and Magnum, the situation is different. They must add their droppings to the established middens of the rhino who live in the area before physical contact with them takes place. So during their long daily walks, the rhino orphans make their own contribution to established middens in the bush. In this way their scent is discovered, investigated, and finally accepted by the local rhino population. The relocation of hand-raised rhino into the wild is, therefore, a complicated process that can take several years.
What Future for the Orphans?
According to the World Wildlife Fund, in 1970 there were about 65,000 black rhino in Africa. Today there are fewer than 2,500. This drastic decline has been caused by poachers who have slaughtered rhino for their skin and horn. On the black market, rhino horn is worth more than its weight in gold. Why is it highly prized?
For one thing, in some countries in the Far East, many believe that powdered horn can reduce fever. Chemical tests have shown that there may be some truth in this but only if administered in amounts far higher than those found in current remedies. Of course, there are many other medicines that reduce a fever.
Rhino horn is also sought after for cultural reasons. In one country of the Middle East, the curved dagger is a coveted emblem of manhood. So prized is a dagger with a rhino-horn handle that buyers are willing to pay $580 for a handle of new horn and $1,200 for a handle of antique horn.
As a result of poaching, Kenya lost more than 95 percent of its rhino in less than 20 years. By the early 1990’s, the number had fallen from 20,000 to barely 400. Since then, because of intense protection measures, the rhino population has increased to about 450. Kenya is now one of only three African countries in which black rhino populations are either stable or increasing. So the future for Magnette and Magnum looks good, and their keepers hope that they will eventually join the local rhino community and live long and happy lives.
[Picture on page 12]
Magnum (left) and Magnette at four months of age