The aftermath of poaching: saving the next generation of rhinos
Jamie Traynor: Queen of the rhino selfie, expert rhino snuggler and manager at The Rhino Orphanage in South Africa, shares her heartrending stories of picking up the babies left behind from poaching and, with warm hands and a loving heart, rehabilitating them back into the wild.
What’s your story?
I currently manage The Rhino Orphanage in Limpopo, South Africa. My job at the orphanage entails overseeing the care and welfare of the rhinos. This includes collection of orphaned rhinos from game reserves, stabilizing new rhino calves, monitoring and adjusting diets, administering treatments, day-to-day care of the rhinos, record-keeping, and pre-release conditioning of the orphans. A normal shift at the orphanage starts at 4pm and lasts 24 hours. At the moment a shift involves feeding the older rhinos dry food (teff and Lucerne), sleeping with our youngest rhino (Nandi), taking the babies out for walks twice a day, feeding the young rhinos their milk and a lot of cleaning! But there is never a typical day here at the orphanage, anything can happen!
My love for rhinos began when I started working at Moholoholo Rehab Centre. It was there that I met Dani, a 3 month old white rhino, who showed me a side of rhinos that very few people get to see. Her mother was being relocated to a safer area due to the rise in rhino poaching. Unfortunately, the stress of the relocation was too much and the rhino aborted her calf and ran off. Dani was a very special little rhino and had the sweetest personality. She would follow me all around the centre, never leaving my side and this was when I realised how strong the bond was between us. The bond that we form with these baby rhinos is truly amazing and indescribable!
They run to us when they are scared, seek our comfort and reassurance and trust us completely. I had the privilege of experiencing this bond with another baby rhino while at Moholoholo. This time it was a 2 month old black rhino who we named Ollie. This naughty little boy stole my heart! I spent the next 2 years raising Ollie and watching him grow into a gorgeous, feisty black rhino. Ollie is definitely the reason that I have such a passion for rhinos, especially black rhinos.
Unfortunately after I left Moholoholo I was given the horrible news that Ollie, along with another black rhino, had been poached while they were still at the rehab centre. The news devastated me but it also fuelled my commitment to help save these amazing animals from the hands of poachers.
The most difficult thing working with rhinos
The hardest part about my job is the loss of a baby rhino. I experienced that for the first time with Ollie and, although we have lost other rhinos, that has still been the hardest loss.
We work very closely with all the rhinos that come to the orphanage and form special bonds with them, this makes it very heart-breaking when some of them don’t make it. Another difficult part of working with baby rhinos is seeing how traumatised they are after witnessing their mothers being poached. They are in an unfamiliar place surrounded by the same creatures who killed their mom. It is a long process to earn their trust and allow them to settle into their new environment. Some of the babies that come in still call for their moms days after arriving and it’s a very heart breaking sound to hear.
Your most memorable experience with rhinos?
There are 2 memories that stand out when I think about the past 5 years of working with rhinos. My first and fondest memory is the 2 months that I spent with Ollie when he first arrived. Ollie was found by his mothers side three days after she had been poached, so he was very weak and dehydrated. The night that he arrived we left him to settle in as he was terrified following the trauma he had been through. The following morning we were on a mission to get Ollie to start drinking milk from a bottle so he could build up his strength again. It took about 24 hours of bashing and charging but Ollie finally started drinking his milk.
The next step was to earn his trust so that I could become his surrogate mom but this was easier said than done. This meant that my days consisted of sitting with Ollie, sleeping with him and feeding him milk around the clock. I have to admit that the first few days were not as fun as I thought they would be because Ollie was still very scared and kept a good distance away from me except for when he got the courage to run over and hit me. You might think that a 2 month old baby rhino is small but believe me they are incredibly strong and not afraid to show you who is boss. After a few days of constant talking to him and reassuring him, we finally made progress and he let me touch him. A few days after that he was sleeping next to me with his head on my lap — the most amazing experience I’ve ever had!
Initially, taking Ollie for a walk was a challenge because he would follow me until something gave him a fright and then he would run back to his room and we would have to start all over again. Eventually he became used to people, cars and other new happenings. We would go out every morning and spend the day in the bush, either sleeping under a tree or finding some browse for Ollie to munch on. Black rhinos eat plants and trees and because Ollie was so small I often had to pull down the branches of his favourite trees. Ollie also loved to eat fruit, but if you only gave him one grape or one piece of apple he would get ‘fruit rage’ which usually meant that you would have to jump up a tree to escape a very angry little rhino.
It was very exciting to work with Ollie as he would often change from being sweet and lovable to being completely wild and unpredictable. I never knew what mood he was going to be in so this always kept me on my toes. Ollie was also very independent and although he enjoyed having me around, he was also quite happy to be left alone to do what he wanted. One of Ollie’s favourite activities was mud wallowing. This involved me having to get into the mud bath with Ollie and I spent many happy times playing in the mud with him. Ollie would become excited and energetic when it was pouring with rain which meant that I had to play out in the rain with him. If people think that rhinos are slow clumsy animals I’m here to tell you all that they are extremely fast! It’s like trying to keep up with a 2 tonne galloping horse. The best part about Ollie running in the rain was that he would slip and slide on the wet grass or mud. He was very cute to watch and always made me laugh.
My other memory is of Tshidi. She was only 2 months old when poachers shot her mom and left her to fend for herself. To make matters worse Tshidi’s mom was poached during last year’s drought so this left her with nothing to eat or drink while we searched for her on the reserve. During this time she became so hungry that she resorted to eating sand. The amount of sand that she ingested caused severe colic and Tshidi had to be rushed to Onderstepoort for colic surgery.
Vets found large amounts of sand in her intestines and this was eroding away her intestinal wall. After the surgery little Tshidi needed 24/7 intensive nursing. I remember the night of her surgery, lying next to her with my arms around her trying to keep her warm. Her body was so weak that she could not regulate her temperature so we had to constantly monitor it and try stabilise it.
The next few days were a blur of no sleep, lots of vets and staying by Tshidi’s side to comfort her. Tshidi was unable to drink milk after the surgery so we had to tube it directly into her stomach and I remember looking at this helpless rhino with bandages and tubes everywhere thinking that she would have been out in the bush with her mother if poaching was not decimating our rhinos.
A week of ups and downs with Tshidi came to an end on that Friday morning. Things had gone from bad to worse and the vets had done everything they could for her. Tshidi started breathing very rapidly and I looked up at one of the vets to see what to do but he just came and sat next to me and I lay with my arms around her until the end. Talking about Tshidi still makes me cry every time but it has pushed me to continue working day and night to save these magnificent animals.
The biggest reward
The biggest reward when working with rhinos or any wildlife is seeing them being released back into the wild. It is always scary releasing rhinos as you don’t know if they’ll be safe from poaching but the ultimate goal when we save rhino calves is to one day see them return to the wild. It’s a proud moment to see the rhinos overcome their trauma and reach the point of being ready for release. When baby rhinos first arrive at the orphanage they are terrified and traumatised from losing their mothers. It takes a lot of time and patience to earn their trust but once the bond is formed it really is the most amazing connection with an animal.
The changes we must see if poaching is to decrease
I think that the most important thing at the moment is increasing security and educating people about the poaching crisis. Poachers are willing to go to any lengths to get rhino horn so we have to work on protecting the rhinos we have left.
If you would like more information about The Rhino Orphanage and where to donate please visit:
Follow Jamie on Instagram: @j.traynor
Follow The Rhino Orphanage on Instagram: @therhinoorphanage