Orphan Rhino Rehabilitation Research Study

The poaching of rhinos for their horns has resulted in the loss of many animals, which poses a grave conservation concern.

One of the sad consequences of poaching is that sometimes more than one life is lost, especially when a pregnant mother is killed. Equally, or even more sad, is the poaching of mothers with calves, which leaves those calves orphaned. A large proportion of orphaned calves are unlikely to survive, with most succumbing to predation or starvation, especially if they are younger than 12 months.

However, orphans that are located and taken to rehabilitation centres have a good chance of survival, being kept and cared for by rehabilitation centres until they reach an age when they can be reintroduced into the wild.

At present, little is known about how these animals cope during the rehabilitation process, or how well they adapt once released into the wild. Rearing conditions, particularly mother deprivation, can have profound effects later in the life of an animal, potentially affecting their ability to survive, interact with other animals of their own species, breed, or raise their offspring to the age of independence.

Through scientific research it is possible to analyse which aspects of the rearing conditions and environment influence the welfare and behaviour of these animals, and this information can then be used to adapt rehabilitation programmes accordingly in order to maximize their success.

If successful, rehabilitated orphaned rhino could form their own healthy and sustainable wild groups or could be re-introduced into wild populations to further help with conservation programmes.

The Faculty of Veterinary Science of the University of Pretoria, in collaboration with SANParks, Care for Wild, Kaapse Valley Conservancy and Mpumalanga Parks have initiated a research project in order to determine how rearing conditions and environment during rehabilitation affects subsequent adaptation of orphan rhinos once they are released into the wild.

The research team, with Dr. María Fàbregas as a principal investigator, consists of a number of specialists in several disciplines, including behavioural ecology, animal welfare and physiology.

This study, funded by Groupelephant.com, will help to develop best practices to improve rhino orphan rehabilitation and release, thus reducing the risks of failure and increasing viable wild populations with good reproductive potential.