“I wondered about her and I thought to myself, will she make it? Will she really be fine? Will she make this trip? In what condition will she be? Is she hurting, is she crying for her Mom? Will she accept me and at the end of the day, will she trust me to walk this journey with her… will I be able to save her in the end?”

Petronel Nieuwoudt, Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary Founder and CEO

Raised on a farm in Limpopo, South Africa, Petronel Nieuwoudt was blessed with the happiest of childhoods. Her Mother was a teacher and her Father, a farmer. Her days were filled with the adventures of farm life enriched with the love and teachings of her parents. From a young age, they showed her the humility of hard work, the virtues of perseverance and the beauty of kindness.

After finishing her university studies in 1991, Petronel joined the Endangered Species Protection Unit of the South African Police Service (ESPU) where she dedicated herself for eight years as she rose to the command of Captain. In 1999 she left the ESPU and founded The Game Capture School where she offered professionally developed training courses in the chemical and physical capture of wildlife as well as best practices in the care and management of wildlife.

Petronel also founded and developed the Sondela Wildlife Centre In Bela Bela (2005- 2007) as well as the Tamboti Wildlife Centre in Mookopong (2007 – 2010) where she worked with various wildlife species including antelope, buffalo, cats, giraffe, raptors and reptiles.

In April 2011 Petronel moved from Limpopo to Mpumalanga where her passion for the protection of wildlife resulted in the founding of Care for Wild Africa, a rescue and rehabilitation centre for all wildlife in need. With a vast amount of experience in the capture, treatment and rehabilitation of many different species, Petronel continued to offer training in rehabilitation and wildlife management.

In 2012 a private rhino owner from Limpopo brought the first orphan rhino to Care for Wild; this rhino would later be given the name, Lunar. Not long after Lunar’s arrival, another 4 orphans arrived; Bobby, Didi, Storm and Timbi. Petronel began looking for a suitable property on which she could establish a purpose-built facility that would support the successful rewilding and release of the animals under rehabilitation. In 2013 Care for Wild moved to its current location.

The year of 2014 changed the course of Petronel’s life. She had no idea as to the enormous responsibility that was soon to be asked of her. South Africa was fast becoming the centre of the poaching crisis. Rhinos were being murdered in National Parks, Provincial Parks and on private property. Poaching numbers were rising at an alarming rate and the effects were becoming increasingly more devastating as more and more orphans were left defenceless and alone to their fate. In the midst of the escalating crisis, South African National Parks decided that they needed to take action if they were going to prevent the extinction of the rhino species and Kruger National Park began to save orphaned and injured rhinos.

“I remember when they asked me to take the orphans from the Kruger. I was so deeply humbled. The enormity of the responsibility was certainly not lost on me. I took a moment just to breath and acknowledge the responsibility I was about to undertake, not just to save the lives of the rescued orphans but to safeguard the future of the species. Everything in my life had led to this moment and I was ready. Not for one second did I hesitate or look back. It was my calling and I had faith.”

Petronel and her small team of staff and volunteers had no idea when they might expect a new orphan, nor did they anticipate the vast numbers in which they would arrive. Satara was the very first calf received from the Kruger National Park and after her admission, the orphans just kept on coming. With only two buildings and a couple of camps, Petronel and her team utilised the little money and resources they had, and began to build bomas.

“We would sometimes have two or three calves arrive within days of each other. At this stage we didn’t have the most expensive of facilities and equipment but we had the will, the energy, the resourcefulness and the dedication to save every orphan. We worked under solar powered spot lights and used infra red lamps to keep the babies warm. Under the stunning night sky we would use the shelter that our barn provided to stabilise the newly admitted orphans. My small team of staff and volunteers, my two sons and myself would work hour after hour, sleep deprived, cold, dirty, and tired to the core, we would mix bottles of milk, change drip bags and at one stage we performed CPR on a calf that stopped breathing. It didn’t matter how exhausted we were, we never said ‘no’ to a calf in need and we never gave up for a second.”

As word spread of the rescue and conservation efforts, monetary donations as well as the offer of equipment, labour and willing hearts and hands came flooding in. Petronel applied to register the company as a non-profit and after a year, Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary NPC was established in 2015. The existing board consist of Petronel Nieuwoudt, Chris de Bruno Austin, Mark Ngwenyama and Nico Oosthuizen as well as additional members.

As more orphans arrived, concern for the protection and security of the rhinos, staff and volunteers also grew.

“I remember having to acknowledge that we were steadily becoming a target for poachers but more importantly I remember the passion and commitment of the team in that moment. We were a very small team but, they believed in the cause and they believed in me. We had a mutual respect and understanding for exactly what we were fighting to protect. Our heritage. Some of the original antipoaching members are still with me today. They are part of the team that helped to grow and develop this organisation. They have protected these orphans since they arrived as small babies and continue to watch over them now that they are released into the Intensive Protection Zone.”

Over the last 20 years, Petronel and the growing Care for Wild team have changed and evolved their protocols and methods, perfecting standard operating procedures, systems and techniques as their knowledge and experience continued to grow. Remember there were no textbooks and very little information available. The development of best practices in rhino rescue, rehabilitation, and rewilding has led to Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary becoming the Rhino Centre of Excellence. Continuing to support rhino rescue and conservation efforts internationally, Petronel has also given assistance and training to organisations in Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe as well as other zoos and wildlife parks all over the world.

“May I always be so humble as to recognise how little we started with and how far we have come. We now understand exactly what it takes to save an orphaned rhino calf. We appreciate the time, money, and effort to save a species from extinction. This is by no means a single person’s journey. It takes a team. We spend our energy wisely and share our experience and knowledge. Why? Why not? Is it not all of our responsibility to ensure a future for generations to come?”

As of 2020, Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary has rescued more than 80 rhinos. It was always Care for Wild’s mission to rewild and release the rhino orphans under their care with the vision of securing viable black and white rhino breeding populations and thus securing the future of the species. The success of this process relies on ensuring that the ecosystem into which they are released, is healthy and protected. The reserve on which the sanctuary is built could not be more perfect for this purpose.

“I recall the day that we first walked here. Gold was mined here in the 1800’s. The geological richness of the area and the diversity of the flora was unparalleled. This is the only place in the world that you will find the Barberton Daisy. The site is now listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site with an expansion to 80,000Ha planned. When you protect the ecosystem, you protect everything that thrives in that area. It was as if the reserve took hands with the mission. There is a magical energy about this place where rhinos, rocks and daisies thrive.”

Petronel’s vision for the future of Care for Wild and the rhinos it protects has always been inclusive of community involvement with a heavy emphasis on the sustainability of the project.

“The abundance of opportunity created by the rhinos is unbelievable. We employ many local community members and offer training and skill development in wildlife rehabilitation and management, reserve management, alien invasive plant control, antipoaching, and agricultural development. There is a scalable impact on the local economy. All our employees are ‘bread winners’ and can now financially support their families. We are taking hands with the communities and their children to ensure a future for all. Save rhinos to save people, to save tomorrow.”

Always ready and willing to receive any rhino in need, Petronel and her team continue with their mission of rescuing, rehabilitating, releasing and protecting this iconic species. When asked about the future, Petronel is fully aware of both the challenges and the blessings this calling holds.

“The truth is that we do not have all the answers. What I do know is this. Yes, there is evil in this world. There must be true wickedness and darkness in someone who can destroy a nation’s heritage and prey on the innocent and vulnerable. However, there is also goodness, there is light, there is love and there is hope. When I think of the number of people involved in enabling our vision to succeed, I am in awe. From the rangers, the pilots, the veterinarians, the caregivers, the rhino monitors, the antipoaching units, the volunteers, the sponsors and the donors both locally and internationally – this is a team of people fighting against the dark. This is a team that will leave a legacy for future generations. When I took the responsibility of walking this road, I answered a calling and by the Grace of God we will succeed.

For me, the true miracle is the resilience of a species and the spirt of the people fighting to save it”

“If you can wake up in the morning and know that you have done something, really done something…your hands are dirty…you’ve been playing with them in the mud…you’ve been crying with them when they wake up at night crying for their Moms…then you know….then you will feel it.

The second you lay your hands on them, you decide that you take the responsibility to ensure that wherever this road is leading, this little one comes out fine. You do not give up on them….ever.”