It was late afternoon on Friday 14th August; everything was ready and prepared for a quiet weekend. The staff who were due to go on leave were on their way home, and the sanctuary was quiet. But Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary is always on call, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and we never say ‘no’ to a calf in need.
A member of the public had spotted a small rhino calf running on the tar road in the Crocodile Bridge area of the Kruger National Park. Thinking it strange that a rhino so young should be alone, they called the Section Ranger, Neels van Wyk, who headed out immediately to investigate. On arrival, Neels knew immediately that something was wrong and phoned for air support. Clearly frightened and distressed, the young calf began to turn back into the bush. Fearful that they would lose the baby, Neels began to track the calf but with the falling light, following on foot became increasingly more difficult.
When the helicopter arrived, Neels took to the air with San Parks Veterinarian Dr Peter Buss and Head Ranger, Don English. They flew the area, scanning for the baby but to no avail. Hope was fading fast as a baby alone in the bush at night stands very little chance of survival, and normally falls victim to poachers or hungry hyena. With the very last amounts of light, Neels asked the helicopter to hover over the last known location of the calf. With the continuous changing of shadows caused by the setting sun, he hoped they might spot her. Absolute elation was felt by all in the helicopter as suddenly a small grey silhouette was spotted laying under a bush.
With no time to waste, Dr Peter Buss darted the calf and ground support quickly came to assist. The calf, estimated to be 10 months old, was too big to load into the helicopter and there was no time to remove the back seats. Instead, the decision was made to sling her under the helicopter and fly her to the entrance of Leopard Creek, a few kilometres away. It was a risky decision; with darkness nearly upon them, landing the helicopter with a calf underneath was described by Neels as an ‘exceptionally daunting experience.’ But the teams that rescue and care for orphaned rhinos do not give up easily and the SAN Parks team is no exception. They are compromised of the most highly trained, skilled, and dedicated people, and the young calf landed safely. Now completely dark, the helicopter was given an armed guard for the night before flying back to Skukuza the following morning. An enormous amount of heartfelt effort and dedication to rescue and save this precious calf.
The Care for Wild team arrived shortly after and loaded the baby into the transportation crate ready for the journey back to the sanctuary. The calf was put on a drip and after a final check by Dr Peter Buss, the CFW team departed.
Our newest admission, who would later be given the name Cotton, arrived late in the evening, and was immediately admitted to the ICU for monitoring. Petronel and the team worked throughout the night, changing drips, and checking on the little calf. By the early hours of the morning, Cotton was standing and eating teff and just a few hours later, she took her first few litres of milk. Slightly older calves sometimes prefer to drink from a trough rather than from a bottle, and that is absolutely fine. A trough was Cotton’s preference, and she drinks wonderfully this way.
Cotton stayed in the ICU for only a few days before moving down to the bigger bomas where her blindfold and ear plugs were removed. It can often be much harder to gain the trust of older calves especially if they do not drink from a bottle, and they generally take a lot longer to adapt and settle. This is where having other rhino calves close by can be a massive help in settling and relaxing a new calf. Anchor and Yster are to play this valuable role in Cotton’s new life as she learns to live and cope without her Mom.
After two months in the ICU, Anchor and Yster also moved to the bigger bomas, just next door to Cotton. Within 24 hours we introduced Cotton to her two neighbours. The meeting went exceptionally well; all three rhinos were a little unsure of each other but were very gentle and sweet. Despite being bigger than the two boys, Cotton was immediately drawn to their calm and confident demeanours.
Section Ranger, Neels visited Cotton a week after her arrival to tell her story and see first-hand the results of their rescue efforts. He reported that a female rhino carcass with the horns removed, was found close to where Cotton was rescued. It is believed to be Cotton’s Mom, but DNA testing will confirm this. It is so important to remember and acknowledge that saving rhinos is not a single handed effort, it takes a team, and every person in that team has a vital role to play in protecting and conserving the species. One team, one dream. Every rhino matters.
Just a short while after Cotton, Anchor and Yster moved to the bomas, another orphaned calf arrived by the name of Ranger. Cotton and Ranger are now very best friends and are never found apart.
Cotton is slightly older than the rest of her crash and at the moment, she is the only female. Despite her young age and being just a baby herself, she is exceptionally good with the new arrivals. When Tom and more recently, Fred, arrived at the sanctuary, Cotton was the calming, comforting and supportive rhino who made introductions easy and successful. She is very motherly and looks after the five boys very well.