It’s always the same. The same feeling. As you wait at the helipad for the distant whirl of the helicopter that brings the newest orphan. It is a feeling of anger, rage and sadness in the very pit of your stomach at the brutal and unnecessary loss. But it’s also a feeling of relief that at least this little one is safe.
As pilot Brad Grafton, landed the SANParks helicopter at CFW, everyone’s breath caught in their chest as they saw the tiny baby inside. Accompanied by Ranger Don English and Veterinarian Dr Peter Buss, the tiny calf could be no more than 4 months old.
His Mom had been shot and killed. Her horns were not removed so it is thought that in a last attempt to save her baby, she managed to escape her killers only to pass away hours later from her wounds. Fred was alone for about 48 hours before rescuers found him. Scared, alone, dehydrated and terrified.
He was easy to lift from the helicopter. A small bundle of rhino infancy and innocence. DNA samples and blood samples were obtained, and he was placed on a drip to combat dehydration. He was driven quickly to the CFW Intensive Care Unit where staff monitored him closely overnight.
He had a challenging and restless first night. His sleep was haunted by nightmares, no doubt of the death of his Mom. He would wake crying and running only to collapse exhausted back into sleep. The team worked with patience and persistence to earn his trust and only at 08:00 the following morning, he took his first bottle.
Fred was truly a little baby and just as babies are prone to doing, he would throw tantrums when his milk was finished! After a couple of minutes of squeaking and throwing himself around, he would flop down onto his side and fall asleep. Fred did not spend long in the ICU. Anxious to get him back into the company of rhinos quickly, Fred moved to the bomas after 48 hours in the ICU.
His soon to be new family, Anchor, Yster, Cotton, Ranger and Tom, watched curiously as the travelling crate arrived at the nightpen. Once Fred was settled inside, they began to smell around the door and communicate with the new calf.
By 17:00 we decided to introduce Fred to the other orphans. As usual, Cotton was unbelievable during this introduction. Slightly older than the rest of the crash but yet just a baby herself, she approached Fred with calmness, confidence and reassurance. Standing side by side with Cotton, Fred looked even smaller. The four boys were hesitant to meet Fred, but Cotton’s calming energy gave them all peace of mind, and slowly they came to meet each other. Fred gravitated to Cotton immediately but when they all settled to sleep, he began to wander the bomas calling and searching for his Mom.
The night crept in and the temperatures began to drop. Everyone held their breath as Fred settled in the furthest corner of the boma away from the shelter of the nightpens. The weather turned and the rain started. The CFW team urgently made a plan to encourage Fred into the dry. But the plan wasn’t needed as Fred stood up and walked towards the others. He quietly walked into the nightpen where the others welcomed him and lay down cuddled close to Cotton.
The next day, caregivers observed the sweetest of friendship beginning to form between Tom and Fred. Fred would follow Tom around and stand next to him with his body touching Tom’s. In the afternoon, Fred followed Tom into the mud wallow where they rolled together. Mud wallowing is a behaviour that we look for as an indicator of a relaxed and happy calf and we were over the moon to see this.
Fred is most definitely still finding his feet and has a long way to go as he processes the trauma that he experienced and learns to live without the love and guidance of his Mom. While nobody can replace these orphans’ Moms, one thing is for certain. They have no shortage of love and support from their human caregivers and new fellow rhino family.