Tom was the 6th orphan to be rescued in 2020. On the morning of 13th October 2020, rangers in Manyeleti discovered the tracks of suspected poachers exiting the reserve. The South African Wildlife College launched the Savannah aircraft flown by pilot Bruce McDonald, to scan the area and retrace the steps; sadly, a devastating scene was discovered. Two dead rhino cows were spotted from the air but with the area heavy with hyena clans, there was little left of the bodies. Close by and by the grace of God, untouched and unharmed, lay a small rhino calf.
SANParks Veterinarian, Dr Lufuno Netshitavhadulu, responded to the calf accompanied by Tshokwane Section Ranger, Rob Thompson and pilot David Simelane. Estimated to be around 5 months old, the calf who would later be named Tom, was immobilised and placed on a drip. Before the rescue team departed for Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary, Tom was carefully secured into the helicopter. Just before noon, Tom landed at the Care for Wild (CFW) helipad accompanied by his support team. The summer sun was beating fiercely on the team waiting to receive him, but the heat went unnoticed as all attention turned to the newest calf to have lost his Mom.
Tom was quickly moved from the helicopter and into the transportation crate ready to be driven to the CFW Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Still very sleepy, Tom rested for most of the afternoon as Petronel and the team continued to change his drips and watch him closely.
Darkness began to fall as the ICU lights were switched on and the team began to settle into their station for the coming night. All new admissions receive round the clock care and little Tom was no exception. Shortly before 20:00 he started to stir, and caregivers offered him his first bottle of milk. He must have been extremely hungry because he latched onto the bottle immediately and began to drink. Clumsily and with some spillage, Tom started to work out exactly how his lips must fit around the bottle in order to suckle nicely. He became more skilled and confident with each feed until suddenly something clicked, and he began to drink like a pro! Inbetween his two hourly feeds, Tom spent most of the night devouring teff and freshly cut grass before falling into a deep slumber just before dawn.
Every single rhino calf is different and moves through the different stages of acceptance and adaptation at different speeds. Tom’s ear plugs were removed later that day and just 24 hours after his arrival, as night crept over the ICU, Petronel removed Tom’s blindfold. The sweetest of faces looked back at us and we knew instantly that Tom’s new crash would be fellow orphans Anchor, Yster, Cotton and Ranger. The next day Tom was driven down to the bigger bomas. Tom’s new neighbours knew that something was up! They began to smell around his nightpen and started to call. As the bomas became quiet, Petronel opened the door for Tom to meet his new crash.
We must never underestimate the power of the comfort that rhinos can offer to one another. As Tom walked out, afraid and unsure, he began to call and look for his Mom. Cotton answered his calls. Cotton, the oldest of the crash and yet a baby still herself, welcomed Tom in the sweetest of ways. Rubbing her head next to his, she calmed little Tom and allowed him to follow her around the boma. She even engaged in playtime and supervised his first mud wallow. It is important that these calves form deep emotional bonds with other rhinos as they develop their social skills and explore group behaviour dynamics with their own species.
Since the arrival of tiny orphan Fred a few weeks later, it seems as though Tom has made a very special friend. Tom drinks 16L of milk a day and will continue to drink milk until the age of 16 months. Tom’s crash is now a family of six and has been affectionately called “The CRAFTY Six’ with the name originating from the first letter of all of their names.
The CRAFTY Six currently spend their days walking, playing and grazing in their day camp as their tummies adjust to eating solids. At night-time, they return to the bomas and a cosy nightpen. Tom and his crash will continue with their rehabilitation programme until all six orphans are fully weaned and strong enough to move onto the first phase of the rewilding and release programme as we prepare them to be the rhinos they are meant to be.