Tom is the 6th orphan to be rescued since June this year. 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, Tom was immobilised and placed on a drip. Before the rescue team departed for Care for Wild, Tom was carefully secured into the helicopter where final checks were performed on his breathing.
Tom landed on the helipad accompanied by his support team just before noon. The new 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. Still very sleepy, Tom rested for most of the afternoon as Petronel and the team continued to change his drips and monitor the new calf 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 2 hourly bottles, 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 as night crept over the ICU just 24 hours after his arrival, 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 a game and watched him as he wallowed for the first time in the mud.
Now that he is starting to settle, caregivers are able to step back and monitor from a distance. 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, it seems as though Tom has a special friend. One day, they will all enter the rewilding and release programme together. For now, they must drink their milk, grow big and strong and play like baby rhinos should.