Rhinoceros calf Jessie was only four months old when she arrived at a shelter in northern South Africa, bleeding from a cut to her shoulder and deeply traumatized.
Rescuers suspect the animal was injured by poachers who took out its mother, hitting the calf with a machete to drive it away. Jessie was fortunate enough to escape alive and land at a unique center dedicated to the rehabilitation of rhino orphans.
“It took her two days to give her Valium to calm down,” remembers caregiver Zanre Van Jaarsveld. “She was also very dehydrated.
The Rhino Orphanage is nestled in the lush forests of South Africa’s Limpopo province, hidden at the end of a red dirt road strewn with potholes.
“If farm workers give poachers information… they’ll make more money than they get in a year’s pay,” said founder Arrie Van Deventer.
Safety and vigilance are therefore essential to protect the orphanage, which survives thanks to private donations.
Van Deventer, a former history professor turned game rancher, kicked off the project after being called in to help with a poaching incident in 2011.
Today the orphanage is home to a number of rhino calves. Most are square-lipped species, also known as white rhinos, but some of the rarer critically endangered black rhinos are also housed there.
The mission is clear: rescue, rehabilitation and liberation. No tourists allowed, very few visitors and minimal human contact.
“If they get too used to people, it is more difficult to release them into the wild,” Van Deventer said, adding that the grounds were also closed to the public for “security reasons”.
Four staff members and two volunteers, all women, work around the clock to nurse the rhinos, sometimes even sleeping next to the youngest calves in an open barn.
“We are their mothers,” said manager Yolande Van Der Merwe, 38. “They sleep very close for warmth and comfort … As soon as they are left alone, they start screaming.