In northeastern South Africa, a small rhino orphanage is on the front lines of the horn wars.
It was late on a Saturday evening in April when conservationist Petronel Nieuwoudt, founder of Care for Wild Africa, got the call.
“(Park rangers at Kruger) called on Saturday afternoon and said, ‘listen, there was a poaching incident’,” Nieuwoudt said. “A rhino has been brutally killed, her horn’s cut out by the poacher and… we think there’s a baby.”
Related: Confessions of a Rhino Poacher
Lying on the South east edge of Kruger National Park is the privately funded Care for Wild Africa (CWA). Founded by Niewoudt, CWA has, with the help of international volunteers, raised over 26 rhino babies for over ten years after their mothers were murdered in Kruger for their horn.
According to Ellen Sziede, the marketing manager for African Conservation Experience, which sends volunteers to CWA, “there are an estimated 20,000 white rhino and 5,000 black rhino left in Africa. South Africa has by far the biggest population of all African countries, being home to almost 90 percent of all African white rhino. So the current estimated population for South Africa is about 18,000 white rhino and just under 2,000 black rhino.”
Unofficial figures for 2016 say that over 450 rhino have been killed in South Africa to date.
Viktor Barkas, who runs the Rhino Protrack team, which patrols for poachers on privately owned land outside of Kruger, in Hoedspruit, South Africa, told me last year that in the small area he patrols there are 2,000 rhinos — 126 of which were slaughtered in the first half of last year, leaving many rhino offspring orphaned.
“It is not a war on rhino,” Barkas said. “It is a genocide.”
Many of the orphans (from all over the country, not just Barkas’s area) end up at CWA, where the rhinos are raised and eventually released back into the wild in a program reminiscent of the wildly successful David Sheldrick elephant orphanage, in Kenya.
Volunteers are asked to stay for a minimum of two weeks — although exceptions are made — and during this time they rotate in and out of three teams.
Related: Cuddle Baby Rhinos at this Orphanage
Volunteers and staff were present when the baby rhino was flown in.
The rescue had been hampered by timing – helicopters needed to fly the baby out can’t fly at night, so rangers had to wait for dawn. By then, the baby had been viciously attacked by hyenas.
“Her ears were ripped out of her head, wounds were open, the blood was streaming from her head,” Nieuwoudt said. “She’d been bitten on her hind leg, bitten on her nose. And they said, “Petranel, what are we going to do?”
Nieuwoudt and her team met the helicopter and rushed the baby they would later name Newrhi into an enclosure where she was operated on.
Both of her ears were gone, her nose was broken, a back leg was broken and the other had deep bites on it.
After the initial surgery, a team of veterinarians came back twice a week to clean and dress the wounds – but despite an initial hopeful prognosis, a week after I left CWA, Newrhi died. She was just three to four weeks old.
She was the second baby the facility had lost that year – and the remaining 26 rhino aren’t out of the woods even in the sanctuary. Demand for rhino horn is so great, poachers have even struck at the orphanage, despite CWA’s precautions with the resident rhinos (CWA regularly dehorns the animals to make them less attractive to poachers, but some is left on). Several years ago, Nieuwoudt said she lost one of the rhino to a poacher who had killed it for two inches of horn.
The facility now has round the clock guards and the rhino that are allowed out of the bomas (pens) to graze, have more security than an average Hollywood star.
To volunteer at, or donate to Care for Wild Africa, click here.
More pictures from my time at the orphanage: