Rhino orphans get foster moms

A surrogate rhino cow is taken to the boma where she will foster an orphaned calf. Photo: Lowveld  Media

A surrogate rhino cow is taken to the boma where she will foster an orphaned calf. Photo: Lowveld Media

Saving rhinos not only means protecting them but also seeing to the welfare of orphans.

A surrogate mother programme for orphaned rhinos in the Kruger National Park (KNP) is enabling the resettlement of rhinos to other protected areas while also teaching vets more about this endangered animal’s specific mother-calf bonding.

Dr Markus Hofmeyr and his team at the KNP’s Veterinary Wildlife Services developed the SANParks Surrogate Mother Programme for rhino orphans when poaching problems began to escalate in 2012, Lowvelder reported.

The programme is funded by the Peace Parks Foundation as well as other sponsors. Surrogate rhino cows were released in enclosures upgraded in 2007 to create a support system resembling one the orphaned calves would have known with their own mothers.

“Our aim with the programme is to keep rhino orphans as close to being in the wild as we can, especially on a social level,” said Hofmeyr.

After a poaching incident, rhino orphans are caught in the veld and taken to the enclosure where placement in the programme is assessed according to factors like age and injuries.

Once calves are old enough to survive without being fed, they are placed with a surrogate mother. A rhino calf would typically stay with its mother for two to four years.

“This ensures that they pattern themselves on the mothers and not on the humans caring for them,” explained Hofmeyr.

A few rhino surrogate mothers are available at all times for calves in need.

“We rotate the orphans and mothers to enable them to find a good fit themselves. The mothers readily accept the orphan calves as their own. When we set both of them free in the wild, they do stick together,” Hofmeyer said.

To him it would be an achievement if the calves that had been set free were able to produce offspring of their own, but this has not yet happened. “It is always very satisfying to save a calf and to experience how they adapt to display true rhino behaviour.”

Although the costs covering one rhino orphan in the programme until it can be set free can reach up to R250 000, Hofmeyr said the programme was a necessary measure to save rhinos on all levels.

– Caxton News Service

today in print