It’s dark. The baby rhino is in the South African savannah with her mother. Dawn is coming. She has survived the night – but the mother senses there is something wrong. She moves away from her daughter.
The little rhino makes frantic peeping noises and tries to follow. It’s hopeless. The mother has given up on her.
A pied crow in a treetop watches the drama unfold. Crows wait and watch for moments like this.
The baby rhino sits down, then lies down, exhausted. She can’t keep up with her mother.
The crow flops to the ground to gauge how tired the animal is. Tired enough. It hops forward and starts pecking at the baby rhino’s eyes. The animal is too weak to resist. More crows come.
This is a heartbreak that unfolds between different baby animals, their mothers and different species of scavenger around the world. When it happens to livestock such as lambs, news media report it and people are outraged. They don’t find out about wild animals. Blindness means certain death in the wild.
This animal is different. In some ways, this particular baby is lucky. It is on the Rockwood rhino conservation ranch in South Africa’s Northern Cape.
Faced with an injured pet or farm animal, its owner usually calls a vet. On the frontline of caring for wild birds and animals, gamekeepers and rangers the world over know that there is little you can do with injured wildlife except put it out of its misery. With wildlife, your responsibility is to the species – with pets and livestock it is to the individual.
The exception to the injured wildlife rule is when that species is a population basket case. The southern white rhino is down to 20,000 individuals in South Africa. Every animal is important.
Rockwood rangers had recorded that this cow rhino had dropped her calf. Now they observe that the calf is no longer with her. They set out in search of the baby animal.
The circling crows are the giveaway. A ranger dashes in and scares the birds away, then calls in back-up. They rush the baby to Rockwood’s on-site rhino hospital.
Baby rhino specialist Dakota Guy takes charge of the animal. Saving the eyes is one thing. Firstly, she has to save the baby’s life. She puts the animal on a glucose drip, under a hot lamp, makes sure that it is stabilised, and then she starts on cleaning its eyes. It goes well. The baby sleeps.
Little rhinos have emotional needs, too. They get constant contact from their mothers, so a member of Rockwood’s staff tucks up under blankets with the baby rhino, petting and stroking it.
Dakota’s first prognosis is practical but gloomy. “From what I saw in the field,” she says, “the eye that we might have a chance to save… there is some damage. I don’t know if we can fix that without surgery.”
Nothing to do with rhinos can be fixed without money. Happily, that is one commodity Rockwood is able to supply – until it runs out.
Rockwood Conservation is the brainchild of successful South African businesspeople Wicus and Yvette Diedericks. In 2013, they swapped 800 cattle on their ranch in South Africa’s Upper Karoo for a handful of rhinos. Since then, they have seen that number grow into the hundreds, with plenty of other big game, too.
It’s an expensive hobby. Wicus had five staff when he was farming cattle. Now he has 50 staff.
Hobby it is. There are two potential sources of income for rhino conservation projects: the sale of rhino horn and the sale of rhino trophy hunts. Photographic tourism doesn’t bring in the millions that a rhino project needs.
Rockwood offers hunting of old, obsolete bull rhinos. These command prices of £50,000 or more per animal – a million-plus South African rand. They sell a bull or two a year, fewer than 1% of the ranch’s rhino population. Rhino mortality is around 2.5% at Rockwood.
The other way is to harvest the rhino horn and sell it. CITES bans the trade in horn from wild rhinos. The rhino horn producers of South Africa believe they are one court case away from allowing the export of their rhino horn. Then they will have to start on achieving the import of that horn to markets in the Middle and Far East. The aim remains rhino conservation.
Harvesting rhino horn does not hurt the rhino. The horn is composed of keratin, the same material as hair or fingernails. Wicus says that the expensive electric fences that keep the rhinos safe always suffer once a mischievous young rhino learns that its horn does not conduct electricity.
Southern white rhino horn prices vary wildly but are thought to be around £20,000 per kg on the black market. That market is Chinese traditional medicine, Yemeni dagger handles and an emerging market in businesspeople’s desk decoration.
The high price of horn could be a blessing for Africa’s rhinos. On the advice of animal rights groups, however, politicians have turned it into a curse.
Animal rights organisations forced a ban on the sale of rhino horn via CITES. They did not address the demand for horn. With the demand still there, they have pushed the rhino horn trade into the hands of criminals.
“The guy that pulls the trigger is mostly a local South African and doesn’t get the real money,” says Wicus. “The real money goes to international crime syndicates, and it is the same syndicates that deal with drugs, smuggles guns and are involved with human trafficking. It’s another commodity.”
Even though local poachers don’t get much money, they consider it easy money. “You can jail them, you can shoot them. There’s always going to be someone else who will do it for the money,” says Wicus.
Rockwood had poaching cases in 2014 and 2015. Since then, Wicus stepped up security significantly, including thermal camera systems and day-and-night mounted patrols. He also maintains a compound system, moving the rhinos from the bulk of the 12,500ha ranch into smaller 1,000ha units overnight, then opening the gates and letting the animals out in the morning. Night-time is when poachers like to work.
The compound system has other advantages for the rhinos. Vets at Rockwood do not need expensive helicopters to find and dart sick animals. They can do it much more easily in the compounds. And rangers found the baby rhino mainly because they have a close relationship with the animals in their care.
All of this costs money – money that would be available from the sale of rhino horn if the animal rights groups allowed it. “If there is a legal conduit for people to access horn, I believe that will undermine poaching and put a stop to it,” says Wicus.
It is money that’s available because of Wicus’s successful career as a businessman before he bought Rockwood. It is not money that’s available from the South African government for the Kruger or any of South Africa’s other national parks. It is certainly not money that’s available from foreign rhino pressure groups. Wicus says he cannot think of a single foreign rhino charity that is actually funding the conservation of rhinos.
The model for rhino pressure groups is to achieve political power. Like fundamentalists in every area of life and politics, they want the world to hold the same views as themselves. They follow the persuade-prohibit-purge model to get their way. When they realise they can’t persuade the Chinese to give up rhino horn as a medicine, they enact bans on the trade in rhino horn. It ends in violence.
The result for rhinos in Kruger is disastrous. Since 2013, when Wicus started looking after rhinos, the animal population in the Kruger National Park has reduced by 80%. At Rockwood, the rhino population has tripled during the same period.
Due to poaching in the national parks, most of the remaining southern white rhinos in South Africa are in private hands. “The way numbers of rhinos are declining in Kruger, I doubt if there will be a rhino left by 2024,” says Wicus. “That unfortunately is the sad reality. The rest of the national parks in South Africa are following the same route.”
Another rhino producer, John Hume, announces he is donating 100 rhinos to South Africa’s national parks. Poachers will be rubbing their hands with glee. That’s more than £1 million-worth of rhino horn for them to plunder.
Back at the veterinary centre first thing the following day and the baby rhino has made it through the night. Dakota is more confident about its prospects. She believes she will be able to save part of its sight in one eye. It can already distinguish dark and light.
She has other baby rhinos to look after. Rhino mothers abandon their young for all kinds of reasons, including mastitis or boils on their udders.
The babies drink around 12 litres of milk a day. In staffing and feed, Wicus reckons it costs around £40,000 to bring a baby rhino to adulthood over 16 months.
Why does Wicus do it? Why rhinos? “I don’t know,” he says. “When I started out, I wanted a wild piece of Africa, with rhinos and all sorts of different wild animals, and I had this romantic idea that they could roam free. Within the first two years I was struck by the first poaching incident and I had to make a plan. And then, because I had experience of cattle farming, I went back to what I knew. I implemented a management system that was based on what was good for my cattle, and it turned out it was great for rhino.
“They key thing is that the rhino are happy. Their population growth is between 12% and 15% per annum, which is more than double what they achieve in the wild. And that’s the reward.”
Dakota is looking after a calf called Muoto, which was abandoned by its mother, and is now almost weaned. “Usually when the mum abandons the calf, it’s because there is some sort of developmental issue,” she says. “We found that, at a year old, Muoto got really sick. He had sepsis in his navel. Naturally, the mum knows the calf is not going to survive. She will walk away from the calf. So that’s why Muoto came in.
“Now he’s doing very well. Fat and happy,” she says, “so we’re happy”.
Dakota is conducting research into suitable rhino milk types. She has even developed a method for milking adult mother rhinos, which involves sedating them, injecting them with a drug to relax them and, crucially, keeping their existing babies at bay, which are keen to defend their mothers.
By the end of its first morning in rhino hospital, the blind baby rhino is taking its first tentative steps outside. It follows the moving shape of its new ‘mother’, one of Wicus’s staff.
This animal is going to be a major project, and it is going to beat all Wicus’s previous records for costs. But the southern white rhino gene pool is too small to let a single animal die if it can be saved.
Staff at Rockwood have already given the baby a name. they are calling her ‘Hope’.