South Africans volunteer to keep rhino orphanage going during lockdown

Channel News Asia | April 21, 2020

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LIMPOPO, SOUTH AFRICA: Looking after an orphaned baby rhino is hard work: you feed them bottled milk at all hours, comfort them through constant fear and bereavement and endure long nights of screaming for the absent mother they witnessed being shot dead by poachers.

“The older calves take it really hard. They’ll call for their mothers for up to two weeks,” said Yolande van der Merwe, 38, who helped set up the world’s first such orphanage in South Africa’s Limpopo province almost a decade ago.

“They start bawling and that hits you right in the heart.”

Original photo as published by Channel News Asia. Orphaned rhinos Kolisi and Amelia, seven and four months respectively are seen amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at a sanctuary for rhinos orphaned by poaching, in Mookgopong, Limpopo province, South Africa April 17, 2020. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

To help manage the workload – “we can easily pull a 72 hour shift with two to three hours sleep”, van der Merwe said – the orphanage has depended on volunteers to fly in from abroad on three-month rotations at the site set among thick bush.

So when coronavirus panic struck and the latest three foreign volunteers’ visas were revoked, they were in a bind.

“I was quite worried that we were not going to cope,” she said, after Kolisi and Amelia, seven and four months, respectively, slurped noisily from 2-litre bottles of milk formula she was feeding them.

Manager and founder Arrie van Deventer, a 66-year-old retired teacher, got on the phone and started making frantic pleas on social media for South Africans to help out.

“We were swamped,” he said. He picked two volunteers from the several hundred offers. They are now staying put with the four permanent staff since last month’s nationwide lockdown imposed by President Cyril Ramphosa.

South African Deidre Rosenbahn, 37, had been a restaurant chef in Britain for 14 years and then travelled in Australia, but yearned to return home.

“I came back to the coronavirus. It was hard to find a job, so when this came up I put my hand up,” she said, as she fed their youngest new arrival, Mapimpi, from a bottle.

Poachers killed his mother when he was seven days old. He was dehydrated and withered – they found him trying to eat sand. Now he seems well-fed, relaxed and playful. At the age of five, the rhinos in the orphanage are released back into the wild.

“We have dozens of rhinos that come through here, and 95 per cent of them are because of the poaching pandemic,” Deventer said. The precise number, like the sanctuary’s location, are closely guarded secrets in order to protect them from poachers.

The game reserve adjacent to the orphanage has been attacked, unsuccessfully, twice.

Africa’s rhino population has been decimated over the decades to feed demand for rhino horn, which, despite being made of the same stuff as hair and fingernails, is prized in East Asia as a supposed medicine and as jewellery.