In November 2016 yet another Rhino was poached and killed for its horn. And as is often the case in this scenario, an orphaned baby Rhino was left to fend for itself in the Bush and this incredible species took one more step towards extinction. The difference for my wife, Julie & I this time was that it happened on ‘Our Patch’, being on the concession of a lodge in the Kruger National Park that we have been blessed to visit every year since 2012. Having celebrated one of my wife’s special Earth Years there on the first visit, to more recently renewing our 20 year wedding vows out in the Bushveld atop a koppie (a low conical hill) at sunset, it has become #OurHappyPlace – indeed our home from home where we can switch off and tune into the African Bush. Add to that the fact that we are both life-long wildlife lovers in general but especially concerned with the global plight of Rhino, this was an even more devastating blow for us. And whilst we have donated each year to the efforts of the lodge in their conservation work and more recently in their specific anti-poaching ventures, we felt we needed to do more. But what?
The answer came during our next annual pilgrimage to #OurHappyPlace in October 2017. Knowing our want to do more regards Rhino conservation, the General Manager there asked us if we would like to accompany the Lodge Manager and Head Ranger to Care For Wild Africa (CFWA) as they were going to check up on Jemu, the orphaned baby Rhino that had been saved the year before on their concession. CFWA is not open to the public for tours or visits so we were both overwhelmed and honoured to have this chance and of course jumped at the opportunity. That first visit to CFWA for us was without doubt life-changing, for me also initially totally overwhelming. I burst into tears as we pulled up outside, the whole realisation of getting to see these orphaned Rhinos, knowing in my mind’s eye what they had endured for them to be there, was just too much. Gathering myself and after some eye wiping, we met the lovely Dot who not only showed us around but made it possible for us to help feed two of the orphaned calves. This is normally not possible to do unless working or volunteering at CFWA so we were not only surprised but blown away! Julie got to feed Jemu, I got to feed Grey whilst our lodge hosts got to feed Spirit and Zac. Such an honour and a privilege, over too soon as they certainly can drink their milk fast. 1-2 litres of milk formula guzzled down in seconds, just WOW!!! We then got to see what CFWA was all about, gave a donation to Dot for the sanctuary as we left and it was at that moment we decided we MUST volunteer next time we visit South Africa.
After contacting African Conservation Experience (ACE) upon our return to the UK, we found out about the logistics and costs of volunteering at CFWA. With our 2018 visit to #OurHappyPlace already planned, including the aforementioned 20th Wedding Anniversary renewal of vows, we were able to plan an itinerary that allowed us a short volunteering placement at CFWA. And what an experience that year’s trip to South Africa turned out to be! One day exchanging vows and rings up on Madiba’s Rock, chinking champagne glasses looking across the Kruger Bushveld as the sun set. The next day feeding baby Rhinos and shovelling Rhino poo. Perfect 🙂
As our stay was brief, across 3 days, we were allocated to the rhinos in the centres quarantine facility enabling us the experience of looking after juvenile White & Black Rhinos ranging between about 1-2 years old. There are different sections, each having their own routine, be that with even younger baby Rhinos for those volunteering on a longer basis or in the bomas with older Rhino plus there are job allocations to look after Hippo and antelope on site too! Our schedule meant our days primarily consisted of preparing milk formula and food-paste for the juvenile White & Black Rhino respectively and feeding them at set times throughout the day with the first feed being at 0700hrs and the last one at 2000hrs, whilst thoroughly cleaning the bottles/buckets after each feed. Around these feeds, we would clean out the boma areas then fetch and spread hay (teff/lucerne) along with rhino pellets in the boma areas, create mud wallows as required and also clear up vast amounts of Rhino poo! In super-hot temperatures, this work is not for the fainthearted BUT is so rewarding. You can take a break at any time, it’s not a chain gang plus rest can be taken after breakfast at 0900hrs, lunch at 1230hrs and dinner at 1600hrs. The food is great and is included as part of your placement, as too is the roof over your head for the nights you are there. We stayed in the wonderful private wooden chalet, affording essential basics such as a bed, shower, toilet and a fan (no air-con here) coupled with beautiful views and roaring lions nearby to wake up to too!
There are schedules for each section but no two days are the same. Even for a short placement like we did on this occasion, additional activities we helped out with included some water channel fixing and general gardening. Also to our surprise and joy, one evening we had a sunset safari within the CFWA Intense Protection Zone (IPZ) to see Rhino that were now living free in the reserve area of the sanctuary. Prior to this treat the volunteering group watched a video which outlined the CFWA mission statement alongside footage of what some of the Rhino we were about to go out and see in the IPZ had endured at the hands of poachers. A hard watch and we were in floods of tears, to see the same Rhino on the video in their hour of need and then from an open-sided vehicle in the Bush all rehabilitated and healthy, made us realise what a wonderful place Petronel had founded and created. A place that should not be required but we are so glad exists. Along with other fantastic, selfless people there like Dot, Rachael, Will, Luzinda & more, Petronel and CFWA have stolen the last bit of our hearts that the Kruger Bush hadn’t quite got hold of over the previous years.
During August 2018 we started a Just Giving fundraiser online, this ran for 6 weeks prior to our volunteering placement. Through generous donations from family, friends and acquaintances we raised over £600 which converted to 12000RAND. One evening after Petronel had given the volunteering group an impromptu chat about new medical advances CFWA were investigating at that time, we surprised her with this donation fund. She immediately started dancing around and whooping, every RAND meaning so much as they are a non-profit organisation, relying on sponsors and donations.
To be blessed to be able to feed baby Rhinos and then look after juvenile Rhinos the following year is quite self-effacing at the outset to be perfectly honest, I mean who doesn’t want to tick those boxes BUT once done, the ‘doing’ fades into insignificance and is replaced by a deep feeling of love and caring, as you look into the eyes of these orphaned Rhino, hearing their high pitched squeaks and whistles as they scramble for food & attention. It can become totally overwhelming at times, no matter how many feeds or tending to of an orphaned Rhino, it is a very humbling experience and the feeling of making a difference quickly kicks any selfish thoughts into touch. It may not be helping on the front-line to stop the poaching but helping it is, not for one’s own satisfaction but for the good of the Rhino species as a whole and we would recommend it to anyone.
Testament to this deep feeling of us wanting to help more, led us to immediately arrange another volunteering placement at CFWA upon our return to the UK last year. So we will be back at CFWA again in September 2019 with 4 willing hands and 2 hearts filled with love and care for the Chubby Unicorns being cared for there at that time. We will also be able to also see how the babies we tended to in 2018 are getting along, those being Badger, Pheobe & Ratu along with Rose, Milan, Rubybelle, Khanya & Fern. We have also already started a new Just Giving fundraiser page to hopefully beat last year’s donation total and see if we can get an even louder ‘whoop’ from Petronel when we hand the fund to her.