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The Youngest Victims of Poaching: Orphaned Rhinos at Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park

Eye of an orphaned rhino calf at Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park. Photo by: Billy Dodson

It’s long been my belief that rhino poaching is a painful abstraction for most of us with an interest in African wildlife.  We see the gruesome photographs of de-horned animals on the Internet and read the news clips about the most recent transgressions against these magnificent creatures, but then the cell phone rings or the bills arrive in the mailbox and we mentally shift gears to the next concern.  All this is perfectly natural. 

Those of us who live in the United States are physically removed from this mindless violence by a broad expanse of ocean and the breadth of a great continent.  We can sign a couple of social media petitions against this cruel practice and feel a little better about it all for a little while, but ultimately the problem of rhino poaching remains a distant frustration.  Despite all our good intentions, it’s something we are unable to substantively influence in a meaningful and positive way.

But there are at least two ways to experience the hard reality of this execrable problem in a way that sears the mind and permanently touches the heart.  One way is to visit the physical remains of a recently murdered rhino.  Friends tell me that the immediate visceral response is a mixed feeling of rage, helplessness and overwhelming sadness.  It is, by all accounts, a life changing event … an ugly and compelling reminder that humanity can descend to almost unimaginable depths of greed and cruelty. 

The second way is to witness firsthand the plight of the little ones left behind when their mothers are destroyed … orphans left vulnerable in the bush, doomed without human assistance of a labor intensive and very expensive kind.  The bomas at Imfolozi are presently home to four such little ones.  It was my privilege to join them at feeding time late yesterday afternoon.

Like all babies of all species, these four were precious and beautiful.  Clearly excited by the imminent prospect of dinner, they playfully crowded around their keeper, jostling for position and nuzzling each other in a comforting and affectionate way.  Three of the four were eventually moved to an adjacent pen for feeding.  I witnessed and filmed this chaotic and slightly hilarious evolution from a walkway above the paddock.  The babies attacked the formula and slurped until the containers were empty and capsized.  The fourth rhino was quietly fed in the original boma.  He was recovering from an injury sustained during the poaching incident and would have been unable to compete with his rowdy compadres in a mass feeding.

It is a rare opportunity to stand in the physical presence of a young rhinoceros, to stroke its forehead and feel its pushes and nudges.  And it is indescribably touching to be struck by the extent to which these youngsters need and want our love and attention.  Since these emotional commodities will never again be provided by a natural parent, the proffered human love is gratefully accepted.

The deep anger I’ve always felt toward rhino poachers has now been elevated to a higher level because of my interaction with these orphans.  And I’m more committed than ever to seeing the pestilence of “killing for profit” come to a grinding halt as soon as possible.  The cautionary words of my friend, AWF employee Nakedi Maputla, ring through my head … “Giving up is not an option.”  Amen, brother.

On that defiant note, I’d like to close this entry with a respectful request to the reader.  I ask that you take twenty seconds of your time and watch a clip of the Imfolozi orphans at feeding time.  Their plaintive squeals tug at the heart.  I hope the clip motivates the listener to engage as actively as possible to end the inexcusable scourge of poaching … forever.

Watch the video.


Billy Dodson
About the Author

Billy Dodson first became interested in photography while on a mountain climbing trip to Tanzania in 2001. He visited East Africa for the first time as a photographer in 2005, and has since returned to Kenya and Tanzania several times for the purpose of photographing African landscapes and wildlife. Billy generously donates his photographs to African Wildlife Foundation to advance wildlife conservation—a cause he is extremely passionate about. For more information, visit Billy at http://www.savannaimages.com

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AWF Blogs bring you to the African Heartlands, where conservation benefits both wildlife and people alike. The blogs are written by our staff - men and women who have dedicated their lives to Africa's wildlife, people and wild lands.

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