Art met conservation in the bush when the visiting Stars of the American Ballet troupe performed for guests from around the world at Limpopo’s Legend Lodges last month, to raise funds for The Rhino Orphanage, South Africa’s only baby rhino orphanage.
The creative concept came from ballet entrepreneur, Dirk Badenhorst, who thought it would be a great way to raise both the profile of ballet and the plight of the rhino.
“The art of conservation and the conservation of art is paramount to our natural and cultural heritage and we must work towards preserving these for future generations,'” Badenhorst said.
Working in collaboration with New York City Ballet principal dancer, Joaquin de Luz, and the owners of Legend Lodges, Peet and Mart Cilliers, Badenhorst’s first Ballet in the Bush gala took place on 23 and 24 June at the lodge.
Dancers who have worked with New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and the Boston Ballet performed excerpts from Don Quixote, Le Corsaire and choreographer, George Balanchine’s Tarantella, among others.
Visiting the world’s first dedicated baby rhino orphanage, the dancers were moved by the plight of the baby rhinos, which would never have survived without the orphanage’s intervention. They pledged their support in the battle to save the rhino.
Among the stars was Michaela De Prince, who joined New York City Ballet principal, Ashley Bouder, in a rare opportunity to get up close and personal with the young rhino orphans.
De Prince, who was adopted by a US couple after being orphaned during conflict in Sierra Leone, and now dances with the Dutch National Ballet company, said; “When I was orphaned I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who gave me unconditional love. And this is what I see happening at the Rhino Orphanage.”
Fellow dancer Bouder said when they return to the US they will “promote the tremendous work the Rhino Orphanage team is doing. We have a lot of friends and fans who follow us on social media and we will do everything we can to help get the message out there.”
The Rhino Orphanage received $6500 from a few ballet supporters and dancers, in addition to the money brought in by the ballet performance.
Founder and director of the Rhino Orphanage and manager of the Wildlife & Cultural Centre at Legend Lodges, Arrie van Deventer, said: “The ballet stars were simply wonderful. We will be working with them on how we can raise awareness among ballet fans around the world about the work we do here.”
Van Deventer’s Wildlife Centre is already home to a range of endangered species and animals being rehabilitated – including white lions. He has spent the past eight years building the centre as a conservation haven
WHY THE RHINO ORPHANAGE?
After coming across a baby rhino orphaned after its mother was killed, Van Deventer, an ardent conservationist, discovered there was no specialist facility that could look after an orphaned calf.
Van Deventer, along with the lodge’s public relations and sales director, Pete Richardson, started fundraising to build such a centre, and companies such as FNB, Lafarge, New Holland, Build It, and SPAR responded with support. The Rhino Orphanage, the first specialist, non-commercial centre to care for orphaned baby rhinos, was established.
“Being the first sanctuary of its kind, they called on several experts, including Karen Trendler of the Endangered Wildlife Trust Rhino Response Strategy and vets at Onderstepoort for guidance. We’ve also had to learn as we go along,” Richardson said.
The centre is led by Van Deventer and centre manager, Gaby Benavides, and includes six fulltime staff members and three volunteers. The volunteers work for a minimum of three months at a time and come from all over the world. Tasks range from intensive care and constant cleaning to feeding babies through the night, to more cleaning.
Looking after baby rhinos is no easy task. Despite the animals’ size and fearsome reputations, the calves need mum for the first three years of their lives. Left on their own, they simply will not survive.
“We need to replace the care of the mother and make sure the injured and stressed and traumatised calves survive, first of all. That can only be done by humans. As soon as possible we introduce a rhino. The most harrowing work is with injured and traumatised babies, which takes care, skill and dedication,” Benavides said.
“Full rehabilitation takes from two to three years. Each rhino is different – depending on the age at which they arrive at the orphanage. If they are very young they need a lot of attention and care, if calves are older it is more difficult to handle them and sometimes it is better to bond them right away with other rhinos that can teach them to trust humans and which food to eat.
“We try to minimise human contact as soon as possible as our rhinos will go back to the wild and we don’t want to tame them and then they lose the fear of humans. If bonded with other rhinos they behave more naturally and it is a less stressful process for them as well.
“So when the weaning process starts the human contact is also gradually withdrawn until they are two years old, more or less, when they go back to big camps and behave like rhinos; they still get supplement food and monitoring but without associating humans with the food; and when they are around three years old they are left without intervention. In nature this will be the time that the mum will separate from them, usually to have another calf.”
Looking after these babies is a fulltime job. A typical day at the orphanage starts with making up dry feed – consisting of a mixture of teff, lucerne and pellets – in the morning. Then, special milk formula has to be made, prepared individually for each rhino according to its age, weight and health and whether it’s a black or white rhino.
“We use different mixtures of non-fat milk, calf replacers, probiotics, cereals, essential amino acids, and vitamins. Baby rhinos start eating small amounts of solids when they are around two months old but will continue to drink milk until 18 months old, increasing consumption of solids and decreasing the milk gradually until weaned,” says Benavides.
“Feeding equipment has to be cleaned and disinfected, as well as the overnight rooms and bomas. Water troughs and mud wallows must be filled, rhino blankets washed. Then the younger rhinos are taken for walks in the bush. Afterwards rhinos are checked for wounds, ticks, or signs of illness. Records of rhinos must constantly be updated.
“At night all the same feeding and cleaning routines are repeated. Rhinos are checked throughout the night and we provide an infrared light, heater or aircon and/or blankets as needed.”
Carers sleep with new, injured or ill rhinos or rhinos that haven’t been bonded with other rhinos, while rhinos that are bonded with other rhinos will sleep together without humans; but there will always be carers at night checking on all rhinos, said Benavides.
ESTABLISHING STANDARDS FOR RHINO CARE
There are no legal standards for rhino rehabilitation in South Africa; however, the orphanage is determined to offer the best care, and is registering with the South African Veterinary Council, which means it has to meet minimum standards of animal health and welfare.
“This registration will also mean we have the equipment to monitor our rhinos’ health and provide immediate treatment if needed. Currently baby rhinos are also being injured at poaching incidents and we need to be ready to increase the survival rate of these babies by providing the best of veterinary care besides the nursing.
“We want to set the standards for other rehabilitation centres and help them with the expertise we have been acquiring throughout the past years to provide better care for the rhinos,” Benavides said.
Regarding the security at the orphanage, Van Deventer told Africa Geographic: “Security will be extreme and it is vital we give the babies the very best chance of one day returning to the wild where they belong so they will only be cared for by the medical and rehabilitation staff and the public will only be allowed to view them via CCTV.”
PLAY YOUR PART
The Rhino Orphanage has been established as a not-for-profit charity – a Section 21 Company – with all donations going directly to fund the centre and the care and rehabilitation of the rhinos.
To donate to the orphanage, visit: http://therhinoorphanage.co.za, or SMS ‘rhino’ to 49100 at a cost of R15.