Thandi the Rhino

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Monday, 20th June 2016

Poachers in the Eastern Cape hacked off the horns of Thandi the rhino, but she survived to become a worldwide force in the fight for rhino survival. In 2015 she also became a mother.

Words: Marion Whitehead. Pictures: Angie Goody. Courtesy: South African Country Life

The shadows were already lengthening when we found Thandi the white rhino grazing like a giant lawnmower, unperturbed as her new calf butted her to suckle, and squealed in indignation when mom didn’t pause on demand. Aged just three months, little Thembi (Xhosa for hope) was already
a boisterous bundle of curiosity.

“She’s just got so much energy,” said Angie Goody. The volunteer ranger at Kariega Game Reserve, just outside Kenton-on-Sea in the Eastern Cape, has become a guardian angel to Thandi since she survived being darted by poachers who hacked off her horns and left her for dead three years ago. They did the same to Kariega’s two rhino bulls, who did not pull through the ordeal.

It was a thrill to meet Thandi and her new calf in a pastoral scene far removed from the horror of the poaching event. But a chill ran down my spine when Angie pointed to some bushes nearby and told me that it was the spot where the poachers struck.

“This area used to be a favourite grazing spot, but it took Thandi a year before she ventured out here again,” Angie explained. Thankfully, Kariega has had support to step up security and time has calmed Thandi’s jitters.
Via Facebook, the world cheered on Thandi in her fight for survival on this reserve near Kenton-on-Sea, assisted by the sterling efforts of local wildlife vet Dr William Fowlds and his team. The birth of Thembi in January this year was celebrated by more than 100 000 fans on the Kariega Facebook page within nine hours, and the youngster’s antics have provided a delightful ray of hope, in contrast to the depressing news of rising poaching statistics.

“People just melt when they see Thembi’s picture. It makes them smile, even when they’ve had a bad day,” said Angie. The wound that still weeps on Thandi’s face made this picture of bucolic bliss even more poignant. Chubby Thembi looked a little like she was wearing an oversized grey T-shirt, with folds around the neck, arms and legs. After her feed, she plopped down on her bottom, then flopped over and napped contentedly for all of five minutes. By the time we drove off into the gathering darkness, Thembi was happily frolicking around again. They don’t come cuter than this little bundle of joy and I understood the brilliance of the new Rhino Endear campaign launched by Kariega and Dr William Fowlds of Investec Rhino Lifeline to counter ‘rhino fatigue’ in a world numbed by the ongoing slaughter of these iconic beasts.

I caught up with William in Grahamstown between calls to the many game reserves in the area and chatted to him about the campaign. “Thembi’s about to get a new playmate,” he said with a grin. “A camera disguised as a large tortoise. To kick off the campaign to endear rhinos to people, we’re recording the lives of the rhinos at Kariega with special video equipment sponsored by a university in Texas. The world will be able to follow the rhinos on using material supplied by the tortoise camera. I want people to be exposed to rhino in a way they’re not used to, and for them to see the soft, adorable side of rhinos. We also plan to make rhino ringtones that people can download to help raise funds,” said William. “The closest thing to the sounds they make is whale song.”

In the next phase of the project, they’ll be taking their education campaign to the Far East, the main market for rhino horn. The message is simple: ‘When the buying stops, the killing stops’. Celebrities like karate action man Jackie Chan and basketball star Yao Ming have already thrown their weight behind the anti-poaching lobby and footage of Thandi and Thembi will help drive this message further. “Changing behaviour in other cultures is a huge challenge,” said William, “but fortunately modern telecoms and social media make it easier to reach people.” All these positive spin-offs came as a result of a key decision by Kariega management on the dark day of the attack on Thandi and the two bulls.

In the first two years of his tenure as general manager, Alan Weyer – better known as the Swaer of the Eastern Cape’s favourite comic duo Boet en Swaer – experienced two poaching events and took these bitter lessons to heart. He was determined to do things differently the third time round.

“We took the decision that awful morning to document and film the whole thing and make it public,” explained Alan in his office at the main lodge. So they called cameraman Paul Mills almost as soon as the vet. “We wanted people to understand the problem we were facing and made the material freely available to the media.”

At that stage, there had been only one case of a rhino that survived a face mutilation like this and they expected all the rhino to be dead by nightfall. One of the Kariega bulls fought for life for 24 days, with the assistance of the dedicated vet team, before losing the battle. It was a traumatic time, but William said many useful lessons were gained. “We’ve learnt a lot more about rhino anatomy, and other rhinos in similar predicaments have benefited from what we’ve learnt about treating this kind of mutilation.”

Even with all the special treatment and costly operations, it took Thandi a year to develop a big scab over where her back horn had been, but skin over the front wound remained weak. So a surgical team, supported by Onderstepoort vets, performed the first skin grafts on a rhino.

At the time of the poaching, Kariega came in for much criticism. “Lots of people wanted to know why they weren’t doing more to protect their rhinos. I know, I was one of them,” said Angie, who arrived as a volunteer on holiday from the Isle of Man two days after the poachers’ attack and was immediately drafted onto the vet team because of her experience as a farmer used to handling sick animals. “But now I understand the issues better.”

Alan explained the challenges faced by private reserves such as Kariega in their fight against international organised crime syndicates whose resources completely dwarf their own. “We could spend millions, but that doesn’t give any guarantees against poaching. We need to do what we can within our capacity as a business. It helps that we are getting support from agencies involved in saving the rhino. And local reserves work together and leverage our efforts. Every little bit helps.”

Angie has become a champion fundraiser for the rhino cause and now spends more time at Kariega than at her family’s farm on the Isle of Man. In the last three years, she’s raised more than £20 000 for Thandi’s treatment, the dehorning of Kariega’s rhinos, the purchase of tracking collars and a quadcopter with a high-definition GoPro and infra-red camera to help fight poaching, under the banner of Tesa, short for Thandi’s Endangered Species Association, a registered charity. “People don’t realise the sheer cost
of running an anti-poaching unit,” said Angie. “Lots of reserves just can’t afford them.”

What started as a poaching incident has become a big drive and inspired people to be proactive, said William. “It’s not just about giving money, like when the Wilderness Foundation asked people to donate R50 for an injection. It’s resulted in concrete projects, for instance, the Rooting for Rhino education programme that is active in schools. It’s proved that individuals can make a difference.”

“We never thought Thandi would live and even have a calf,” beamed Alan. “We have all learnt an enormous amount from this event and so much good has come out of it. It’s kept the debate alive and the focus on anti-poaching. Thandi has become a poster girl for what’s happening to rhinos.”

The next morning, I went out with Angie to bid Thandi and Thembi a fond farewell. They were on the plain below Kariega Main Lodge, players in an Eden-like scene where the abundant wildlife was casually getting on with the business of feeding off lush former fields. Angie wondered if Thembi would chase a wildebeest again, or take on a buffalo. “She’s got so much attitude, sometimes she acts as if she’s already a two-ton rhino!” she laughed. She’s going to need that and more in a world where rhino are teetering on the brink of extinction. Long may she and her kind live. With our help, they surely will.

Rhinos at Risk – The Facts

  • Rhino poaching in South Africa hit a record high of 1 215 killed in 2014, according to the Department of Environmental Affairs’ figures. If this rate continues, the rhino will be extinct in less than 10 years.
  • On average, three rhinos are killed in South Africa every day and the risk of poaching has doubled in the three years since Thandi was attacked.
  • Last year, 386 poachers were arrested, according to the Department of Environmental Affairs, but this was a small fraction of the estimated 4 300 poachers entering Kruger Park.
  • Controversially, the South African government has proposed selling stockpiled rhino horn in order to fund the war on poachers. However, many conservationists say that experience with ivory sales show that this will only drive up demand for it in the Far East, and so be counterproductive.
  • Mozambican police confiscated the largest haul of rhino horns to date in a raid on the private residence of a Chinese national in Maputo earlier this year: 65 rhino horns along with 1.2 tons of ivory. However, the entire stash of rhino horns was stolen from the strongroom of the Police Provincial Command in Maputo, revealing the extent of corruption among law enforcers.

Did You Know?

  • The closest rhino relationship is between a female and her calf. It stands up within one hour, immediately attempting to suckle. Grazing begins at two months and weaning occurs at around one year of age. The calf stays with its mother for about three years.
  • The sounds rhinos make are different to other animals, the closest similar sound is that of whales.
  • Rhinos have an extended ‘vocabulary’ of growls, grunts, squeaks, snorts, bellows and even wails.

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