Poaching of rhinos for their horns has resulted in the loss of many animals, which poses a grave conservation concern. A sad consequence of poaching is that sometimes more than one life is lost, especially when a pregnant mother is killed. Equally sad is when mothers with calves at foot are poached as these calves are then orphaned. A large proportion of orphaned calves are likely to succumb to predation or starvation, especially if they are younger than 12 months. But, if orphans are located and taken to rehabilitation centres there is a good chance that they will survive. At the rehabilitation centres they are kept and cared for until they reach an age when they can be reintroduced into the wild.
Little is known on how these animals cope during the rehabilitation process, or how well they adapt once released into the wild.
Rearing conditions, particularly mother deprivation, can have profound effects later in the life of an animal, potentially affecting their ability to survive, interact with other animals of their own species, breed, or raise their offspring to the age of independence. Through scientific research it is possible to analyse which aspects of the rearing conditions and environment influence the welfare and behaviour of these animals, which can then be used to adapt rehabilitation programmes accordingly so as to maximize their success. If successful, rehabilitated orphaned rhino could form their own healthy wild sustainable groups or could be re-introduced into wild populations to further help with conservation programmes.
The Faculty of Veterinary Science of the University of Pretoria, in collaboration with SANParks, Care for Wild, Kaapse Valley Conservancy and Mpumalanga Parks have initiated a research project in order to determine how rearing conditions and environment during rehabilitation affects subsequent adaptation of orphan rhinos once they are released into the wild. The research team, with Dr. María Fàbregas as a principal investigator, is conformed by specialists in several disciplines, such as behavioral ecology, animal welfare and physiology. This study, funded by Groupelephant.com, will help to develop best practices to improve rhino orphan rehabilitation and release, thus reducing the risks of failure and increasing viable wild populations with good reproductive potential.