Fieldwork has started for the orphan rehabilitation and release research project.

In this study, scientists will combine behavioural data with physiological and physical data to assess the welfare of the rhinos going under rehabilitation, and the adaptation of these once they have been released. Because the welfare of the animals is paramount, all data collection is non-invasive; this means that data are collected without the animals being aware of it to avoid interference with their behaviour or causing them any disturbance or stress.

In the case of physical (body condition) and behavioural data, orphan rhinos are reached, followed and left unaware of the fact that they have been observed for four to five hours a day. Although rhinos have poor eye sight (they will not distinguish a human being standing 20m away), they can hear very well and have an excellent sense of smell. Rhinos must therefore be approached slowly and discreetly, with care as not to step on branches, dry leaves or any other item that could alert the group of human presence. Even more important is to approach them upwind, so they cannot smell us.  

Behavioural data collection on a group of four orphan rhinos. Rhinos must be unaware of the researcher’s presence throughout the data collection session (four to five hours).

Physiological data are also collected to assess the welfare of the orphan rhinos while in the bomas, and how well the older rhinos adapt to the camps of increasing size they are progressively being moved to in order to facilitate their adaptation once released. Cortisol is one of the hormones that can address these questions, and luckily its concentration can be determined through rhino faeces. Faecal samples of each individual orphan are therefore collected as often as possible, as they represent an excellent opportunity to figure out how these orphan rhinos experience their environment in a non-invasive way.

Faecal samples can give us valuable information on how these animals experience their environment.