It is an orphanage. For baby rhinos. They have often lost their mother to poachers, so the address of this enclosure, lost in the lush vegetation of Limpopo, in northern South Africa, remains top secret. You have to take a long track of red earth, dotted with deep puddles and crossed by playful little monkeys, also bordered by a cavalcade of giraffes who seem to be chasing the car, on the side. Arrie Van Deventer, 67, makes an appointment at a crossroads and leads the AFP team to the gate indicating an animal reserve as there are a hundred in this corner. Incognito. “When a farm worker passes the info on to poachers, even if he just says ‘There are five rhinos in this place, + he will earn more than his annual salary.’ Unstoppable. So you have to be very careful, explains the founder of the orphanage, which operates thanks to private donations.
This former history teacher, who became a breeder, received a call in 2011. Nearby, two females were killed, a baby too, and an infant remains. He inquires about trying to place the white rhino. “I made some phone calls and realized that there was no acceptable place for this baby. I heard myself say to an interlocutor + OK, I will build a + ”. The mission of the orphanage can be summed up in three words: “Rescue, perk up and release”. Few visitors and no tourists. Discretion obliges but also so as not to accustom the animals to the human presence. Afterwards, “it becomes much more difficult to prepare them to return to their wild state”. Four employees and two volunteers, all women, take care of a “certain number” of animals, a majority of white rhinos, and a few black too. During the first five months, they sleep with the little rhinos every night, “we become their mothers”, explains director Yolande Van Der Merwe, 38 years old. “They stick to us at night, for contact and warmth” in a sort of open stable. “If we want to go to eat or go to the toilet, we have to be replaced. Otherwise the baby is stressed, cries, cries ”. A high-pitched sound that evokes the dolphin, according to Arrie.
Over the past decade, thousands of rhinos have been killed in the country for their horns, which are highly sought after in Asia, especially Vietnam, for all kinds of alleged virtues. A luxury so sought after that it can sell for over 90,000 euros per kilo. Illegal traffic controlled by mafia networks. At the orphanage, the three youngest residents share an enclosure. “Two girls and a boy” waiting for their bottles, filled with a mixture of milk and mixed boiled rice. Every few hours. Zanré Van Jaarsveld comes to stroke them, scratching their thick leather. But quickly, they get bored. “They are hungry there, they are getting cranky”. Females have the reputation of being more careful about their food, “the boys devour anything that is brought to them”. Jessie arrived in April, at the age of four months, “almost in a state of post-traumatic stress”. “We gave her Valium for two days before she calmed down,” says the 26-year-old caregiver. “She was very dehydrated and had a gash on her shoulder, probably a machete injury. We think she tried to protect her mother, the little ones don’t think of running away ”. At birth, animals with rectangular mouths weigh around forty kilos. “They are very small, no higher than my knee,” Yolande shows. Afterwards, they eat a lot and gain more than a kilo per day. At one year, these beautiful babies are approaching half a ton. It is only around the age of five that they are ready to defend themselves from predators and be unleashed on a much larger reserve nearby. A conservationist patrols there regularly. She gives the ladies of the orphanage news of their former charges.