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Contrary to popular belief, rhino numbers are stable, even rising slightly. But the alarming increase in poaching of the animals for their horns could cause the population growth to flatline, and even send the species into decline

Despite media efforts to create global awareness and the implementation of stringent measures that were put in place to combat this ever-increasing ‘war’ on our rhinos, we are still in a state of a conservation emergency. We have the figures on paper and those passionate about saving our rhinos will continue to ensure the issue is not ignored.

Two rhinos take a cooling break in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve.
Two rhinos take a cooling break in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve

There is another side to this heartbreaking scenario: how does poaching affect the behaviour and family dynamics of rhino herds? Do the rhinos feel the pressure they are under and, if so, how do they exhibit it? Jason Kipling, a ranger at Umkumbe Safari Lodge in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve in South Africa, helps us answer these questions.

I asked him to share his professional opinions about the increasingly noticeable changes in rhino behaviour patterns. These once-placid beasts seem to have become more skittish than ever when in the presence of humans, in every national park and reserve.

Q:  Do you have any statistics about how many rhinos in the Greater Kruger region have been lost to poaching?

A: Unfortunately I don’t have the exact statistics, but I do know that South Africa as a whole has lost more than 500 rhinos already this year. That’s a substantial increase since 2007, when 17 where lost!

Two Rhinos in the bush
A rhino duo plods through the grassy terrain. Although some of the rhinos in Sabi Sand that have had their horns treated have become more skittish and wary of people and vehicles, most of the population seems unaware of the threat to the future of their species.

Q: Since the poaching endemic, have you noticed a change in rhino behaviour and dynamics?

A: Rhino dynamics and behavioural changes have become very evident to anybody who looks closely enough. I have evidence to prove this. On the Umkumbe property we have a unique situation: a 2.5 year old white rhino calf that lost its mother to poachers has been adopted by an older bull. A white rhino male will usually stay with its mother for five years (a daughter will stay for eight) and after that will pair up with another bull. (The young bulls roam as a duo for safety – at five years old they are still vulnerable to attack by lions.) But to see a male of this age with another bull is a first. We see them regularly and have even named them – Tom and Jerry.

Rhino Calf at Umkumbe
A young rhino at Umkumbe. Poaching is decimating rhino numbers worldwide. Photo by Graeme, a guest at Umkumbe Safari Lodge.

Q: Has this calf adapted to its new circumstances?

A:  The calf is doing great and has definitely altered its behaviour. A young rhino is usually quite vocal when it’s with its mother, constantly letting her know where he or she is. In this case, the young bull is always silent but never strays far from his adoptive father.

Q: Do rhinos ‘adopt’ abandoned calves and raise them, or has this become a necessity because of poaching?

A: I can’t say that I have ever heard of rhinos abandoning calves, although I imagine it could be likely in difficult times such as a drought. It has however definitely become a necessity since the poaching crisis. Another encounter I had was with a cow that had two calves of almost exactly the same age. Rhinos do not have twins and with a gestation period of a minimum of 16 months this is definitely another case of adoption.

Q: What other behaviours have you noticed in the surrounding rhino population?

A: With the rhinos in Sabi Sand being darted and their horns treated (with a purple dye and micro-bacteria that are harmless to the animals), a few of them have become slightly more skittish and wary of people and vehicles. However, on the whole, most of the population seems to go on as usual.

The author interviewed ranger Jason Kipling at Umkumbe Safari Lodge. To see more of the interview click here.

Ndumu River Lodge
Carolynne Higgins

Carolynne Higgins loves life, sometimes a little bit too much, she admits freely. This quality became evident at university, where she managed nevertheless to finish her degree in English, teach herself web design & SEO, study copywriting and cartooning. She's passionate about photography, writing, sketching, design, travelling and the outdoors. Recently, she has developed an odd obsession with a lion pride in South Africa's Klaserie Nature Reserve, near Kruger. Her interests are sometimes a little bit offbeat as she doesn’t particularly care for the normal, and her 'winging it' approach to travelling has led her into some interesting situations. If something's boring, Carolynne will ensure it becomes an adventure. Her current position at Sun Destinations, a company that handles marketing, sales and reservations for a number of camps and lodges, manages to curb her not-being-able-to-sit-still problem and allows her to write about travel … and travel.