Earlier this year I volunteered at the Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary in South Africa. It was an unbelievable experience, one I will never forget. Whilst it was heartbreaking hearing the stories of the babies orphaned due to poaching, it was inspiring to see the incredible work Care for Wild do to save black and white rhinos from extinction.
Care for Wild rescue injured / orphaned rhinos (as well many other animals) and rehabilitate them until they’re ready to be released back into the wild. It is the largest rhino orphanage in the world, growing over the years due to the passion, hard-work and commitment shown by Petronel (Care for Wild founder) and her fantastic team.
The volunteer programme offers a truly hands on experience caring for rhinos and other wild animals. You’ll also learn about rhino conservation and the significance of the poaching crisis.
Read on to meet the orphans, learn more about this amazing opportunity and find out how you can even help from overseas…
You can also click here to watch my ‘Care for Wild Volunteer Week’ video.
But first, the hard stuff…
Why are rhinos killed?
Rhino horn is used in traditional Chinese / Vietnamese medicine as many believe it can cure a number of health issues. In fact, rhino horn is made of keratin which is the same stuff as your hair and fingernails – claims of health benefits are totally unfounded… you’re just as likely to cure ailments by eating your hair!
On average 2.5 rhinos are killed everyday in South Africa for their horn. Whilst reports will show that the total number of rhinos killed each year is decreasing, this is largely because there are simply fewer rhinos to kill. Our Kruger safari guide said that 10 years ago when he started safari tours a rhino would be easy to find – now you rarely get to see one due to poaching. Unfortunately the demand and price for rhino horn is higher than ever due to low availability.
With advances in technology and international criminal gangs supplying poachers, more sophisticated poaching techniques are being used which makes it harder to protect the rhinos. Poachers are usually heavily armed, making them incredibly dangerous to anti-poaching teams who put their lives on the line to save these incredible animals.
Rhinos horns are also seen as trophies – some people believe the bigger the horn / the more horns you have, the wealthier you are. Devastatingly South Africa just passed a new policy meaning trophy hunters will be able to kill more endangered black rhinos.
Trophy hunting is wrong. There are no two ways about it. These people pay for permits and are driven within shooting range of endangered animals who are often sleeping / protecting their young when they’re shot. And despite reports, less than 3% of the money these ‘hunters’ pay actually helps conservation / local communities due to rampant corruption and poorly managed wildlife programmes. Safari / photography tourism is worth far more to local communities than trophy hunting.
Can a rhino survive without its horn?
Yes! Like hair / a fingernail, if the horn is removed carefully and without damaging the skull it can grow back to nearly full size in 3 years. However, poachers normally tranquillise the rhino, literally hack the horn off with no regard for the life of the animal (hoping to get as much of it as possible), and leave it to bleed to death.
Luckily CFW exist to rescue the orphans left behind and protect these amazing animals.
Let’s meet some of the orphans…
Arthur is so small and his story is so sad that I think he steals the heart of most people volunteering at Care for Wild.
This baby was just 3 weeks old when he was found next to his mother who had been hacked to death for her horn. It is thought that he tried to charge the poachers to protect her and suffered 2 deep machete wounds as a consequence. His bravery and determination to live earned him his name ‘Arthur… the Brave’. You can find out more about Arthur in ‘Save This Rhino’, a programme on National Geographic.
I had a massive soft spot for Sparkle. She was orphaned at just 5 months old and rescued by Care for Wild at Christmas time, on the 22nd December 2018 – hence the name Sparkle!
Although she is older than 1 now, she is still one of the smallest of the orphan crash even though she LOVES her food… as you can see!
Blossom was rescued the day before I arrived at CFW. She suffered a gunshot wound and it’s believed she was out on her own for a week by the time she was rescued. She is also missing part of her tail due to hyena bites.
Whilst I was there she was introduced to orphans Mayar, Ribbon and Lazuli which was just incredible to see – they accepted her immediately, showing her love and total compassion. By the end of the week she was wallowing in the mud which was a sure sign that she was feeling safe and a little better in the loving hands of Care for Wild.
When the orphans are ready, they are released with their crash into the IPZ (Intensive Protection Zone). This is an area (350 hectares soon to be 4500 hectares) where rhinos can roam free and wild but in a protected space, monitored by the Care for Wild APU (Anti Poaching Unit). Unfortunately it isn’t safe to release them back into Kruger / other reserves as adequate protection cannot be guaranteed. The CFW APU is multi-layered to ensure the safety of these beautiful animals. It includes but is not limited to: 24/7 monitoring, a highly trained armed reaction unit, crime intelligence, arial support, electrified fences, a canine unit and a mounted unit.
Care for Wild Volunteering
Care for Wild is located in Mpumalanga, South Africa (about 3 hours from Johannesburg airport and an hour from Nelspruit airport) on a breathtaking game reserve. Day visitors are not permitted due to the nature of rhino conservation (these babies will eventually be released into the wild so do not want excessive human interaction) and also for the safety of the orphans. However, you can volunteer for a week or more…
We filled in an application form on the Care for Wild website and were contacted by Volunteer SA to complete the booking process. It costs USD 1,390 (£1,134.35) per person to volunteer for 1 week. This price includes 7 nights accommodation, 3 meals a day and transport to and from the airport (inc. Johannesburg).
What we did…
Our day would start at 7am with a morning meeting where we’d get a run down of our tasks for the day as well as any updates on the orphans. For us, this update was mainly about the progress recently orphaned Blossom was making… “she’s eating!” “she took a bottle!” “she made friends!”
Each day would be broken down into 3 parts:
- 7am – 9am – early morning job
- 9am – 10am – breakfast
- 10am – 12.30pm – morning job
- 12.30pm – 1.30pm – lunch
- 1.30pm – 5pm(ish) – afternoon job
- 6pm – dinner
Some days were more full on than others depending on the number of volunteers.
– Rhino milk
In the wild rhino calves will suckle milk from their mothers until they’re about 18 months old. Most of the orphans at Care for Wild are much younger than this when they arrive and so it’s incredibly important to encourage them to take a bottle quickly to ensure they get all the necessary nutrients.
Making the milk is much like putting together ingredients of a cake. Each rhino requires a different formula dependant on numerous factors including size / age / health / need for weight gain etc. These bottles (as well as a rhino pellet mixture) are made and fed to the babies 4 times a day.
– Feeding the orphans
After you’ve prepared the milk and pellet mixture you get to go out and feed! The orphans are hungry little babies and will be waiting at the fence for each feed like clockwork.
Each volunteer / staff member grabs one bottle and one tub of pellets. All rhinos have to be fed at the same time to make sure the get the correct bottle and no one is pushed out by another hungry orphan.
You literally put the pellets into the mouth of the rhino… don’t worry, they don’t have teeth at the front of their mouths! They know the routine and it’s hilarious when they literally open wide for you to put your hand straight in.
– Prepping all other food
All other food needs to be weighed and taken into the enclosures – teff hay, pellets, molasses, lucerne hay etc. It can be quite dusty work so if you’re a sneezer (like me) it might be worthwhile investing in a mouth / nose mask and wearing it for this job.
We would sometimes need to move the bails into different areas which was a great workout!!
Black rhinos are browsers so branches and leaves from trees are tied up in the boma (enclosure) to make it a little more interesting for them. You pick up these branches when you’re out in the IPZ.
– Cleaning bomas
Before the food can be put out in the bomas they have to be cleaned! Jobs include: poop scooping, teff raking and washing out the sleeping pens.
– Food in the IPZ (Intensive Protection Zone)
Although CFW want the IPZ rhinos to be as wild as possible, sometimes they need a little boost of nutrition from teff / lucerne / pellets which we spread across the zone. This is also an opportunity to see how the released rhinos are doing and see them interact in a natural environment.
– Feeding nyala
I LOVED the nyala – such beautiful animals! If you get the chance definitely go and feed them too. There’s 1 in particular who was hand reared and loves humans (see above and below).
You might get the opportunity to work with the ‘Cats team’ too! This team covers any animal CFW look after which isn’t a rhino…
& anything else which might need CFW help…
Here you’ll prepare food and take it around to each enclosure. I LOVED Louis the squirrel who climbed all over the volunteer who went in to feed him. African squirrels are so much smaller to the ones found in the UK. Super cute!
Molly & Emma, the 2 gorgeous hippos also need feeding (and boy, does Emma show it). Emma was rescued in 2014 after she became separated from her mother during a storm and Molly was rescued a year later.
You also prep food (chop caucuses) for the 2 lions CFW look after! They are so so beautiful. The female is Figa and the male is called Tuscan. Figa’s mum got poached when she was 4 months old. She was found alone in the road with a fractured hip. Humans have imprinted on her as she’s been around them from such a young age and she’s also on strong painkillers for her hip so cannot be released. Tuscan was raised as a pet so humans have also very much imprinted on him. He simply would not survive in the wild either and so they both have a forever home at CFW.
– Canine unit cleanup
You might get to go and meet the pups in the canine unit and clean out their pens too. These amazing and super lively dogs form a layer of the fantastic APU, patrolling the grounds sniffing for signs of any intruders. The dogs are trained to track rhino horn and other contraband. One of the dogs is also trained to track live rhinos which is incredibly important as finding an orphan quickly is sometimes the difference between life and death.
– Rhino weigh-in
The orphans get regular weigh-ins to see how they’re progressing. Whilst this isn’t actually job, it’s brilliant to watch the CFW staff trying to usher the playful orphans onto the scales.
– Game drives
We went on a couple of game drives during the week we were there which was a great opportunity to learn more about the released rhinos living in the IPZ as well as the other animals on the reserve.
As well as rhino you’ll see: giraffe, wildebeest (there’s a golden one), plenty of impala, kudu, baboons, warthog, porcupine, etc.
– Rhino Olympics
If there are enough of you, you might get to participate in the ‘Rhino Olympics’ which was a super fun afternoon.
Other post-dinner evening activities include film nights, a scorpion hunt & a camp fire. To be honest, you’ll be so sleepy from a day of working that you don’t have much energy for anything else (see my dads dirty legs and clean feet after a day of working below).
You can also take a day trip to Nelspruit / go on a Kruger safari which can be arranged in advance by the CFW team.
Here’s a check list of items you’ll need to take:
- walking boots / old trainers / wellies
- a water bottle – make sure you keep hydrated
- gardening gloves
- a light rain coat if you’re volunteering during the wetter months
- old clothes you don’t mind getting muddy / dirty
- a sleeping bag – whilst bedding is provided, in the cold winter months it might be an idea to bring an extra layer of warmth
- a travel towel which fold up really thin and dry quickly
- a bum-bag to keep any items on you whilst you work
- a mouth / nose mask for dusty jobs
- a book / cards / other games for free time
- shower gel / shampoo / conditioner / dry shampoo
- bug spray
- snacks – if you don’t eat meat then the food isn’t that great so I’d definitely suggest bringing some cereal bars / biscuits / other snacks to keep you going.
When to go?
We went in July during South African winter. Whilst it got pretty chilly during the night (0 degrees or lower), the days were really warm but not so hot we couldn’t work. It would be a lot sweatier work during the SA summer months.
If you can’t volunteer, how can you help?
Travelling to SA and volunteering at CFW is a once in a lifetime experience which takes a long time to save for. If you would like to help from overseas then you can:
- spread the word
– keep updated by following Care for Wild on social media (Insta: @careforwild, FB: Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary, Twitter: @careforwild)
– share CFW social media posts with your friends
– educate yourself and your friends about the poaching crisis
– you can make a general donation here
– you can sponsor a rhino / handler / dog / horse by filling out this form
– you can buy food for the rhinos at the CFW online grocery market by clicking here
The work CFW do is really incredible and it’s just amazing to have been a part of it. I would 100 percent recommend volunteering as a once in a lifetime experience and opportunity to have a part in the conservation of these intelligent, gentle and forgiving animals.