Thursday, February 8, 2007

Bottle-Fed Baby Rhinos

At Lewa Downs Conservancy in Kenya, orphaned baby rhinos (and other animals) are taken in and hand raised until they can be released back into the wild. Lewa Downs is the most expensive place I stayed in Kenya, at over $600 a night U.S., more than I've ever payed for any room, anywhere. (I didn't know the cost until arrangements had been made, or I might have objected. I'm glad I didn't). It's popular with honeymooners as it is secluded and has wonderful permanent tents, good food, and is privately run. My tour company, Deeper Africa, had arranged for me to stay there because it was the only place in Kenya I could go horseback riding (in most game parks you are not allowed out of the vehicle).

While thumbing through a binder in the lobby, waiting for my guide, I saw that Lewa Downs had a baby rhino, and that "arrangements can be made through your guide for you to visit." When I asked about this, I was shocked to find out that there were two babies, a black and a white rhino, and that I was going to be allowed to feed them. Throughout my trip I tried to interact with animals as much as possible without harming their well-being or mine, and I was thrilled at this prospect, and shocked at my good luck.

The black rhino, a male (Maxx), was six months old and the white rhino, a girl (Tula), was 18 months, though they were almost equal in size. A game warden brought them to a shady spot under a tree and I got to spend an hour alone with them, with my guide and a warden, of course. The bottles were several gallon water jugs with rubber nipples, and it took under five minutes for each rhino to suck down its portion.

The most surprising thing was the sound they made. The babies had a high pitched, very tiny sound to be coming out of such a big animal. They stood just over knee high on a human and were bulky in shape, but the sound could have come from a squeaky little mouse. It was a distinctive cry I've never heard captured on a nature show or anywhere else. The rhino skin was very rough, like a callous. Tiny round ticks were on their chests and legs here and there. The rhinos rolled in some mud and dust and were able to rid themselves of ticks most places, but not where the skin wrinkled. There were some small abrasions on the rhinos from rolling around, and flies were in the wounds. I wondered about that, but the warden said it was quite normal for rhinos to have such wounds and they healed fine on their own. (When I later was very close to adult rhinos, I saw this was true).

The rhinos were affectionate, and jealous, and if I was paying attention to one and rubbing and tickling, the other would cry and but its head against me or the log or the warden seeking attention. They seemed to like their underbelly rubbed, like dogs do. The female was old enough to be interested in some nearby vegetation. The handler got a hose and made a mud puddle for them to play in. They have very poor eyesight, and I was warned repeatedly that they could hit me turning their heads (but they didn't, thanks to a few jumps here and there).

These were the first rhinos I encountered on my trip, though not the last. I got to see close up the main differences between the species. Black rhinos have a triangle shaped upper lip which they use to grab leaves and vegetation off bushes. They are considered territorial and aggressive, and charge to ward off danger. They are highly endangered, poached for their large horns (there is a very long one and a shorter one) which are made of the same material as human fingernails. Apparently there is still an illegal trade, with the horn being sold as a sword sheath to wealthy Arabs or to be ground into a powder in Asia and sold as an aphrodisiac.

In contrast, white rhinos have a large, flat lip and primarily graze on grass as opposed to noshing bushes. They have two slight humps on their backs as opposed to one, and are not considered as aggressive. They are also poached, for their one large horn. They are not endangered - yet. Black and white rhinos are actually both grey in color. "White" comes from "wide," for wide lips, being interpreted and pronounced a bit wrong.

Rubbing the babies made my hands tender, as it was like rubbing against sandpaper for an extended period. Their lips were soft, though, and their ears were flexible. Each rhino had found itself alone and would have died without human intervention. Maxx had mistaken a land rover for its mother and had followed it, crying out for food and protection with his itty bitty cry. Tula was the fourth offspring of a blind rhino who had difficulty caring for her young, and she was found alone and taken in while very young. Every day the Lewa wardens took them for walks in the park and over time they would be acclimated to survival without human assistance and then released into a game park, whether at Lewa or elsewhere in Kenya. The wardens were completely dedicated to the well being of the babies, and someone was with them all the time.

When the babies both began a constant cry, I asked what was wrong, and the warden told me it was past their naptime and they were tired. I was happy to make a donation towards their continued care and be on my way, once again marveling that I could stumble across baby rhinos and get a chance to spend time with them. It was definitely one of my most memorable mornings in Kenya.

Maxx has since been relocated to another park in Kenya, Ol Pejeta, to protect him from being killed by a territorial male at Lewa. Tula is still there.

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