Over the last forty years, Brian Jones has not lost the knack of looking after baby rhino, and his repertoire of soothing burbles and grunts calms the newest visitor to the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre, a baby white rhino just four to six weeks old. For Brian, it brings back memories of his younger days when he was with the Natal Parks Board and became the surrogate mother to several baby rhino that were too small to be relocated to other parts of the country in efforts to save the species from extinction.
Today there are about 250 white rhino in the private nature reserves bordering the Kruger National Park (KNP), and about 8,000 in the park itself, but when Brian first started hand-rearing baby rhino in the late 1960's the species had just been re-introduced into Kruger from Umfolozi.
In those days, the young rhino could not be safely relocated with their mothers, and Brian stepped in as ‘mom', becoming one of the first people to hand rear baby rhino. At one stage he was looking after five youngsters simultaneously. He recalls how the boisterous youngsters would bash his shins, leading him to pad his legs with pillows in an attempt to cut down on the bruising.
Later, he resorted to taking shelter in a large empty fuel drum that had the ends cut out, using it as a portable suit of armour when he entered the rhino enclosure. In the beginning the young rhino used to stay with Brian in his house, sleeping in his bed. When the first rhino was joined by a second, the bed collapsed and Brian was forced to make a new bed on the floor.
House training of rhinos was also an issue, and a rhino ‘potty' was always at hand, ready for the first rhino that lifted its tail. Brian was also involved in the relocation of the first four white rhino to the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, and in the translocation of almost 100 animals from Umfolozi.
Although the new baby at Moholoholo does not represent such a valuable resource in terms of conservation of the white rhino species, it is still precious to everyone at Moholoholo. The baby was abandoned by its mother after she fell ill, and became severely dehydrated. Brought to Moholoholo from Lydenburg, it took two days of constant attention before it finally stood up and started "charging around like it owns the place."
The Moholoholo students have been sleeping with it and providing it with four-hourly feeds around the clock, which it now looks forward to with glee, complaining noisily when the bottle empties and rushing about looking for more.
Brian says that when the rhino's health is stable, it will probably be returned to its owners in Lydenburg, but its mother is unlikely to want it back. Meanwhile, the youngster has plenty of willing foster parents, and is leaving his mark on the hearts – and the shins – of all at Moholoholo.