For guide Paulie Viljoen the afternoon game drive along the Ncau loop on Saturday, February 27, started off much the same as any other drive.
His guests were keen to see "the big five" and Paulie had every intention of fulfilling their wishes. Little did Paulie, or his guests, know what this game drive had in store for them.
Driving along the Sabie River, on Tinga Private Game Lodge's western concession in the Kruger National Park (KNP), it was Paulie's tracker Isaac who first heard the distress calls. Following the sound, they reached a thick mud pan.
Stuck fast in the midst of this pan was a tiny black rhino calf, less than a week old with all four legs deeply embedded in the mud. It was calling continuously to its mother, who was watching from the sideline, apparently unable to help.
As the calf struggled in the mud, Paulie, his guests and the baby rhino's mother looked on. The calf's mother vented her frustration on Paulie's vehicle. In an obvious attempt to protect her ill-fated calf, she charged towards Paulie's safari vehicle, only pulling out at the last possible moment.
Sensing both the mother's and calf's distress, Paulie moved off but logged the position of the calf, which he reported to KNP's Skukuza section ranger, Albert Smith.
After receiving the report late that afternoon, Albert made the decision not to intervene immediately, but rather wait until the next morning and give the calf a chance to free itself. It was feared that if people intervened the mother could be chased away and this might permanently separate mother and calf.
The following morning, Tinga's early safari went out to see whether the calf had been able to get itself free. But the unfortunate calf was still stuck in the cold mud, clearly distressed and weakened by a night struggling to get free. His mother was still there, also obviously exhausted after presumably spending the night warding off potential predators.
Initially she remained near to her calf, then she disappeared into the bush. With the morning drives reporting no improvement in the calf's situation, Kruger section ranger Albert Smith decided to come and evaluate the situation. While white rhino numbers have increased dramatically since they were almost wiped out in the late 1970s, black rhinos haven't been so successful. With approximately only 3500 individuals left in the wild, black rhinos are one of the most endangered mammals on earth.
After 18 hours of being stuck, it was apparent that the black rhino calf would not be able to get out of the mud by itself and its mother appeared to have given up and disappeared. Albert had to decide whether they would intervene. Intervention could dictate whether the baby rhino would survive or not, but it is not standard practice for Kruger officials to get involved in natural incidents.
The fact that its mother abandoned it, that it could not free istelf and it was obvious the carnivores would get to it, as well as it being a highly endangered species, swayed Albert's mind to intervene.
With the decision was made to free the baby rhino, Albert sprang into action with the assistance of Tinga guide David Pusey. Using a Tinga safari vehicle, they cautiously approached the rhino while ensuring that the vehicle wouldn't also get stuck in the deep mud. The calf was by now highly distressed and continuously calling for its mother with all its might. David and Albert waited, hoping the mother would come back to her calf but she never came.
It was clear that Albert and David couldn't get the calf out with the safari vehicle, so a new approach was required. Black rhinos, however, are notoriously hostile and extremely dangerous. A careful approach was needed, especially with the mother. Although she wasn't visibly coming back for her calf, it didn't mean she wasn't in the area. Aware of the dangers they faced Albert and David pressed on, on foot.
With one eye on the bushes around them, they approached the calf. Using its oversized ears as the perfect handle, they attempted to drag the youngster from the mud. But no matter how hard they tried, the young calf was stuck fast. It didn't budge an inch and now it wasn't just the baby rhino that was getting stuck in the mud, Albert and David were sinking too!
A new plan had to be made, as the longer the rhino calf spent in mud the weaker and more distressed it got. Finally, the two men grabbed the rhino calf by its front legs, sinking further into the mud themselves and using every ounce of strength available, they somehow heaved the calf to freedom.
Wobbling at first, the calf struggled to its feet. Looking dazed and teetering dangerously, it watched David slowly reverse the Tinga safari vehicle. For the first time the calf stopped calling out in distress.
For a few moments it just stood there, unsure what to do with its newfound freedom. Then with no mother in sight the baby rhino did the unthinkable. It began to follow the Tinga safari vehicle. Slowly the calf began to follow the game viewer, at times even attempting to suckle on the wheel.
Hungry, rejected by its mother, if this calf was to be left alone it would surely mean certain death. So Albert made the call to take the rhino back with him to Skukuza, so it could be checked out by Kruger vets. Once the rhino calf was deemed fit, the question was what next for this poor little rhino. There was no chance of reuniting it with its mother, or returning it to the bush, so the only solution was rehabilitation. Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre, near Hoedspruit, opened their doors to the little calf.
The calf is doing really well now, thanks to its attentive surrogate "rhino mummies". The rhino mummies spend 24 hours with the little calf, feeding it and providing it with the comfort and companionship a mother would. The rehabilitation centre has named the little calf Landela meaning "follower" after the way she adopted the Tinga safari vehicle and followed it when she was first freed.
Photo: David Pusey
By Dr. Katy Johnson