There was a snuffling, snorting, and mewing sound as the two baby rhinos anticipated their midnight feed. I was a bit blurry-eyed as I staggered downstairs to prepare their formula milk. I imagined it was like feeding human babies, except that the quantities are vast! We are talking litres here, not a little bottle.
had been invited to stay at Mkhaya Game Reserve in Swaziland and was roped into helping to feed a couple of baby rhino — not the normal thing you get asked to do when someone offers you a bed for the night.
I arrived late afternoon, just in time to see the rhino have their 6pm feed. They were born in December 2015, just when a drought had really begun to impact on grazing animals. White rhino are huge grass-eaters and therefore need massive quantities of it each day. Unfortunately, due to a lack of grass in the game reserve, the female adults had not been able to eat enough to lactate. The result of this was that the young calves had to be removed from the care of their mothers so they could be hand-fed.
During the day, the rhino roamed freely in a large enclosure and spent their time in the company of a couple of Swazi ladies who expertly controlled the boisterous animals.
The first time I saw them I spent fifteen minutes hiding behind a tree, while the smallest rhino (a ‘small’ one being over 200kg) cavorted on the other side. I knew very well that I would certainly come off worst if contact was made. There were a number of large tractor tyres in the area so that suckers like myself could dive into them for safety. Rhino cannot jump very high at all, in fact less than the height of a tractor tyre, which was just as well as I used those tyres a lot.
In the evening the rhinos would come in for the night and stay in a room in the house, a room made rhino-proof with secure doors and matting on the floor.
These rhinos were being fed every three hours, around the clock, which was exhausting for everyone concerned — especially those doing the midnight and 3am feeds. And this was where I came in. I was shown how to mix up the formula for each infant rhino (they were slightly different because one was male and the other was female and they differed in size). I was also given instructions on how to sterilise everything before and after feeding, and how to feed them safely.
The formula milk was made up in two-litre plastic drinks bottles with a teat on the end. While feeding, the two main concerns were to stop the rhino from guzzling the milk too quickly, and to prevent them from sucking the teat off the bottle and swallowing it. I was shown how to hold the bottle with my index and second finger wrapped around the teat so that I could alter the flow by pinching it and keep hold of it if it unexpectedly came off the bottle. The easiest way to do all of this was to shove your fingers, with teat, into the rhinos mouth… not for the faint-hearted!
So, there I was, at half-past midnight holding four plastic bottles containing milk and warm water and the sound of over-excited baby rhinos with the anticipation of being fed. As they are rather boisterous and exuberant during feeding there was a chest of drawers immediately inside the door. When you opened the door outwards you were face-to-face with the chest of drawers and not a charging rhino. I could then lean over the barrier and feed the rhino without having my shins fractured. They were very demanding, probably because they were hungry, but once the teats were in their mouths they suddenly calmed down and it was easier to manage them. What a wonderful experience being that close to young rhinos, a real privilege to experience.
After a swift change in bottles, and ensuring both rhino finished their feeds at the same time, the youngsters settled down quickly. By the time I’d finished sterilising bottles and had got things ready for the feed at 3am, I could hear the gentle snoring of baby rhinos behind the door. Who knew that rhinos snored?
This is an excerpt from Jenny Bowen’s new book, Sense Africa Five Ways, published with full permission. If you’d like to read more of her safari stories, why not buy a copy? Click here to be taken to our shop.