I could hear the snuffling, snorting and mewing of the two baby rhino anticipating their midnight feed. Needless to say I was a little bit blurry eyed as I staggered downstairs to prepare their formula milk. I imagine it is rather similar to feeding small children except that the quantities are vast! We are talking litres here…
I’d been really lucky as I had been invited to go and stay at Mkhaya Game Reserve in Swaziland and had been “roped” into helping feed a couple of baby white rhino, not the normal thing you get asked to do when someone offers you a bed for the night.
I arrived in the late afternoon in time to see the rhino have their 6 o’clock feed. They had been born in December 2015, just when the drought had really begun to impact on grazing animals. White rhino are grazers and therefore need lots of grass each day, an enormous amount. Unfortunately, due to lack of grass in the game reserve, the female adults had not been able to eat enough grass in order to lactate and as a result the young calves were removed from the care of their mothers so they could be hand fed.
During the day the rhino roamed freely in a very large enclosure and spent their time in the company of a couple of Swazi ladies who seemed to be able to expertly control these very boisterous animals. The first time I saw them I spent 15 minutes hiding behind a tree whilst the small rhino (a small rhino being over 200 kg) cavorted on the other side. I knew very well that I would certainly come off worst if contact was made. There were also a number of large tractor tyres in the area so that suckers like myself could dive into them for safety, rhino can not jump. I used the tyres a lot! In the evening the rhinos come in for the night and stayed in a room in the house, a room made rhino proof with secure doors and matting on the floor.
These rhino were being fed every three hours around the clock which was pretty exhausting for everyone concerned especially those doing the midnight and 3 o’clock feed. And this is where I came in. I was shown how to mix up the formula for each of the rhino, they were slightly different because one was male and one with female and also they were different in size as well. I was also given instructions on how to sterilise everything before and after feeding and how to actually feed them.
The formulaic milk was made up in 2L plastic coke bottles and had a teat put 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 of the bottle off and ingesting it. So 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 the teat and also 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!
So there I was at half-past midnight holding 4 plastic bottles of milk and warm water and the sound of overexcited baby rhino in the anticipation of being fed. As they are rather boisterous and over exuberant in feeding there was a chest of drawers immediately inside the door. So when you opened the door outwards you are face-to-face with the chest of drawers and not 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 very 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 this.
After a swift change in bottles and ensuring both rhino finished their feeds at the same time the youngsters settled down pretty quickly. By the time I’d finished sterilising bottles and had got things ready for the feed at 3 o’clock in the morning, I could hear the gentle snoring of rhino behind the door. Who knew that rhino snored!
I can not wait to get back to Mkhaya and help out with the feeding again. No doubt they will be much larger, more boisterous and over whelming.
There are not many people that can say that they’ve had their fingers sucked by a baby rhino!