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Fate of the Wild Orphans

by Carolina Ocampo, KwF Wildlife Researcher


Poaching is defined as the illegal taking of wild animals or plants from their natural environment, either for survival or profit purposes (The Campus Group, 2014). During this activity, individuals are extracted according to their utility for poaching, without taking into account their age or sex and the resources extracted through it are used mainly for food, fashion, pets, and traditional medicine, whose real efficiency has not yet been proved (IFAW, 2008). Among the most highly poached mammals in the world we find the tigers, leopards, pangolins, elephants, and rhinos. But the social behavior, size, and visibility of the latter two makes them highly vulnerable.

The consequences include important decreases in population size that risk the survival of the species. A total amount of 25,450 rhinos (black and white) were reported for Africa by the IUCN, while 1,215 rhinos, almost 5% of the total population, were poached in South Africa last year (Save the Rhino, 2015). The extent of poaching and trafficking is such that Rhino SA and Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots South Africa estimate that if poaching continues to increase, rhinos will disappear from Africa by 2022. The possible disappearance of these species is, at first sight, the consequence of the murder of many animals for the trade of their bodies and ivory. But the real effects of those actions on the survival of the rest of their population are even bigger.

On one side, the survival of the population because of its size decrease is at high risk, not only because of the disappearance of the present generation of adults, but for the low probability of survival of the next one. On other side, each rhino that is extracted from its environment means reductions in the genetic pool of the population. This, in practical terms, means that future generations will have individuals that are more similar, and the risk of genetic illness, as well as the vulnerability to changes in their environment increase greatly.

With the current black market of wildlife trade estimated at around 20 billion USD on 2007 (Wildlife Crime, 2007) and around 23 billion USD the next year (Traffic, 2008), the disappearance of species will occur so fast that a crisis because of genetic similarities will never happen. However, the low survival of future generations is already going on. The indiscriminate poaching of animals reduces the amount of available adults for reproduction, as well as the survival probabilities of calves. This is especially worrisome if we take into account the length of time it takes for a large mammal to mature sexually, and the number of offspring produced by each female per reproductive season.

In the case of elephants it takes calves around 6 to 10 years to reach sexual maturity (Rapaport et al, 1987). Their social structure is based on a group of females, with males creating their own groups of bulls or wandering alone (For more information on elephant behavior see Jorgensen, 2015). This means that an important amount of energy has to be invested to find a partner during the reproductive period, which is characterized by many display activities that may increase the vulnerability and visibility of the animals. If the reproduction is successful, a female will be pregnant for around 20 months and she can only get pregnant every 6 years. After this time, the baby elephant usually remains with his mother for between 10 and 15 years (Sheldrick, 1992; Joshi et al, 2009).

When concerned with reproduction, rhinos and elephants, as well as almost every mammal including humans, females are highly vulnerable. Either during their pregnancy or during the care of their calf, females move slower and tend to expose themselves more while looking for resources or protecting their calf. At the same time, the calves are in high risk because of their tendency to stay with their mothers even after they’re

dead. This, according to Arrie van Deventer from The Rhino Orphanage often results in the poachers killing the calf or beating it so badly they can’t even stand. Karen Trendler, from the Endangered Wildlife Trust, states that it can be said that one or two calves (either born or embryos) are impacted by the poaching of each female.

We had the opportunity to talk to Trendler about the probabilities of survival of these calves and some other procedures of their rehabilitation. Even though it is normally difficult for a young rhino or elephant to survive by itself and to interact with conspecifics and be accepted into a new group, Trendler also states that it will depend on the specific conditions of each situation. These conditions include the

health state of the calf at the moment it is abandoned, which include possible injuries, nutrition and age, as well as environmental factors, which include the time of the year, temperature, and the availability of water and food. If the calves are old enough and the population status of their species is good at that moment, it is possible that they can join up with wild siblings and subadults and survive thanks to group protection. In spite of this, Game Rangers International (2014) states that elephants under 2 years old are still vulnerable and dependent and often will not be able to find resources nutritious enough as their mother’s milk. In any case, an orphan calf will be highly vulnerable given the long period of parental care before they are completely independent, which can extend to almost 15 years in the case of elephants (Joshi et al, 2009).

Tana. A baby female orphan rhino of approximately 4 months. Rescued from Limpopo region in South Africa by Care for Wild Africa. Image Copyright: Lowvelder 2014.

The orphan calves left because of poaching activities and the speed at which rhinos and elephants are disappearing has led to the creation of many orphanages in Africa to counteract the situation, like the Elephant Orphanage Project (EOP), as well as initiatives like the Rhino Orphan and Response Project, from the Endangered Wildlife Trust. Through these strategies it is expected to increase the survival rate of calves and to return them to their natural habitat, in a condition that allows them to successfully breed and rear their young. Around 18 orphan calves were rescued on 2012 by Manas Park in India from two different reserves and are now being included in the Indian

Rhino 2020 Programme, which expects to increase the indian rhino population in 1000 individuals by the year 2020, through calves’ rehab and reproduction plans. The orphanages developed for this purpose normally holds around 10 to 15 individuals at a time and they need a strong team of experts to care for all aspects of the animals’ development including feeding, health, hygiene, and behavior.

The process of rescuing and rehabilitating a baby rhino or elephant includes an effort of a large group of people dedicated and specialized in the animal’s care 24 hours a day. Initially, each response organization searches for calves or is contacted by different groups and then they search for and rescue the individuals. During this process, the EOP (2014) emphasizes that the rescue team must be composed of experts, including a veterinarian that can give initial medical assistance and stabilization to the orphan.

Kavalamanja. A female orphan elephant rescued at Lower Zambezi by the Elephant Orphanage Project (2014).

After locating an individual, it must be captured, hydrated, and moved to a facility where a strategic Rescue Protocol is followed, which can include a temporary hold and quarantine season. Karen Trendler states that during this period the calf must be kept in a quiet environment with little disturbance. Once the baby rhino or elephant is settled at a specific location, a long rehabilitation process of 3 or 4 years is necessary, with medical and biological recovery activities occurring simultaneously, after which, the rhinos can be released back to nature, with an important monitoring period following release (Ashraf et al, 2005).

Focusing on medical rehab, many individuals must be treated for ulcers, which they are very prone to, as well as a correct nutrition process. To complement this, biological rehab must include the development of communication and survival skills that a mother or the group usually teaches the calf. In table #1 there is a comparison of some of the main factors in the rehab process and natural social behaviour of rhinos and elephants.

One of the most important elements during the early stages of calves’ rehab is the provision of milk, which contains the same nutrition as their mother’s milk. In order to achieve this, it is highly important to understand the specific composition of each mammal’s milk and the possibility to imitate it. In table #2 we find the characteristics of the milk of different species of rhinos and elephants. The case of elephants is especially difficult, because of the specific amounts and types of fat characteristic of the milk. In order to replace it, Dr. E.K. Easwaran, from Kodand Camp in Kerala, India, explains that they create a special mix for Asian elephants, composed of cow milk, vitamins, minerals and coconut milk, which according to Trendler has fats very similar to those found in elephant milk (capric acid). Additionally, Turmeric is added to the milk as a natural antiseptic, given that stomach infections and diarrhea are very common among young elephants.

One of the major concerns mentioned by Trendler regarding the biological rehabilitation process of rhinoceros and elephants is an incorrect rearing, resulting in high humanization. This can be highly problematic in terms of the possibility of the individual returning to the wild and breeding successfully, given the behavioural differences between them and their wild conspecifics. If animals are not correctly exposed to other members of their species or given the opportunity to observe and imitate behaviors related to reproduction and competition, it will not be easy for them to interact with other members of their species. This is especially problematic in the case of elephants, who live in a hierarchical herd and, therefore, need to be able to assume a position if they expect to join a group once they are reintroduced in the wild.

In spite of this possible problem, the effectiveness of these procedures appear to be very high, with an approximate 97% of survival rate of the individuals returned to nature after three years of release from the Rhino Orphan and Response Project. However, during the last few years, Africa and Nepal have reached a poaching crisis that represents a higher risk for calves’ survival. Karen declares that there have been important changes in the poaching patterns in the last few years, with a higher impact on calves. The level of violence and mutilation is increasing and the physical and emotional consequences for these young animals are worsening, even to the extreme of calves being killed to extract their small developing horns.

This has resulted in difficulties in the process of biological rehabilitation of the rescued individuals. As Lisa Jorgensen explains in her most recent article (2015), elephants go through a mourning period in a similar way than humans do when they experience a family loss. Trendler affirms that calves involved directly or indirectly with poaching experiences are developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This has been previously reported in elephants by Charles Siebert from National Geographic (2011), who mentioned the conclusions of the psychologist Gay Bradshaw. He studied elephant behaviour and suspected that elephant herds developed chronic stress and trauma after human encroachment and killing episodes. However, it has not been reported for rhinoceros, who are starting to show symptoms similar to those related to PTSD, like aversion to things, smells, people and situations that reminds them of the poaching event they were involved in.

Other than these problems, the complexity of the social structure of the African elephant herds makes it more difficult to perform the biological rehabilitation process correctly. Studies made in Kenya and South Africa (Shannon et al, 2013) show that culling and translocation processes inside elephant groups have a highly negative impact on the ability of the individuals to make important decisions to coexist with their group. This will have a negative effect on calves, who have not had previous experience with the process of facing group alterations.

The result of this research showed that populations with important levels of disturbance, because of human activities, tend to have youngsters with a lower ability to identify older elephants as authority figures and respond aggressively to their calls. Therefore, this results in a larger exposure to confrontations and alterations in the herd structure and in the biological fitness of the individual, defined as the capability of an elephant to breed successfully and raise their offspring to the reproductive age.

The alterations on group interactions because of poaching and orphanhood extend to other mammal species as well. Studies on Bisons (Bison bison) (Coppedge et al, 1997) show that orphan calves were attacked considerably more often by other members of their population and were over 20% smaller than resident, non-orphan calves, thus indicating an important negative effect of aggression. This leads researchers to believe that not only do calves develop inadequate behaviors without their mother’s presence, but that this absence also leads them to be more helpless and prone to assault by conspecifics.

In conclusion, it is clear that poaching has deeper effects on a species’ survival than the most evident ones. It is crucial to understand the long term impacts of these activities on the ecology as well as the biology of the animals and find strategies to avoid them. The rehabilitation process must be accompanied by the development of better response techniques that allow rangers to stop illegal poaching activities before they occur. If illegal activities such as poaching and trafficking were effectively avoided, wildlife rehabilitation, although an important practice, would be an unnecessary discipline.


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