Our Baby Dinosaurs

Published on the 25th of April, 2024

In this month's Field Notes, discover the stories of the infant orphaned rhinos currently in our care: Raha and Chamboi.

When I was a child, Kenya was quite literally teeming with black rhinos. They were a fixture growing up in Tsavo, so common they were made the emblem for National Parks at the time. No game drive in the park was complete without experiencing a full-blown rhino charge as one barrelled out of the bush.

Today, it is a rarity to see even a single black rhino in Tsavo. Over the past 50 years, a population of 20,000 has dwindled to as few as 1,000 in Kenya. Poaching, that pervasive culprit, is largely to blame. And yet, today's numbers give us reason for hope: Ten years ago, after decades of poaching, just 500 black rhinos remained in the country. To go from 500 to 1,000 over the course of ten years is impressive population gain — and irrefutable proof that field-level conservation measures, bolstered by global anti-poaching campaigns, truly work.

We are currently raising two infant, orphaned black rhinos: Raha and Chamboi. A girl and a boy, these two calves are a study in contrasts. In this edition of Field Notes, I would like to delve into our ‘baby dinosaurs’.

– Angela Sheldrick

Our Baby Dinosaurs

To know a baby rhino is to fall in love with them. My mother, Daphne Sheldrick, used to refer to black rhinos as ‘the last living dinosaurs’ — and the epithet rings true, even when it comes to the youngest generation.

Rhinos played a starring role in my childhood

These little creatures are relics of an ancient, bygone era. Rhino calves are in a league of their own. Their blunt noses and button eyes give no hint to the formidable creatures they will become in a few years’ time. Many of my most cherished childhood memories feature orphaned rhinos who grew up alongside me in Tsavo: Rufus soliciting an endless rotation of ear scratches, Stroppi greedily slurping her milk bottles, Hoshim flopping over for his beloved tummy rubs. To date, Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has successfully raised 17 orphaned black rhinos.

Chamboi with Suleman

In the past two years, two new additions have entered the mix.

Raha stands out as our little warrior. On the afternoon of 23rd September 2022, a days-old rhino calf was discovered on her own in Ol Pejeta Conservancy. As is so often the case, much of her beginnings remain a mystery: Perhaps her mother rejected her, or else she got into an altercation with another rhino and the calf was cast aside in the process.

Raha on patrol

And then, something even more terrible happened to her. As adults, rhinos are one of the most formidable creatures in the world. However, calves are incredibly vulnerable. In the short time Raha was on her own, predators — we believe jackals — descended, leaving her mortally wounded.

Chamboi and Bam

It was a miracle that she survived the attack. Ol Pejeta scouts discovered her and alerted our SWT/KWS Mount Kenya Vet Unit. With the approval of Ol Pejeta and the Kenya Wildlife Service, we brought Raha to our Nairobi Nursery — ready to fight for her life, but very aware that we had an uphill battle on our hands.

Raha enjoying the flowers

The predators had mauled Raha’s rear end, biting her tail clean off and chewing much of her rear end. For months, she struggled to defecate. Thank goodness for our veterinary specialists, who painstakingly reconstructed her netherregions — and then did it all over again when the stitches collapsed. I am also eternally grateful for Raha’s Keepers, who vigilantly monitored every ebb and flow in her condition, day and night. Without their dedication, she would never have survived such a precarious period.

Chamboi feeling energetic

Given the minefield that came with digestion, Raha was reluctant to eat solid food for nearly a year. But one day, something clicked, and she started tentatively chomping on the leaves hand-picked by her Keepers. The floodgates opened, and now our girl has a voracious appetite for all things green. We hang bundles of greens in her stable each night (much like an upside-down bouquet) and Raha plants herself next to them, waddling round and round as she hoovers up each successive layer.

Raha and Dismas

We often joke that Raha is part tortoise. She is placid, plodding, and deliberate, doing everything at her preferred pace — and not a beat faster! Black rhinos are solitary by nature, and Raha is no exception. She shows no more than a passing interest in Maxwell (the Nursery’s resident blind black rhino) and barely tolerates the elephants. One day, she was feeling particularly punchy and charged at Nyambeni, Shujaa, and Pardamat, all at once. The three elephants bolted back towards their Keepers, surprised by the little rhino’s brazenness.

Chamboi having breakfast

However, there is one elephant who has wormed her way into Raha’s heart: Mzinga is our rhino whisperer. The girls have a very unique friendship. When Mzinga comes across Raha in the forest, she abandons her fellow elephants and spends upwards of an hour in the rhino’s company.

Developing a territory is very important, as Raha will ultimately be reintegrated into the surrounding Nairobi National Park, which is home to a thriving population of black rhinos. She has already mapped out her forest haunts and confidently leads the way to the next destination at the appointed time, be it the mud bath in the morning or the stockades in the evening, squeaking merrily as she marches along.

Raha and Simon

Raha is also beginning to exhibit the most famous of black rhino traits: obstinance. One chilly morning, she was all bundled in her colourful blanket and ready for the day — or so we thought. Instead, Raha stood resolutely in the corner of her stable and refused to budge. Two Keepers whistled, but she just stared at them as if they were complete strangers. Compromise was the only solution. They allowed her to remain in her stable with the door ajar, until she decided it was time to begin the day. Only when she was well and truly ready did she lumber into the forest.

Chamboi at the airstrip

Almost exactly one year after Raha was rescued, another tiny miracle entered our midst. On 6th September 2023, a newborn rhino calf was spotted by a waterhole in the free release rhino range of Tsavo West National Park. His mother was nowhere to be found.

Like Raha, much of Chamboi’s story remains a mystery. He was even younger than her when he was orphaned — a day old, at the very most — and impossibly small. At the time, Tsavo was at the tail end of a drought and conditions were very challenging. Perhaps his mum intentionally abandoned him, knowing that she would struggle to produce ample milk. It is also very possible that he was born premature, especially given his diminutive size, and was unable to nurse. And of course, with rhinos, it is always possible that his mother got into a fight or was targeted by an amorous male, and the baby was abandoned in the fracas.

Chamboi and his favourite blanket

Unlike elephants, black rhinos are not social animals. For this reason, orphaned calves are typically raised by their Keepers as an ‘only child’, mimicking the solitary lives they will lead as adults. Because Chamboi was a rhino of Tsavo, we brought him to our Kaluku Neonate Nursery, which sits in the heart of the Tsavo ecosystem.

Chamboi’s arrival marked a ‘changing of the guard’: Just one week later, Apollo graduated to Rhino Base in Tsavo East. Rescued in 2019, Apollo spent his infancy at Kaluku. Over four years, the squeaking, bobbed nose baby we rescued transformed into a hulking adolescent eager for broader horizons. From Rhino Base, he will continue his reintegration journey and ultimately reclaim his place in the wild.

Raha having a dust bath

And thus, completely by chance, the exit of one rhino coincided with the arrival of another. Mercifully, Chamboi did not struggle in the way Raha did, but it was not all smooth sailing with him. He was orphaned at such a young age that he never had his mother’s colostrum, which always puts calves on the back foot. For a long time, we battled with a litany of stomach issues. Fortunately, he helped himself by feeding with great enthusiasm. Now that he has his molars and is eating greens, he has become exponentially stronger and more energetic.

Chamboi at the termite mound

While Raha is methodical and unperturbable, Chamboi is more animated and flighty. His preferred gait is a skip — he seems to levitate as he races his Keepers through the bush. (This might be a male rhino trait: Apollo was also prone to bursts of energy, which occasionally necessitated aerial searches to track him down. We will be relieved if Chamboi doesn’t adopt this particular pastime!)

Raha suckling

Just as rhinos are known for their obstinance, they also love their routines and rituals. Chamboi embodies this trait with particular fervour. He is obsessed with one particular blanket — a woollen, cherry red number — and flatly refuses to wear anything else. Tsavo can get very hot, but infant rhinos are fragile, much like elephants, and need to be shielded from even the slightest chill in the air.

Siesta time

In February, Chamboi’s flock expanded. During a fixed-wing patrol, our pilot was requested to stop in Asa, a remote village northeast of Tsavo East National Park. He returned to base with two unlikely passengers onboard: a pair of ostrich chicks, who had been orphaned as hatchlings. We named them Bam and Boozle.

Chamboi and his satellites

Bam and Boozle immediately took a shine to Chamboi. He had very little say in the matter; they simply started following him from sunup to sundown! They make an unlikely troupe, the stout rhino and the gangly birds. In typical rhino fashion, Chamboi isn’t overly effusive about his ‘satellites’, as we now call Bam and Boozle, but he certainly accepts their company. They go everywhere together — from the airstrip to the mud bath to the bush and back home again.

Raha making her morning exit

Rhinos and elephants are very different creatures to raise. For elephants, family bonds last a lifetime. This includes our orphans, who continue to visit their Keepers long after they have grown up and reclaimed their place in the wild. When rhinos fly the proverbial nest, they do so in a much more definitive manner. This is part of their genetic make-up; they are solitary, serious creatures. (But with that said, they also never forget the people who raised them. Just last year, we were treated to a visit from Solio, an ex-orphan who is now living wild in Nairobi National Park and a mother of two. The fact that this famously private creature felt comfortable bringing her young back to the Nursery environs was a telling display of trust.)

Chamboi and Boozle

As babies, however, rhinos thrive off nurturing care and companionship. Raha and Chamboi, both orphaned as newborns, never really knew their own mothers. Their Keepers are the only family they have ever known. This is immediately clear when you spend time with them: Raha is glued to her Keepers and self-soothes by suckling their trousers; Chamboi’s favourite place to sleep is by his Keepers’ sides, his eyes closed in bliss as they rub his tummy. Both babies are constantly communicating with a series of squeaks, using an ancient, delightful, and completely improbable language.

Raha having a snack

It will be very interesting to see how Raha and Chamboi’s journeys unfold, given the uniquely young ages at which they were orphaned. But for now — and for the next several years, at least — these enchanting, ornery, mystifying little creatures will remain very much part of the fold. It is a privilege to play a formative role in their upbringing.

Field Notes is a monthly newsletter written by Angela Sheldrick to share a unique perspective into our field projects and the people behind the cause. The email edition includes an interview with a member of the team, which is exclusively available to Field Notes subscribers. To receive the monthly email edition of Field Notes, please sign up here.

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