In Memory of Impi and Gugu who were killed in the raid.
Françoise Malby-Anthony, who founded the Thula Thula game reserve in 1998 with her late husband, the renowned conservationist and internationally bestselling author Lawrence Anthony recalls the awful night that poachers attacked her Rhino orphanage on the 27th of February 2017
THE NIGHT POACHERS ATTACKED A RHINO ORPHANAGE
“Living alone on a vast African game reserve is not for the faint-hearted. And that night, even after 17 years in the wilderness, I felt a strange sense of unease.
It was 2am . White flashes of lightning were lighting up my bedroom. Thunder cracked like gunshots. As I stroked my dog, Gypsy, trying to reassure her, I suddenly realised that the phone was ringing.
‘Hello?’ I mumbled.
‘The orphanage has been hit. They shot two rhinos and attacked the volunteers.’
I sat bolt upright. Hit? Shot? Attacked? I couldn’t process the words.
I’d created the animal orphanage just a year before in order to fill a desperate need. Increasingly, poachers had been targeting adult rhinos for their horns — to sell to the Far East for useless traditional potions.
Any defenceless babies, whose horns had yet to grow, were left to die in the bush. Or if they were found in time, they were brought to my orphanage.
On that very night, I knew that four animal-mad girl volunteers and a permanent carer were providing intensive nursing for six vulnerable baby rhinos and a young hippo.
Panic-stricken, I ran to my general manager’s cottage and banged on the door.
‘Lynda! It’s me! Open up!’ I yelled, shivering in the rain. ‘Poachers at the orphanage. I’ll never manage the roads in this weather. We need your 4×4.’
She saw the horror on my face and asked no questions. ‘Give me five minutes.’ The rain smacked our faces as we sprinted to her car.
We crept along the dirt track leading to the orphanage, struggling to see, not speaking, hearts hammering. What would we find?
The men who slash rhinos’ faces for their horns are utterly barbaric — far beyond the conception of my trusting young volunteers. One wrong move or word, and an agitated lunatic could well have killed the girls.
Slowly, painfully slowly, we struggled through the downpour. As we arrived at the orphanage, one of my anti-poaching guards ran out.
‘What were you thinking, driving here on your own?’ he burst out. ‘The attackers could still be in the reserve! Quick. Get under cover.’
I stared at him. ‘Is anyone hurt?’ I asked. He nodded, grim-faced, and took us inside . . .
Baby rhinos don’t run. They half-bounce, half-fly as they hurtle towards you with an inquisitive look on their soft faces.
Or so I discovered when I first met Thabo, who’d been a terrified newborn when he was found, his umbilical cord still dragging below him in the dust. His mother had almost certainly been killed by poachers, and it was a miracle he’d survived even a day on his own.
Now Thabo was two months old, and had just arrived from a reserve that could no longer keep him. He nestled his snout gently against my leg — and I melted.
I’d just agreed to give him a permanent home on the land that my husband and I had bought in South Africa, intending to turn it into a game reserve that would keep animals safe from poachers.
We called it Thula Thula — Zulu for ‘quiet’. Within a few years, we’d built a game lodge, started taking in paying guests and had adopted an entire herd of wild elephants — though no rhinos.
But that was about to change: as I stroked Thabo, I knew with absolute certainty what needed to happen next. I was going to create a haven where orphaned rhinos could heal after their trauma.
That was back in 2011. By the time I’d raised enough funds and rhino-proofed an existing building, my husband Lawrence had died tragically young of a heart attack.
For a long time after I lost him, I lurched from one crisis to the next, never feeling anything was under control. Even small decisions felt overwhelming at first, but creating the orphanage gave me a focus, a reason to get up every day.
There was so much at stake. If the heating fails in our game lodge, we might get a bad rating on TripAdvisor, but the guests won’t die. A heating failure in the orphanage’s high-care ward, on the other hand, will soon kill a baby rhino.
Our first call came in April 2015. An anti-poaching unit had just found the carcass of an adult female rhino, with her horn hacked off, but no sign of her calf. Would we take it in if they could track it down? By running away, the six-month old calf had at least avoided being butchered for the tiny horn beginning to grow on his head. With rhino horn fetching £68,000 per kilo on the Far Eastern market, the poachers would have killed him for every gram they could get.
By the time Ithuba was traced, it was a week since his mother had died. Heavily sedated when he arrived, he was covered in infected tick bites and close to death. That first night, he was put on a drip and slept peacefully — but the second night was hell.
It was as if he was going through all the trauma of the past week — his mother’s murder, being transported in a clanging trailer and then finding himself in a strange room with two-legged animals who looked just like the ones who’d killed his mother.
The mere sight of his carers sent him careering around his room in panic — and 200 kilos of agitated rhino can do a lot of damage to a pair of human legs. His high-pitched squeals of terror pierced every corner of the orphanage.
Eventually, we persuaded him to drink milk from a bottle. Then colic struck and nightmares. He’d shiver and jerk about in his sleep; on waking, he’d spin around his room in panic, flinging himself against the walls.
‘What Ithuba’s going through isn’t unusual,’ the vet assured us. ‘People think post-traumatic stress is only experienced by humans, but his emotional recovery is going to be far more complicated than his physical recovery.’
It’s heartbreakingly hard to comfort traumatised animals, but our carers did it with infinite patience and affection. Slowly, Ithuba began to understand they weren’t like the people who’d hurt his mother.
I’ll never forget the day when I saw him trotting happily next to Axel, an easygoing young French carer. Ithuba kept bumping into his leg, as if to reassure himself that he wasn’t alone any more.
Another huge step was the revival of his curiosity. Rejecting other toys, Ithuba homed in on anything made out of tyre, including his food bowl which was a home-made tyre contraption. He’d tip it over, throw out the food, fling the bowl about until it started rolling, then run after it. Finally, he’d balance it on his head, preening and strutting like a dressage horse.
BFFs: The two baby rhinos, Thabo and Ntombi, were soon inseparable
Yet for a long time, he also continued to have panic attacks. He’d be playing happily, then he’d suddenly squeal in fright, latch onto a corner of his carer’s sleeve and suckle it — rather like a baby sucks its thumb.
Slowly, however, his insecurity faded — and his appetite exploded. By the time he was nine months old, he’d doubled his weight and turned into a happy little rhino tank who’d soon be starting a new life in the wild.
The next rhino calf delivered to the orphanage had also lost his mother to poachers. He’d stood by his mother’s body for six days, desperately tugging at her decaying teats while vultures tore her flesh. How do you even start to console a little creature who’s been through that?
Megan, a fresh-faced young British girl, remained with Impi for his entire first night as he ran round and round in circles, crying non-stop, too terrified to sleep, desperate to find his mother.
‘I kept talking to him,’ she said. ‘I told him what had happened to him, that he was safe with us, that there was another baby rhino just like him called Ithuba, and that I was sure they would be friends.
‘He eventually came up to stand silently at my knees. He looked so lost. I longed to take him in my arms to comfort him but I didn’t dare move in case I frightened him. Then he collapsed at my feet and fell asleep.’
Within three days, however, little Impi was on the mend. Ravenously hungry, he’d indignantly head-butt his carers if his bottle wasn’t ready when he wanted it.
One morning, Megan was on her hands and knees giving the floor a good scrub when she felt two little eyes boring into her. Impi edged closer and nestled his chin on her shoulder. And there it stayed, as he shuffled along to keep pace with Megan’s movements.
Some calves are boisterous and belligerent, but not Impi. He was a tender little creature who was afraid of everything and hated being left alone.
Like Ithuba, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and unfamiliar sounds — even a bird’s squawk — would send him fleeing, squealing in panic.
Nights were a terrible struggle. No matter how exhausted he was, he didn’t feel safe enough to lie down until a volunteer had started reading him a book. Then he’d quietly nestle on the hay next to her, burrow his head into her legs and fall into the deepest sleep.
Ithuba, meanwhile, wasn’t happy about losing his pampered role as the only rhino at the orphanage — and particularly jealous when he realised that Impi was in his old room. Again and again, he charged the barrier to get in; only the sound of Axel rolling a tyre behind him managed to distract the cross little rhino.
The next orphan to arrive was Thando, who’d been discovered neck-deep in mud and unable to move. There was no sign of his mother.
It took five men to pull Thando out of the mud, and there were whoops of delight when they saw he was strong enough to stand.
The DIFFERENCE in Thando’s behaviour from that of the other two rhinos was startling. Rather than being petrified when he woke up in a strange room surrounded by humans, he was merely stroppy.
Happily, he hadn’t had to witness his mother being hacked to death, nor had he been on his own in the wilderness for nights on end. As a result, he very quickly became one of the orphanage’s most laid-back little rhinos.
Eventually we decided that Impi and Thando should meet, as they were similar ages. So, one overcast summer’s afternoon, we left the doors and barriers to their rooms open at feeding time. The carers hovered out of sight nearby.
Impi, usually such a timid little rhino, immediately charged at Thando, who didn’t so much as blink. Baffled by this non-reaction, Impi skidded to a halt and stared at him.
After a lot of posturing and strutting on both sides, they headed inside and flopped down on a mattress, their stumpy little legs entwined. From then on, they were best friends, constantly cuddling up or practising charging techniques on each other.
Another successful pairing was between Charlie, a baby hippo found alone in a river, terrified of water, and a newborn rhino called Makhosi, abandoned because he was too tiny to reach his mother’s teats. As both were under a week old, we put them in the same room.
Amazingly, Makhosi scampered straight up to the hippo. For his part, Charlie swayed his big head from side to side in greeting and reached his snout towards her.
First, they exchanged interested noisy snuffles. Then Makhosi lowered her head and Charlie gently chomped her ears. Finally, the tiny rhino clambered onto the hippo’s mattress, nuzzled up against him and fell fast asleep.
After that, they trotted everywhere together, demanded to be fed at the same time, and cuddled up whenever they needed warmth or reassurance.
When Charlie’s teeth started to cut through, his gums became sore and inflamed, and he lost his appetite. His rhino friend knew just what to do: she comforted him with gentle nudges, then fell asleep each night with her snout touching his.
Charlie, the baby hippo who was scared of water standing bravely in his paddling pool with pal Makhosi close by
More orphans were now flooding in. Nandi, our first black rhino, was another newborn whose mother had been killed. She was afraid of the dark and wouldn’t go to sleep without a blanket tucked tightly around her.
If it slid off, she squealed until her carer woke up and tucked her back in again. What a little princess!
Then there was Storm, who’d probably been rejected by his mother. He had so many parasites that we almost lost him.
And finally there was Gugu, a healthy rhino calf who wanted nothing to do with her carers. It was her choice to drink from a bucket rather than a bottle — anything to keep humans at bay.
When she first saw Impi and Thando, however, she broke out into high-pitched calls of delight. And as for Ithuba, our original rhino calf, he became the love of her life.
Poor Ithuba was so much older than the others that we had to keep him in a separate enclosure. Undeterred, Gugu would spend hours walking out with her strapping neighbour, each keeping pace with the other on either side of the fence.
By the start of 2016, our baby rhinos were all thriving and protected by round-the-clock security guards. It made no difference.
On the terrible rain-lashed night that poachers attacked the animal orphanage, I arrived to find our terrified girl volunteers huddled together in an office. One of them had only been with us for a few hours, her dream of working with orphaned animals now a savage nightmare.
Slowly, as they sobbed and cried, I started piecing together what had happened.
Just as the team had finished the first evening feed, five heavily armed men had breached the fence, disabling cameras and cutting cables as they crept towards our security guard. Two of them had attacked him from behind and tied him up.
Then they waited, patient predators, biding their time until the next feed. Axel, the only staff member there that night, had gone to bed while the two girls on feeding duty chatted and laughed as they prepared bottles for the hippo and the rhino calves.
Suddenly, they were ambushed by the poachers, and shoved into a locked office. At gunpoint, Axel was roused and forced to round up the rest of the volunteers.
‘Where are the rhino horns?’ the attackers kept asking. Needless to say, we didn’t have any, but Axel was beaten and one of the girls was severely assaulted.
The poachers must have known that Gugu and Impi — now our oldest rhinos at the orphanage — were due to leave soon. And that meant they’d already have stubby little horns.
While three men guarded the youngsters, two others, armed with guns and an axe, headed for the calves. They pumped bullets into Gugu and Impi for horns no bigger than a child’s fist.
Gugu died instantly, sweet Impi didn’t. The poachers didn’t give a damn. They held him down and hacked his face with the axe.
Were they disconcerted by his terrified expression? Superstitions run deep in rural Zululand, where it’s thought that eyes have memories. So the poachers did the unthinkable — they poked out Impi’s eyes.
Half an hour later, the men and their bounty were gone.
Meanwhile, the guard in the storeroom had escaped and was running barefoot through the reserve to raise the alarm. Petrified of being caught, he avoided roads and tore through the bush in the pitch dark, shredding his feet in the process.
To this day, I can’t bear to think about Impi and the anguish of his carers. They’d hand-raised him, and there was nothing they could do to ease his terror and pain.
Impi was euthanised as soon as our vet arrived. The tragedy was that both calves had been days away from becoming wild rhinos again.
The next 24 hours are a blur. I have flashes of memory: the ashen faces of the girls, the explosive racket of the storm, the atrocity of Impi’s injuries, the chaos in my heart.
For a while, I lost faith in mankind. I lost hope in saving rhinos.
Demand for their horns will never stop; they’ll always be in danger, as will the men and women who risk their lives guarding them.
What I do remember with profound gratitude is the phone call from Megan, the British girl who’d helped look after Impi and Gugu. Now back home, she offered to start a campaign to pay for improving the orphanage’s security.
Donations flooded in from all over the world. The outpouring of love and concern was incredible: more than £45,000 was raised.
The cash has paid for more round-the-clock armed guards and extra protection for staff during night feeds. We’ve also upgraded our entire security system.
Update 2/23: Two male suspects have now been arrested for the killing of two baby rhinos and the assault of the staff at Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage, according to SA people. The men are apparently part of a “notorious gang,” and they were heavily armed when police found them.
This true account comes for Françoise’s beautiful book An Elephant In My Kitchen.
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