For a holiday break with a difference, try volunteering at Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation centre: you’ll tickle a leopard, help feed a baby rhino, fly a vulture, play with honey-badgers and porcupines and, yes, spend four or five hours a day scrubbing cages and preparing day-old chicks for hungry patients.
It’s odd, the flickering glow coming from behind the reinforced fence. More so, since it’s almost midnight and that’s the enclosure housing Dani, an orphaned white rhino. Suspicious, in these dangerous times for the threatened ungulates. So: torch off; allow eyes to adjust to the dark; and approach. It’s a bittersweet moment, sad and beautiful at the same time. Beautiful because Dani is more than fine – the calf is blissfully happy as she snuggles her 250kg self to the source of the glow, a Moholoholo centre volunteer designated “rhino mom”, who keeps the little beast company for up to twenty hours each day.
The glow is a laptop – adult humans require less sleep than baby rhinos. It’s sad, of course, because Dani is double endangered – first, as a member of Ceratotherium Simum, the white or square-lipped rhinoceros and, secondly, since she was born prematurely and abandoned by her biological mother. Fortunately, she was found and brought to Moholoholo’s caring surrogate parents, who will care for her until she’s mature enough to fend for herself. Being so used to humans, though, Dani will be comfortable with nuzzling when she’s a fully grown 1 700kg. She can never truly be returned to the wild. A massive grazer, armoured and armed as white rhinos are, would have little to fear from predators other than man and, being female, she’d have less territorial trouble than a male. But a fully-grown rhinoceros playing “bump” with tourists cars or farmers’ trucks would be a “problem animal”, and problem animals get shot.
Therein lies another beauty and sadness of wildlife rehabilitation. Beautifully, they keep alive creatures who would otherwise starve, or be killed. They are invaluable centres for conserving biodiversity and for bringing humans close to glorious creatures like Dani, learning to value them, and agree to long-term policies for protection of wild animals and their habitats. Sadly, they are a constant reminder about how human development – as it paves forests, reroutes rivers, puts up fences and sets traps and poison for “pests” – causes grave imbalances in the wild. These are concerns for Dani’s future, though. For now, she’s just flicks a lazy ear and leans closer to her surrogate mom.
“I would not compromise on poaching cases – not by having heavier penalties, but giving maximum penalties in each and every case”– Brian Jones, Moholoholo founder and manager
Moholoholo is managed and run by Brian Jones, who founded it in 1991 with property owner and mining magnate Johan Strijdom. Jones is straight-talker. He’ll look you in the eye and tell you part of Moholoholo’s job is to cure bleeding-heart “bunny huggers” of misconceptions about real nature conservation. He’ll bend your ear with tales of close calls in the bush, and display scars to illustrate the efficacy of beaks, claws and jaws. Then he’ll break off to croon to a displaced animal being nursed and, wherever possible, reintroduced to an appropriate habitat. He is cut from the moral cloth of an older time – female staff are expected to wear long skirts and no alcohol is permitted on the premises – but his skill with beasts and birds is admired by all, as is his ability to keep the centre thriving through the vagaries of funding, rising medical costs and changes in policy and legislation. He has successfully translocated and released leopard, rhino, hyenas and countless birds; runs the only successful breeding programme for serval cats; and often drives with a tame cheetah at his side.
Jones has a dire view of conservation in contemporary South Africa’s, pointing to the corruption fuelling the rhino crisis as proof. Is he a cynic, or a realist? Asked what he’d do if he made president for a day, he answers simply: “I would allow indigenous people to benefit from mammals like buffalo and elephant for their meat; also for firewood and thatching-grass from game reserves. I would not compromise on poaching cases – not by having heavier penalties, but giving maximum penalties in each and every case.”
There’s a softer side too. Rare and endangered animals come in and out of the centre. Before he built it, his lounge played nursery tp bottle-fed rhino and hippo calves. Fully grown lions still purr at his approach. But does any one creature hold his heart? “Queen, my Crowned Eagle has a special place with me,” he says. “Such a majestic bird, its power and strength is awesome, yet it can feed its chick with such gentleness that no human could match. She even adopted a hawk and Walberg’s Eagle feeding them ever so gently, as if they were her own. It is amazing to watch.”
So, how is this a travel feature? Moholoholo (it means “the very great one”) is an hour’s drive from the Kruger National Park’s Orpen Gate, within a comfortable drive of Pilgrim’s Rest, Sabie Sabie, Blyde River Canyon and the Bourke’s Luck Potholes. It comprises two game lodges (Forest Camp and Mountain View) and a reserve with giraffe, nyala and hippos, amongst other thing. The rehabilitation centre, though, is the truly unique way to broaden your sense of African wildlife. Two tours per day cater for local and foreign visitors – and separate school groups. Visitors can see – and often interact with – lion, leopard, cheetah, rhinoceros, wild dogs, servals, Bataleur and other eagles, lappet-face, Cape and white-neck vultures and the baby animals being cared for at the time. In October 2012, this included three cheetah cubs, a bushpig, a selection of owls, black and white rhino calves and an achingly affectionate porcupine pup named Yster.
For the more adventurous – and those who don’t mind a bit of grime before breakfast – taking a stint as a student volunteer is an experience like no other. There’s no fine print, because the gunky stuff is right there in bold: “Note that volunteer work does not consist of the solely interesting side of rehabilitation work. Our volunteers will be required to clean enclosures, scrub bedding mats, cut grass…” And you will. You will scrub and you will scrape; you will experience the business end of broom, mop and rake. You will learn the difference between the white cleaning buckets and the black cleaning buckets (muse on that for a moment). You will discover, up close, the difference between eagle castings and vulture pellets, and reflect on the digestive differences in birds. But you will hear life changing phrases like, “Walk over there and distract the lioness”. Or, with less terror, “Who wants to help walk the cheetah cubs?” and “Want to feed the hippos?”