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Tatenda – The orphaned baby rhino

As many followers of Imire’s fortunes will know, Imire experienced its own tragedy in 2007, when three of their adult black rhino were shot one night, plus an almost full-term baby which died along with its mother. Tatenda was just six weeks old when his mother was killed and his story was subsequently told in the Animal Planet documentary “There’s a Rhino in my House”.

I recently chatted to Judy Travers, the owner of Imire, about the terrible incident and learnt a few things which, in nearly three years of working with Imire, I hadn’t really fully appreciated. I asked Judy, who has a passion which is so rare these days, to write about her feelings and thoughts during and after the rhinos were killed and how they all got through that horrific, heart breaking time.

Here is her story.

“We will never forget the dreadful night of the 7th November 2007, the night when we lost our breeding herd of beloved black rhino to the greed and inhumanity of merciless poachers. With just five bullets, three adult rhino and an unborn calf were dead within minutes. What made it even more incomprehensible was that the rhinos had all been dehorned just six weeks earlier by the Wildlife Unit of Zimbabwe under Doctor Chris Foggin – to prevent such a tragedy happening.

“All our rhino are dead”

I remember that panicked phone call at 8.30pm from our son, Reilly, whose vehicle arriving on the scene had frightened the poachers into the maize field behind the rhino boma. His voice screamed down the phone line, “Dad, all our rhino are dead!” Our immediate reaction was utter disbelief. This couldn’t be happening to us; it couldn’t be our beloved DJ with her six week old baby, Tatenda; Amber with her unborn calf due any day and Sprinter the father and gentleman of his herd. Not our rhino that we had brought up for nearly 20 years, who between them had given us 11 calves. Not our rhino who had flourished together, living side by side – once an adorable, vulnerable bundle of orphans who had come from Ruckomechi in the Zambezi valley in 1987, whose mothers had been poached for their horns and their babes left to die. Now they too were the victims – how cruel, 20 years later, to see another generation of black rhino killed for the greed of man. During that time, it seems that no lessons had been learnt.

When we arrived at the rhino boma’s (the pens where the rhino slept overnight, guarded by their devoted handlers), we were met by the families of the elephant and rhino handlers, all terrified, some crying; wide-eyed, bare-foot children clinging to their mothers. Our handlers were anxious to know what was left of their beloved rhino, too frightened of what they would find to check for themselves. The small community of Imire staff who lived by the rhino pens had been threatened by poachers armed with automatic weapons. Some staff and their families were tied up whilst the poachers stole their firearms and radios. We knew immediately that this was a highly organized gang – they had made no mistakes, they knew exactly what they were doing. They were slick in their despicable action and were highly professional, skilled marksmen. There had been no hesitation in their actions and the whole event had been extremely well-planned.

A sight that will haunt me forever

Our car head lights shone into the pens. What we saw was so horrific, it remains a nightmare to this day, still almost too upsetting to think about. Sprinter lay in a pool of blood in the far boma with his horn hacked off and his head defaced. Amber, our darling Amber, with two bullet holes in her side, also dead. We then moved to DJ’s pen, the mother of baby Tatenda. She loved her baby, she was such a brilliant Mum and now she too was a victim.

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But where was Tatenda, born on the 16th September, just six weeks earlier? No, surely they couldn’t have shot the baby too? The massacre was surely enough without taking him as well? Where was this little playful boy? We had wanted to call him Tumba, which means, in Shona “to play”, as he loved to play with us and all the animals around him, but decided on Tatenda, which means simply, “thank you”. His mother trusted us to handle him, she knew we would never ever harm him, but where was he?

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Suddenly, from under a pile of hay shot this little chap smothered in his mother’s blood. He was simply terrified, close to death through shock, his little body shaking. He was so small and now, so alone. His little call was feeble and pleading for his mum to come to his side as she always did. DJ was a perfect Mum and now she was dead. His confusion and helplessness brought the terrible tragedy home to us all with a hard smack.

Who were these ruthless, cruel and greedy people? How could they do this to these innocent creatures, which had been part of our lives for two decades. For 20 years we had loved, cherished and nurtured our original seven rhino calves, fed them four-hourly bottles day and night for their first 6 months on Imire and then continued to bottle feed them for five years. These rhinos had been part of our everyday lives, we had taken over the role of their mothers, they were our children, we were given the privilege of being their caretakers and now we had failed them as human beings. How could we have let this happen?

Where there’s life there’s hope

The feeling of gratitude at finding Tatenda was overwhelming. This is why he was called Tatenda, suddenly it all made sense. Where there is life there is hope, there is a future, a gene pool to continue. We had to keep going, we couldn’t give up on Tatenda, and we couldn’t go and curl up in bed and pretend it never happened. Instinctively we knew that Tatenda had to have a new Mum and that Mum was to be all of us – we were never to leave his side and with that in mind, we tried to take over DJ’s role.

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I will never forget that first night. We made ourselves a small enclosure which, when filled with hay bales, was snug and warm. Of course we didn’t sleep and neither did Tatenda; no-one did for miles around – the bush telegraph in Africa well known and the villages were noisy with whispers and voices discussing the dreadful fate and brutal massacre of our beloved rhino.
So there he was, this little creature with his high-pitched call for his mother; a sound which reminds me of a dolphins call. I would answer him each and every time. The call became part of my communication with Tatenda, I would hear it in my head even if he wasn’t calling. We knew it would take time, patience and trust – I decided never to leave Tatenda’s side until he had built up this bond with his new Mum. He would not accept a bottle until he had built up this trust and to feed him was vital if he were to survive.

Sleeping with the rhino

I lived with Tatenda up at the rhino pens for a month, nestled into the hay bales during the day and night, never leaving his side except for the ‘necessaries’. He would head-butt me, lean on me, stand over me and, with annoying regularity and especially at night when I was curled up in my sleeping bag, wee on me. He was a restless soul, never still for long, clearly experiencing the confusion and grief of a child who has lost its mother.
We understood his loneliness. The entire farm and the community surrounding Imire felt the loss of the rhino. We now understood Chief Seattle’s famous words:
“What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of the spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected”
The entire farm felt this deep loneliness, an empty space had enveloped us all and we couldn’t shake it off. What had happened was unforgettable and unforgivable.

Tatenda the international celebrity

Thanks to the bush telegraph, Tatenda and Imire’s story rocketed around the world. We were headlines in all the foreign newspapers. People called, visited, emailed and wrote to us from every country imaginable to pass on their respects for the new loss of this already endangered species and to offer help to Tatenda.

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Johnny Rodrigues from the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (www.zctfofficialsite.org) was and has been a pillar of strength. He made sure there was a constant milk supply for our little chap. We soon felt that we had support that we weren’t on our own looking after Tatenda. His survival was so heart-warming, he soon built up a huge fan club and his endearing little face struck a chord in the hearts of so many people. It was truly remarkable. An African who had a humble job, heard of Tatenda’s plight and sent a 25kg bag of milk by bus from a dark corner of South Africa. It made its way across the border and all the way by carrier to another dark corner, Wedza – in the heart of Zimbabwe.
Every thought, donation and prayer we received went some way to restoring our faith in humanity.
It didn’t take Tatenda long to learn where the milk supply came from and slowly he gathered his strength and trust in his new family. We had plenty of visitors to his pen, a constant stream of chickens, bantams and chicks – a source of entertainment as they fought noisily for the odd game cube and leftover. At night came the rats and occasionally the owls. Wild warthog loved the pens and now they too were curious, playing dare with Tatenda and his “Mum’s”. It was an incredible period where time seemed to stand still – it was our time, Tatenda’s time; everything else was forgotten or put on hold, all there was to do was to be with Tatenda. We owed it to him.

Tatenda comes home

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As he gathered trust and strength, so we prepared for the next move. We walked Tatenda through the game park to our home, some 8km away, across the tar road on the other side of Imire. It was a leisurely journey, him seeking, browsing and having the odd lie down, us drinking lots of water and joining him for rests, until eventually he reached his new home.
Bed this time was a grandmother’s feather bed in an old stable in the garden, but this time he had more than just one bedside companion – there were two dogs, a warthog named Poggle and Tsotsi the hyperactive hyena. We all slept with him, taking turns between his handlers and ourselves. Soon our home became his home, the kitchen was his tuck shop, and the breakfast table was a place to receive the odd piece of pawpaw, toast and honey. Our bedroom was a snuggle place, a play pen, a place to mark his territory and enjoy. How it stank, but we didn’t mind, we had a rhino beside us.
During the day, Tatenda would go out with his handler, accompanied as always by his new chums, Pogs and Tsotsi. They would wander, this odd threesome through the game park, browsing, having mud baths, resting and enjoying being part of nature – with no cages, no lockups, just the safety of their handler, coming home every four hours for feed and bottles.
I cherish this time with such deep love. Who in the world has the privilege of being a Mum to a rhino calf for 2 years, being part and parcel of their every need?
With the love and support of friends, conservationists and those with big hearts, Tatenda’s journey in life continues. Today he is a happy young adult black rhino in his 6th year, still with that curious inquisitive face, still with a gentle disposition and beautiful soul and is the most adored animal on Imire.”

Originally posted at imirevolunteers.org