We visit Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC) in Mpumalanga to find out what part they are playing in saving some of the most magnificent and threatened species on the planet.
It’s a balmy evening in mid November, making it officially summertime. The sky is orange, cut through with streaks of stratus. As we haul our bags out the boot of the car, we hear the ‘thwack, thwack’ of an approaching helicopter that appears to be heading straight towards us. Our game ranger leads us up the wooden stairs to Khula’s cottage, privately situated on HESC’s 2,000-hectare grounds, which lies within the Kapama Private Game Reserve near Kruger National Park. No sooner has she handed us the keys to the impressive stilted accommodation, when a call on her walkie-talkie hurries her away for some emergency. It’s only the next morning that we discover how urgent the emergency was.
An orphaned rhino, estimated to be about seven months old, had been rescued in a critical condition on a nearby reserve. The helicopter we heard was airlifting the rhino to HESC to receive treatment and rehabilitation. In what was believed to be a hyena attack, the desperate creature was found abandoned with severe injuries to his hindquarter. Most of his tail had been chewed off, giving rise to his affectionate nickname: Stompie. In obvious pain, Stompie spent his first night sleeping with his hindquarter in the air in HESC’s custom-built rhino enclosure. Resident vet Dr. Peter Rogers was called in to perform reconstructive surgery and, today, Stompie has made a full recovery.
Stompie’s story is not an isolated incident. Another orphan, Balu arrived a few days later. At just two weeks old, he weighed a mere 54kgs, and was severely dehydrated. Unlike Stompie, whose mother was found dead after sustaining horrific injuries from poachers hacking off her horn, it was never determined exactly how Balu had been separated from his mother. Rhino wean their young between 15 to 18 months, so both babies would not have been able to survive in the wild alone. HESC provides these abandoned orphans 24-hour care and security, hand feeding them six bottles of formula per day, and rehabilitating them so that they can be successfully reintroduced back onto a wildlife reserve.
In 2014, another two rhino orphans, Gertjie and Matimba, were rescued by HESC after both their mothers were poached for their horn. At just one year old, Gertjie played a big part in five month old Matimba’s rehabilitation. Today, both rhinos are inseparable and form an unlikely trio with Lammie, the sheep who acts as a surrogate mother to orphaned animals. With the global poaching crisis reaching an all-time high, HESC has expanded its rhino facility and launched a new security initiative called Eyes on Rhinos – a live video stream from the rhino’s bedroom. It is this ongoing work that makes organisations like HESC vital for the survival of the most vulnerable and endangered species.
For the price, Khula’s Cottage exceeds all expectations. After our 3am start, we’re more than a little travel weary, and we plan to just shower and crash. But we discover a complimentary bottle of Amarula – a creamy liqueur made from the fruit of the African Marula tree – and decide to enjoy a drink in the eclectically decorated lounge area with just rustic poles to separate us from the singing bushveld surrounding us. Khula’s Cottage features two separate en-suite bedrooms and an outdoor boma where one can BBQ literally within the wild outdoors. We snack on some nuts and biltong as we lounge in our robes – another amazing touch which we find hanging on warthog tusk hooks in the bathroom. When we finally turn in, the comfortable beds and humming wilderness drags us into a deep sleep almost immediately.
In the morning, we have to leave Khula’s cottage all too soon. We pack up and head to the centre for our 9am tour of the endangered species on the reserve. We’re both caught off guard when we’re escorted to a game-viewing vehicle for the tour instead of what we thought would be on foot in the actual enclosures. Justin has the wrong lens and he’s fuming. I try and compensate with my little Canon, which takes some decent pictures but lacks the depth of field of his professional Nikon. The first images I capture are taken through the fenced enclosure housing a rather scraggly looking lion and lioness. Our ranger tells us their sad story: Sarah and Caesar performed in a circus in Portugal. Sarah bears the scars of human abuse on her back in the form of whip marks and Caesar’s skull is not properly formed from lack of proper nutrition. Old and arthritic, they are fiercely protective over each other, and live out their days in far happier circumstances.
Our next port of call is a giant aviary where we meet a pair of southern ground hornbill, one of the most endangered birds in Africa. While the female roosts at the back of the aviary, the bombastic male struts up and down along the front of the enclosure displaying a twig in his red-fringed beak like a trophy. In addition to being part of the bird’s mating ritual, this behaviour also garners attention – which he apparently thrives on. His noticeable limp is another attempt to get attention; various vets have checked his leg in the past, but none have been able to find anything wrong. When a camera was installed, footage showed him limping when the vehicle was there, then walking completely evenly as soon as it departed. I was amazed by the cleverness of this entertaining and endangered bird.
It’s when we drive right into the cheetah enclosure, housing six males including one king cheetah, that Justin starts blowing smoke from his ears at not having the right lens. With their elastic bodies, slender limbs and black tear marks down their beautiful faces, cheetah are his favourite cat. Heads held erect like royalty, they pose regally for us, some lying elegantly with forearms crossed like housecats, some sitting up like domesticated dogs. Cheetah are the only animals in their genus, Acinonyx, a unique hybrid between both cat and dog. The king cheetah, an even more endangered species, stretches languidly in downward dog position before sharpening his non-retractable claws on a tree. His spots are so close together, most of his back is a swath of silky black stripes, resembling the plushest velvet. But it’s this eye-catching coat that makes the king cheetah even more endangered: the dark colouring is more visible to predators and more likely to overheat when reaching top speeds.
At the turn of the century, 100,000 cheetah roamed across the plains of Africa – excluding the central tropics – into parts of Central Asia and the Middle East. Today, they are found in only about 15 African countries and are extinct elsewhere, except for a small population of about 100 animals in Iran. The total number of cheetah left in the wild is even more staggering.
From 100,000, it is estimated that only 10,000 cheetah remain with one-tenth of this number in captivity. Over the past 20 years, the population has decreased by an alarming 30%, making them Africa’s most endangered cat.
We’ve timed our tour perfectly. The cheetah get very animated as soon as they spot a familiar white pick-up truck driving up to their enclosure. They are fed three times a week and the cats race up and down the enclosure with their soaring stride at the thought of food. In just three seconds, cheetah can reach speeds of over 110km per hour (68 miles per hour) and at full pace, one stride is 7 metres long, making them the fastest land animals on the planet. This incredible velocity gives them a huge advantage in catching their prey, so why are they so endangered? These speed merchants need large expanses of land with suitable prey, water and vegetation to provide cover. Loss of habitat from land degradation and fragmentation has played one of the biggest roles in the cat’s demise.
The group is fed in bowls like domesticated dogs and they wolf down their food, paws outstretched protectively either side of their dishes. Canines flash but their compact jaws are not particularly threatening; growls are exchanged but they often end in a high-pitched whine. Pitted against leopard, lion and hyena, cheetah are dainty and defenceless – and that is why the species are at risk from these bigger territorial cats who view them as competition for the same food. Cheetah cub mortality can be as high as 90% as particularly lion smell them out and kill them, while their mothers watch helplessly, unable to defend their young.
Because cheetah are threatened by these bigger cat species, a large majority of them live outside protected reserves on farmlands where they come into conflict with humans. And, because they hunt during the day, they are seen more than other nocturnal predators, making them the number one target for farmers who want to protect their livestock. The cheetah’s mild-mannered instincts and beautiful spotted coats make them popular as exotic pets. Going back thousands of years to the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, Italian nobility and Indian princes, the world’s rich and royal have kept cheetah in captivity. Today, there is still a high demand for the cats as pets and illegal trafficking kills one in six cubs smuggled.
We’re so engaged watching the cheetah devour their food that we hadn’t noticed what had silently appeared in the enclosure behind us. It was only when a couple of the cats turned and leapt at the fence, snarling and snapping, that we see the distinctive parabolic ears and mottled coats of the most endangered of all the canids: the African wild dog. They stand in pack formation, barking back at the cats who are taunting them, brazened by the sturdy fence that separates them. I’ve only seen wild dogs once before on Shamwari Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape where they dig out their dens in the banks of the Bushmans River. With only an estimated 3,000 to 5,500 wild dogs in existence today, I didn’t realise at the time – a good 15 years ago – what a rare and privileged sighting it was.
With their patchwork coats of tawny yellow, white and black, the wild dog is also known as the painted wolf. But unlike the more aggressive and often solitary wolf, these pack animals are highly social and their survival is dependent on working together as a team. If one individual is injured, the rest of the pack will hunt and feed it to ensure its survival. Together, they are the most successful hunters of all the carnivores, taking turns in chasing their prey until the exhausted animal is too tired to run any more. Again, one would think that they would thrive in the wild, but like cheetah, they also require vast tracks of land to tire their prey out – a wild dog averages over 12 miles a day as it hunts. In addition to land fragmentation and habitat loss, crossing paths with humans and our roads, which cut through their habitat, is one of the main reasons why they are so endangered.
On our way back to the centre, we visit a few smaller enclosures housing a menagerie of intriguing animals. For Justin, the one that stands out from the crowd is the karakul. Originally unwanted house pets, these sphinx-like felines with their long-tufted ears made their way to HESC. The female was deemed too dependent on humans to survive on her own, but the younger male had a chance of being rehabilitated back into the wild. When the timing was right, he was released. But instead of indulging in his newfound freedom, he returned to his enclosure and refused to leave the female’s side. Eventually, he was placed back into the enclosure so that he could be close to his sweetheart.
Back at the centre, Justin retrieves his long lens from the car and we get a drink from the coffee shop: double espresso for Justin and earl grey tea for me. I melt at the adorable baby owls nesting in a tree near the entrance and whistle and cluck for the African Grey parrot, which tilts his head before replying. Afterwards, we wander onto a circular island, completely surrounded by another cheetah enclosure. Here, Justin is finally placated by managing to capture his favourite cats on his Nikon as they play and perform – and even pose in a tree for him. Our visit ends on a high as we discuss the great things HESC are doing to save the rare and beautiful animals we’ve seen that morning. And we make a pact that we’re going to play our part in helping their plight too.