LONELY HEART: Dani, an abandoned white rhino calf, grazes as a school tour lines up.
LONELY HEART: Dani, an abandoned white rhino calf, grazes as a school tour lines up.
Yum yum: A curious nyala raiding the dassie feeding pen. Pictures: Evan Milton
Yum yum: A curious nyala raiding the dassie feeding pen. Pictures: Evan Milton

Polokwane - The flickering glow coming from behind the reinforced fence is odd. More so, since it’s almost midnight and that’s the enclosure housing Dani, an abandoned 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 bitter-sweet moment, sad and beautiful. Beautiful because Dani 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 20 hours each day. The glow is from a laptop. Adult humans require less sleep than baby rhinos.

It’s sad because Dani is double endangered – as a member of Ceratotherium simum, the white or square-lipped rhinoceros, and because she was born prematurely and abandoned by her mother. Fortunately, she was found and brought to Moholoholo’s caring surrogate parents, who will look after 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 reached 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 people close to glorious creatures like Dani, where they can learn to value them and agree to long-term policies for the 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 just flicks a lazy ear and leans closer to her surrogate mom.

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 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 – woman 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, hyena 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 South Africa, pointing to the corruption fuelling the rhino crisis as proof. Is he a cynic or a realist? Asked what he’d do if he were 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 to 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 a gentleness that no human could match.”

So, how is this a travel article? Moholoholo (it means “the very great one”) is an hour’s drive from the Kruger National Park’s Orpen Gate, within a comfortable distance from 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, among other animals.

But the rehabilitation centre is a unique way to broaden your sense of African wildlife. Two tours a day cater for local and foreign visitors – and separate school groups. Visitors can see – and often interact with – lions, leopards, cheetahs, rhinos, wild dogs, servals, Bataleur and other eagles, Lappet-faced, Cape and White-necked vultures and the young being cared for.

In October, these included three cheetah cubs, a bushpig, a selection of owls, black and white rhino calves and an 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’ll experience the business of sweeping, mopping and raking. 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?”

l See more on Moholoholo.co.za, or contact 015 795 5236 or [email protected]

Daily tours of the rehabilitation centre run Monday to Saturday, and last about two hours (9.30am and 3pm; adults R110; pensioners R80; children (7 to 12) R50, under 6 free.

Closed on Sundays except for long weekends and Limpopo school holidays – one tour at 3pm). - Weekend Argus