Stellenbosch University (SU) animal sciences postgraduate student Dakota Guy is trying her level best to formulate a replacement milk for rhinoceros that is as close to the original as possible. The formula milk is to be used to bottle feed abandoned or orphaned rhino calves. The current recipe under development is already proving to be quite valuable, and is being tested at various rhino sanctuaries across the country.
The efforts form part of Guy’s MSc studies in the Department of Animal Science in the SU Faculty of AgriSciences.
Guy says that orphaned rhino calves in South Africa are generally fed a commercial horse milk replacer, or sometimes even a cattle milk replacer.
“It’s hard to believe, but horses and rhinos are related, as they share an ancient relative and therefore have similar digestive systems,” explains Guy, who matriculated from Rustenburg Girls’ High in Cape Town.
Various such horse milk replacers are already on the market. The fine white powder is mixed with water before each feeding. The current horse milk replacers can however be quite expensive per kilogram.
Guy and her associated researchers have therefore been working on developing a replacement rhino milk that is as close to the composition of actual southern white rhino milk as possible. The recipe contains ingredients such as whey powder, vegetable fat, dextrose, sodium caseinate and Biosin. The end result is also a fine white powder, which is mixed with water. So far it seems to be more cost-effective compared to using horse milk replacers.
Guy is currently comparing its use to that of the replacement horse milk, in terms of how well calves grow and how easy it is to digest. Calves in her trial are weighed every week.
Both powder mixtures are manufactured in Oudtshoorn by Nandrea Health Products.
“It’s not the easiest of things to train the animals to in some way step onto a scale and stand still long enough so that appropriate body measures can be taken,” admits Guy. “This can be difficult and stressful, especially in older or temperamental calves.”
A major difficulty was to obtain enough rhino cow milk to analyse. In fact, it took two years before she had collected enough samples so that these could be adequately analysed.
“I first needed to know what its composition was, before we could start working on a replacement recipe,” Guy explains.
She says it is a dream job to work daily with an endangered species.
Milking a placid cow, however, is one thing, but a totally different matter when it comes to rhinoceros. There is also the added worry that when one milks a rhino cow, it might cause so much stress that she rejects her calf.
The team therefore took their chances to collect milk samples whenever a rhino cow with a calf was darted for routine horn trimmings or the likes.
“At such times the calf must be driven away from the mother so that you can work with her. These situations can become dangerous if the calf perhaps decides to return while qualified personnel is at work.”
With the help of other animal orphanages in South Africa, Guy is hoping to enrol even more calves into the trial.
“Ideally, we would like to have 12 – of which half will be fed the replacement foal milk, and the rest the replacement rhino milk.
“Too many rhino cows with calves by their side have been poached in recent years, while other mothers die from natural causes.
Sanctuaries often receive injured, sick or weak calves too, or ones that have been abandoned by their mothers, or were separated from them at some point and cannot be reunited again.”
Newborn calves (which at between 60 and 80 kilograms weigh as much as an adult human) drink 8 to 12 bottles per day, initially at 2 to 3 hour intervals. They can drink between 6 to 6.5 litre at a time. Older ones drink over 20 litre per day. Most start eating solid food by their third month, depending on when their teeth are set, but are only fully weaned by their 16th month.
“Rhino calves cry like babies when they are hungry,” Guy mentions.
Without their mothers, their chances of survival are slim. “Rhino orphanages around South Africa play an important role in saving such calves,” Guy notes.
For the past two years, Guy has been working at two such orphanages – first at Little Rhino Orphanage in the North West, and since late last year at Rockwood Conservation near Kimberley in the Northern Cape. She is very thankful for the support she is receiving from Rockwood owner Wicus Diedericks and his staff. She is thankful for support being received from Stellenbosch University, Nandrea Health Products, Wildlife Nutrition Services, Little Rhino Orphanage, Rockwood Conservation, and the Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary.
This current milk replacer research not only fits well with other milk replacer work with domesticated species like calves and lambs, but also nutrition research with wildlife such as sable antelope currently underway at Stellenbosch University.
“There is still a long road ahead to determine the success of the rhino milk replacer, however, the benefit of this trial for the conservation of the species is priceless,” notes her study leader, Dr Brink van Zyl of the Department of Animal Sciences at Stellenbosch University.
Ms Dakota Guy.jpg
Ms Dakota Guy, busy feeding rhinoceros calves at a sanctuary. The work forms part of her MSc in Animal Sciences research project at Stellenbosch University. Photo: SUPPLIED
Rhino calves that are part of the research project have to be weighed regularly – but to get them to stand on a scale is not the easiest of things. Photo: Dakota Guy
For media purposes only:
Ms Dakota Guy
MSc student in the Department of Animal Sciences
Faculty of Agrisciences
Dr Brink van Zyl:
Department of Animal Sciences
Written by Engela Duvenage, on behalf of the Faculty of AgriSciences, Stellenbosch University