Not many college students would forgo summer break to work up to 12 hours at a stretch, six days a week, all hours of the day and night. Even fewer would likely leave home and travel to the other side of the planet to do so.
Then again, 21-year-old Alana Russell could never have foreseen what would transpire when she signed on for a trip to the South African bush. Heading into her senior year at UConn, Russell had enrolled in coursework that required a three-week summertime visit to Entabeni Game Reserve, where she and her classmates would learn about field ecology and wildlife conservation.
"It's something I've always wanted to do," Russell said about visiting Africa. "You see it in the media, in books, in movies, and it's something you can never grasp until you come here."
Several days into the trip, a local expert recounted for the students devastating stories about rhinoceros poaching — today among the world's most profitable illicit trades, surpassed only by the illegal drugs and weapons trades, according to the U.S. State Department. Horns continue to be prized in certain cultures for their ornamental and alleged medicinal uses, as well as monetary value. On today's black market, 1 kilogram of rhino horn is literally worth its weight in gold, fetching up to $60,000, as recently cited by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Russell recalled a gruesome photograph, passed around the classroom, depicting a rhino found by an anti-poaching unit. The victim's horns had been hacked off, and its calf stood helplessly alongside the mother's mutilated body.
"That picture of the mom that had been poached and the calf standing there — It just got to me, and I thought, 'Wow, I wish I could do something about that,'" Russell said.
According to South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs, 448 rhino poachings occurred in South Africa alone last year, and another 381 as of this September — not counting the many baby rhinos left for dead by their mother's side. Until recently, anti-poaching units resorted to shooting orphaned calves, having no facilities available to care properly for these creatures. This summer, however, that changed. The world's first dedicated baby rhino orphanage was established in South Africa, with the goal of rehabilitating orphaned rhinos before ultimately releasing them back into the wild.
The orphanage's first resident, a 2-month-old black rhino calf, was found after having subsisted on sand in the Kalahari Desert for roughly two weeks. With the rhino in need of 24-hour care, orphanage founders turned to nearby Entabeni for help. As luck would have it, the professor accompanying Russell on the UConn trip got word of the request — and knew Russell would be perfect for the job.
Before she knew it, Russell was abandoning her ecology class and emailing home: She'd be staying in Africa for the rest of the summer — to be a mother.
Russell threw herself into the task, one of five devoted caretakers who tirelessly bottle-fed, played with, and slept alongside the rhino for up to 12 hours a day.
"To sum it up, I am Mom," Russell said this past August while in South Africa. "I eat, sleep, and breathe rhino. In the wild, the babies are with their mom for up to two years. [The mother] does everything; they don't leave her side."
Rambunctious and spirited, the rhino orphan played 'tag' with his caretakers. He nuzzled an astonishingly velvet-soft snout against their palms, his curled lips searching for fingers to suckle. He gave watery-eyed, sidelong glances as he munched acacia branches. Eventually, he would lie down with a sigh of satisfaction, resting his head on a caretaker's lap, and await a tender stroke to his face.
Although Russell swiftly came to adore the exuberant, affectionate calf, she knows his fate and that of his kind remains uncertain. Numbers vary, but estimates compiled by such organizations as the International Union for Conservation of Nature and World Wildlife Fund state that poaching has slashed the black rhino population from about 65,000 in 1970 to between 4,000 and 5,000 today — a decline of more than 90 percent.
Russell also fears that people are not likely to think of rhinos — given their immense size, bovine-like appearance, and fairly impassive expressions — as particularly endearing, smart, or worse — not worth fighting for.
Most will never see the rhino cavorting at the orphanage, which is closed to the public for fear of inadvertently giving access to poachers. Still, the ultimate goal endures: to return him to the wild. Plans are to place him in gradually larger enclosures with less human contact and, it is hoped, more time with fellow rhinos. Whether the effort will succeed has yet to be seen.
No matter what happens, Russell is quick to acknowledge the immense impact that her visit to Africa, and one baby rhino, has made on her life.
"To come here has changed me in every which way," she said, this summer. "I've matured. I live for another being now. I don't live for myself. It's ironic because I came here to help him, but — and it sounds cliché — he has helped me. I have a whole new perspective on life. I have a found a direction for myself."
Visit facebook.com/TheRhinoOrphanage or follow on Twitter @RhinoOrphanage to learn more or to contribute toward the orphanage's care of its first resident rhino, recently given the name Manqoba – meaning “the one who conquers in hopeless situations” in Zulu. Profits from the sale of bracelets created by the Rhino Force, found at www.rhinoforce.co.za, also support rhino conservation efforts.