Orphaned Rhino, Pumpkin, Thriving in the Wild

November 30, 2022

Pumpkin is just one of the conservation success stories in Zimbabwe

Washington, DC – Pumpkin, a critically endangered black rhino, was rescued as a young calf wounded by poachers, but two years later has recovered and is thriving in Zimbabwe’s Bubye Valley Conservancy.

In July 2020 on a routine patrol, monitors from IRF’s partner, the Lowveld Rhino Trust (LRT), noticed a young black rhino calf that appeared to be injured, wandering in the bush of the Bubye Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe.

Approximately 16 months old, the female calf had been orphaned after her mother was killed by poachers. It was apparent that her leg had been injured, but the severity of the wound was unclear. Acting quickly, LRT organized her capture and flew a veterinarian down from Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.

The team immobilized the calf to assess and treat her wounds; she had been shot with a heavy caliber rifle and her injuries were severe. After the vet cleaned her wounds and administered antibiotics to help fight infection, LRT staff took her to specially constructed rhino bomas where she could recover in safety away from lions and hyenas. Once settled in her new, temporary home, the LRT staff affectionately named her “Pumpkin.”

“Once [rhino orphans] have been captured and moved into the hand raising pens, the first thing is to get them to eat,” said Nina Fascione, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation (IRF). “If they are very young this means getting them to drink milk from a bottle, which can be a bit of a challenge because they are afraid of people and want to fight them. If they are older, they are normally easy to feed with browse and lucerne (hay). Luckily black rhinos calm down in pens quite quickly. They learn fast what time their bottles come and are always there at the right time.”

After six weeks of daily care, LRT staff decided it was time to release Pumpkin back into the wild. During her stay in the boma she had received night visits from a wild rhino named Rocky, a former orphan as well. In the mornings, monitors would see his spoor where he had been circling her enclosure. Just a few weeks ago, the monitoring team spotted Rocky and Pumpkin together, both healthy and thriving in the wild.

“Spunk is what kept her going,” said Fascione. “Other animals would have laid down and died with that sort of injury.”

It’s been a difficult year for rhinos. After a temporary lull in poaching due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, criminal networks quickly adapted to the new environment, with poaching rates and trade volume increasing again this year. Large, organized crime groups, who see wildlife trafficking as low-risk, high-reward crime, became even more involved in rhino horn trade during the pandemic, monopolizing key networks and moving higher volumes of horn.

But there’s been good news too. Despite the difficulties posed by daily life in Zimbabwe – including soaring costs for food and fuel – dedicated conservationists continue to persevere in protecting the country’s rhinos, with great success. In January, Zimbabwe reported new rhino population estimates: 614 black and 415 white rhinos. This is the first time that Zimbabwe has surpassed 1,000 rhinos in over three decades.

“We congratulate Zimbabwe on the successes this year,” said Fascione. “On behalf of IRF, we are thankful to all the men and women working to protect, monitor and rescue rhinos like Pumpkin.”