photo Courtesy of Helena Kriel
Helena Kriel works with a baby rhino who has been orphaned by poaching and is being rehabilitated at the Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary in South Africa.
Topanga residents Helena Kriel and David Walker, Co-Founders of Baby Rhino Rescue, a non-profit organization headquartered in Topanga, have recently become members of Topangaâs Chamber of Commerce and will be hosting a Topanga Chamber evening mixer on Thursday, May 26, at their home where they will screen a short video on their work in South Africa. Helena and David are both writers and have great stories to share.
âDo you want to volunteer at a wildlife sanctuary. Itâs near the Kruger.â
My sister talking. Kruger National Park: South Africaâs Big 5 Game Reserve, as big as Israel. Close to Kruger National Park. That means wild animals.
âYes!â I am categorical.
I have just finished another draft of the book Iâm writing. Iâm brain dead. And tired of the screen. An adventure is called for. And Iâm an animal lover. So, wild animals? Yes, please.
We head off. Directions are cryptic, like following code: head north, pass Nelspruit, when you cross the river outside of town, there will be a small rough road. Take it.
We do. Four hours of driving. The rough road is, well, rough. Not another abode. Or a light. Weâre in the true middle of nowhere. We bounce along the stony ground and get to a gate. Plastered across are stickers with a hybrid animal: part hippo, part rhino.
âItâs a rhino scene,â my sister says. Rhinos. On planet earth for 55 million years and being poached now to the edge of extinction for a demand in the Far East that posits the horn cures things: Headaches. Erectile dysfunction. Early cancer. Indigestion. Apparently this horn, made of hair, is an all-round cure. Of course, it isnât. Demand gets more odious. Rhino horn is Status Symbol Number One in Vietnam. Like a diamond. Or a Porsche. The lure of a status symbol is a difficult one to break.
Iâve had a sadness around the whole rhino situation. Like...Why? So much suffering. For what?
We continue bouncing along the road âtil we get to the outside pens, and inside are gray shapes. Rhinos.
We are told when we exit the car that the owner of the sanctuary is with âa sick baby, black rhino.â
We wait, kept at bay by barking dogs. Volunteers are on the run, super busy. She finally materializes from a barn, blonde hair to the waist, trim, fit, good looking, cargo pants, bomber boots.
âIf youâre animal activists youâre not welcome here,â she says,
This is Petronel Niewoudt. And sheâs not to be tampered with.
I manage to stammer, âIâm not an activist, I just love animals, and want to help.â
An hour later I have a bottle of milk in a young rhinoâs mouth. I have a rhino eye contemplating me from a happy milk daze as she suctions the milk dry. And I come to learn that rhinos squeak!
The rhino in the milk daze is Skylar. âAs soon as youâre finished feeding, get your hands away, fast!â the coordinator says. âShe hates humans and will break your hand.â
I get my hands away. I donât want any broken bones.
But hates humans? That intrigues me. Is there a way around her hatred? I ask to bottle feed Skylar each feed and quietly make contact with her. I murmur to her. I see she regards me. After a week of this, I put my hand on her head. She doesnât break it.
âSkylarâs turned the corner,â the volunteer coordinator reports to Petronel, who has her attention on other matters. A new orphan has come in. He watched his motherâs brutal poaching. He drank her blood to stay alive. Heâs strong and heâs in a state of emotional rage. He smashes his wooden crate into smithereens. But worst of all, heâs not drinking milk. This means he will die.
âWe need silence around the night pen where he is now,â Petronel instructs. âNot a radio. Not a word. Do you get me?â
I manage to venture: âI meditate. Might that help? If I sit outside his night pen?â
Petronel regards me. âNothing to lose,â she says. âLetâs try it. Meet me at the night pen after breakfast.â
I rush through breakfast. She doesât show up. So, I close my eyes, sitting on stone steps and meditate. For three hours. I try and access the traumatized creature behind the wooden door. I was told by an animal communicator to work through the heart. So I do that. I open my heart. And talk through my heart. Miraculously the young rhino takes the milk bottle at the next feed.
Petronel shows up. Finally. And she takes me in to see him. We sit on the straw, the traumatized young rhino between us. His under carriage is black with ticks.
âWe have to get these off him,â she says. We pick thousands of ticks. They are on his genitals too. I pluck ticks off his penis and testicles. That I am taking ticks off a rhinoâs penis strikes me as wonderful and insane. I am put in charge of five baby rhinos. At the end of the three weeks I am fundamentally changed. I know I have to help. Somehow.
This is the beginning of action of another sort. I launch Baby Rhino Rescue and with two trusted co-founders, we get going. That was 2015. And now in 2022 we work with five partners on the ground in South Africa: sanctuaries, game reserves, private rhino owners, and wildlife vets. Weâve erected strongholds, funded milk and meds and cameras and guards and guns and dogs and horses and an entire guard village.
Our mission statement? âWorking together to save rhinos from extinction.â Our notion is that everyone can do something, no matter how small.
The question: Can we stand by and allow an ancient creature, a true climate warrior to just disappear? Clearly not. What remains endlessly fascinating is the extent to which the organization is funded and run by Americans. Even though most last saw a rhino in the zoo as a child, they care. We are working together. And our headquarters is in Topanga Canyon!
The truth is humans can be so destructive but when we work together, there is nothing we canât accomplish. Please reach out to us. Weâd love to hear from you.
Helena Kriel is the author of âMeditating with Rhinos,â and âThe Year of Facing Fire: A Memoir.â For more information: Helenakriel77@gmail.com; babyrhinorescue.org; (310) 403-7289.