Every rhino counts. Never before has this phrase been more relevant than to that of the story of Thandi, the first ever rhino to survive a poaching incident.
Thandi is a female white rhino living in the Kariega Game Reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. She survived a very brutal poaching attack in March 2012 and now roams the bush with her growing family, her scarred face minus its horn a symbol to the world of her heroic status. Ten years on, we take stock of her incredible legacy, of the sheer determination she had to live and the inspiration she has given to so many people throughout the world.
Her story began on the 2nd of March 2012 when she and two other male white rhinos were targeted by poachers. Using dart guns and machetes, they brutally attacked the rhino, taking their horns and leaving them for dead.
Luckily the rhino were spotted early by a security patrol and an amazing team of vets and rangers swooped in to their rescue. Sadly, one of the male rhino was already dead and the other male, Themba, fought bravely for another three weeks before finally passing away. This left Thandi who, much to the surprise of everyone involved, was showing significant signs of improvement.
Thandi’s recovery was a long process involving pioneering skin grafts to her face, led by wildlife vet Dr William Fowlds. For two whole years she stoically endured many operations and procedures, with most of her recovery done in the wild, the best place for a rhino to be. Her story became known around the world and inspired many to raise money and contribute towards conservation, in particular for rhinos.
Then the unbelievable happened. During routine blood tests after her final facial procedure, it was revealed that Thandi was pregnant with her first calf. Following a gestation period of 16 months, she gave birth to a female calf in January 2015. The calf was called Thembi meaning ‘hope’ in isiXhosa. It was incredible to think that a rhino who had been so brutally attacked could not only survive but go on to be a mother and contribute to keeping this remarkable species alive.
But that was only the beginning of Thandi’s incredible story. Fast forward to January 2017 and Thandi was spotted with a new calf, a male who was named Colin in memory of Colin Rushmere, the founder of Kariega Game Reserve who passed away just days before the birth of Thandi's latest calf.
Thandi has turned out to be a miracle Mum twice more since then, having gone on to have another male calf, Mthetho in April 2019. Mthetho, whose name means ‘justice’ in isiXhosa, came at exactly the same time as three notorious rhino poachers were sent to prison for their roles in poaching in the Eastern Cape area. In fact, it is highly likely they were the very same ones who attacked Thandi. Then in January 2021, Siya, a male calf, was born. Siya is named after The Springboks Rugby Union World Cup winning captain Siya Kolisi.
In late 2020, Thandi became a grandmother when Thembi gave birth to a male calf, named Umkhosi, which means ‘Warrior’ in the local Xhosa language – a strong and resilient name we hope will put him in good stead for the future. His name was chosen by the winners of the Helping Rhinos ‘Name a Baby Rhino’ Prize Draw. This Prize Draw was one of many fund-raising efforts needed as a result of the world-wide lockdowns during the COVID pandemic. With all tourism virtually halted, many Reserves and National Parks in Africa struggled to cover the costs of their essential security and anti-poaching units.
Thandi’s incredible fighting strength and miraculous recovery against all the odds, still continues to inspire people. As the first rhino ever to survive a poaching attack, she has encouraged many people from around the world to get involved in rhino conservation. But not only that, Thandi has given us the opportunity to speak about and show the brutality of poaching.
Alongside her scarred face, is the growing family she produced. One which she would not have been able to have had she died in March 2012. Most poaching incidents do not have the happy ending Thandi’s did. In most circumstances, the rhino is completely mutilated and dies a very painful death, alone in the wilderness. Thandi’s survival from this potential horrific death, gave conservationists the chance to show people what is happening to rhinos and other wildlife the world over.
The names of Thandi and her calves are symbolic of love, courage, hope, victory of the people and justice and are a reminder that we must remain resolute and vigilant in our commitment to the protection and preservation of all rhinos. Every rhino counts and we must do all we can to ensure that they have a sustainable future. By saving Thandi, not just one rhino was saved. This incredible animal has helped increase the rhino population by five, and no doubt this rhino family will continue to grow. Every new-born calf must be celebrated as a conservational success.
And finally, on a more personal level, her survival against all odds has made her an icon for what it takes to overcome life against enormous adversity. This is something we can all learn from.
“We go to extra lengths to protect every single rhino on this Reserve and to play our part to help rhino globally. We face insurmountable odds and yet Thandi has shown me personally that if you are willing to persevere and fight every day there can be amazing joy and success.”
Director, The Kariega Foundation
KEEPING THANDI AND HER PRECIOUS FAMILY SAFE
Thandi’s calves are thriving out there in the wild. This is a wonderful success story amidst the constant threat of poaching. Which is why we need to be constantly vigilant in our approach to protecting rhinos. The relaxing of travel restrictions has opened up poaching and smuggling opportunities once more. Rhino populations have been drastically reduced over the last ten years and are not able to sustain pressure from poaching and it becomes even more imperative that action must be taken to protect every single rhino.
You can help keep Thandi and her family safe by adopting Thandi and adopting her son Mthetho. Through your adoptions, you will enable us to roll out conservation and education programmes in the areas surrounding Kariega Game Reserve, reducing the likelihood of community members turning to poaching. You will be helping with:
What happened to Thandi should never happen again.
“March the 2nd 2012 is a day that I will never forget for the rest of my life…My very first impression was that this animal (Thandi) has got no chance…The fact that we can celebrate her life ten years after someone tried to take it, is phenomenal. The contribution and the response and the success we can show during these ten years is amazing. I am full of inspiration and admiration for Thandi.”
Dr William Fowlds
THE FUTURE FOR THANDI AND ALL RHINO IN SOUTH AFRICA
Thandi’s survival has inspired many people throughout the world to look at ways in which this species and other endangered wildlife can be saved. It has allowed for innovative ideas in conservation, from looking at habitat expansion, the formation of landscapes to accelerated rewilding.
Building on a decade of active rhino conservation across Africa, Helping Rhinos is working closely with organisations, like the Kariega Foundation, to not only provide support for urgent anti-poaching measures but looking at ways to create and sustain healthy ecosystems and strong biodiversity for rhino through the creation of Rhino Strongholds.
Rhino Strongholds are areas that provide the best possible security to reduce the risk of poaching and are large enough to allow the rhino to demonstrate natural behaviours, including migration between territories and genetically diverse breeding, without the need for hands on intervention by humans. The goal is to expand wild spaces by working with local communities to restore degraded land and create wildlife corridors. These wild spaces will have a rich biodiversity and a healthy ecosystem that benefits a wide variety of both flora and fauna species. The areas will have scope to increase in size through the restoration of degraded habitat and the dropping of fences between already established wildlife areas.
Local communities will be integral to the success of Rhino Strongholds, which will provide employment opportunities and engage local people in wildlife conservation through education programmes and initiatives that improve livelihoods. You can find out more about our Rhino Strongholds initiative and the work currently underway here.