The Reality of Wildlife Conservation and Rehabilitation

A visit to Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Center

A lot of places in South Africa claim to support conservation of wildlife. You can play with baby lions under the guise of a conservation program, when in fact the animals are meeting their fate at the end of a hunter’s rifle. So I was so pleased with our visit to Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, where our guide explained with great honesty the good, bad and the ugly of wildlife conservation in South Africa.

Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center is located in the small town of Kampersrus, at the base of the Drakensburg Mountains, a half hour drive from Hoedspruit. It was established in 1991, originally to protect the “Magnificent Seven” raptor species in the area. However it soon became clear there was a need to care for and rehabilitate more species than birds. The center has expanded to care for a variety of mammals which arrive after being caught in snares, struck by vehicles, shot or poisoned. 

Many of the animals are treated and released back into private game reserves. The center is not allowed to release animals into the nearby Kruger National Park, due to the threat of disrupting the territories that have already been established their by the various species. Those animals that are not able to be released due to the extent of their injuries, or the imprinting of humans on their behaviour, remain at the center to act as ambassadors in the education of the many visitors and school children who come to see them.

One of the big threats to mammals in the Hoedspruit area is snaring. Local people rig wire traps in the bush, which the animals put a foot or their head through. As the animal attempts to move away, the wire tightens around them. They face a slow painful death as the wire sinks into their flesh as they struggle. The center has received numerous leopards and lions who have met this fate. Some were able to be treated and eventually released, others sadly were too injured to survive, or were euthanized rather than subject them to the stress of a life in captivity. 

Stoffel the honey badger is the most famous resident at Moholoholo. You can find out why by watching this episode of the PBS series Nature, which features this amazing little animal. 

The center has been working with surrounding farmers and villages to offer an alternative to snaring or shooting large cats that are killing their livestock. The locals will now call the staff at Moholoholo to come to trap and remove the cats, so they can be relocated away from human settlements.

Rhino poaching is sadly an enormous problem in South Africa right now. I have been shocked to see the decline in rhinos in the Kruger Park in the 10+ years that I have been visiting. This year alone, there have been more than 700 rhinos killed in Kruger Park, as the demand for their horns in Asia seems never ending. Moholoholo has be instrumental in taking in wounded or orphaned rhinos who have become victims of poachers.

Moholoholo was originally established to protect the many raptor species that are in the area. Its location at the foot of the mountains makes it ideal for these large birds, which often nest there after spending the day searching for food on the surrounding plains. Poachers often poison vultures, to prevent the birds from flocking to a fresh rhino kill, thus drawing the attention of the anti-poaching units. Vultures are also poisoned so that their body parts can be used as a source of traditional treatments. Moholoholo provides a fresh carcass every afternoon, so vultures can be drawn to the center, at which time the staff can tag and count the birds. The health of the local vulture population can therefore be monitored.

The center offers tours twice daily, at 9:30 and 15:00. We started our tour with an informative and entertaining talk about the center and its work. This was followed by the opportunity to get close to a cheetah which had been at the center since it was a baby, and several vultures, which were also permanent residents. Other raptors and mammals, including lions, leopards and a very entertaining honey badger where viewed from the other side of a fence.

Our excellent guide, Oscar, was incredibly knowledgeable and entertaining. He was straight-forward and realistic as to what he felt that wildlife rehabilitation centers could accomplish. I really appreciated the honesty that he brought to the tour and his passion for wildlife.

I learned a lot during the two hour tour and now have a better understanding of what can and cannot be accomplished through centers like Moholoholo. Human beings continue to be a threat to African wildlife through habitat loss, poaching or driving. We can provide some relief through centers such as Moholoholo, but ultimately we need to learn to share this planet better with our fellow creatures.