In the wild, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see a rhino cosying up to a hippo (in fact, we doubt any animal could enjoy an interspecies relationship with these toothy herbivores: exhibit A), but for this two-day-old rhino calf, a bit of comfort from a fellow grey-skinned compadre seemed to be just what was needed.

Nicknamed "Makhosi", the tiny rhino was rescued recently and taken in by South Africa’s Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage. Born underweight, the youngster was found in a weakened state in a wildlife reserve near the small town of Pongola. The calf's unusually small size made it impossible for her to feed or fend for herself, so rehabilitation specialist Karen Trendler and a team from Thula Thula rushed to the scene to help.

“After observing the calf and mom carefully, [the wildlife vet] realised that the calf was so tiny and weak that it ... wouldn't survive the night,"  Trendler writes in a Facebook update. "The calf has very low birth weight and size, possibly due to drought or a placental problem with the mom – fortunately she is ok and still in the wild.”

The Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage was established to deal with one of the tragic consequences of South Africa's rhino poaching scourge: the growing number of orphaned calves in need of care. Although we're all familiar with the scale and brutality of the poaching crisis, not many people beyond the country's borders are aware of the plight of its tiniest victims. Mostly too small to matter to the poachers, dozens of young rhino calves are being left behind as their mothers are killed for their horns.

And while Makhosi's story is a little different, and her mother is alive and well, it's unlikely that the newborn calf would have survived had Trendler and her team not intervened. 

"It wasn't a decision taken lightly and our vet observed the calf for a long time before deciding to intervene," she states in a Facebook comment. "The weight loss and deterioration in condition of the calf over 24 hours was dramatic. The calf would not have survived the night. Apparently the mother was already starting to lose interest in the calf and only made a very half-hearted attempt to go to it. It is most likely that given the circumstances she would have abandoned it."

The distressed calf did not take immediately to her new surroundings at the orphanage, which is when Trendler took a chance and decided to team her up with a rescued hippo named Charlie. "They struck an instant bond ... they have become inseparable," says Trendler.

Charlie was admitted to the orphanage earlier this month after he was abandoned by his pod. Initially very weak, he has responded well to intensive nursing and seems to be on track for a full recovery.

Baby Hippo Karen Trendler 2016 05 19
Photo © Trevor Kolk/Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage

It's likely that staff at the orphanage will ensure both calves are socialised with individuals from the same species in future – but for now, Charlie and Makhosi seem to be benefiting from each other's comfort and companionship.