The Essentials of Wildlife Rehabilitation

By Kai Williams

Wildlife rehabilitators work towards the same goals and try cope with the same challenges the world over in this emerging field. Africa is no different, but with its high mega faunal diversity and more than its fair share of endangered species, wildlife rehabilitation on this continent has an extra gravitas and urgency. Trying to grow and improve on the success of rehabilitation, practitioners in Africa and abroad must work towards acceptable standards of professionalism and network with peers for capacity building.

Two surveys at the opposite ends of the world brought to light telling similarities and distinct differences in the attitudes of wildlife rehabilitators in South Africa and Canada1, 2. Conceptually wildlife rehabilitation is the humane care provided to wildlife in distress with the intent to release them back to the wild. The rehabilitators also serve to educate the public and manage interactions between the animals and people1. Whereas 17% of the aforesaid survey respondents in South Africa felt that the primary goal of wildlife rehabilitation was conservation1, only 11% respondents in Canada mentioned conservation as a goal2. Both surveys showed similar ranking of impediments to wildlife rehabilitation with top concerns being funding, government support, and the attitudes of the public which was more of a concern in South Africa1, 2. Much as regional considerations such as poaching, illegal wildlife trade, public education, and the number of species of conservation concern demonstrate important distinctions in tactics and priorities, the field of wildlife rehabilitation continues to grow as profession towards common goals.


Standards help us achieve success in the rehabilitations goals of welfare and release. Standards and guidelines provide a framework for individuals all over the globe; from the Congo, to Ireland, to Brunei. We are able to follow and build upon the work and research of others, moving forward and not reinventing the wheel. Following protocols in pain management, nutrition, disinfecting enclosures, cage sizing, and enrichment requirements all contribute to the welfare of an individual animal and its likelihood of release.

Standards certainly benefit the health of animals in care but also the well-being of populations beyond the center’s doors. Following standards and protocols allows wildlife rehabilitators to recognize signs of disease and prevent their spread throughout a region. Release criteria ensure that animals are healthy, behaviorally suitable candidates for return to the wild. These standards maintain ecosystem health3 by ensuring diseased animals are not released into an unsuspecting habitat.

A survey done in 20134 found that only 50% of primate rehabilitators used criteria for selection of release sites and assessment of behavior pre-release. The International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has established extensive guidelines for reintroducing great apes including pre-release behavior analysis and site assessment. The International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council (IWRC) in partnership with the National (USA) Wildlife Rehabilitation Association publishes standards for wildlife rehabilitation. While the mammal caging sizes mostly refers to northern hemisphere species, information on euthanasia, disease control, general housing requirements, and avian housing are applicable worldwide. Researchers are creating guidelines for specific species care, such as Amanda Guy’s work on care of vervet monkeys5. Resources are available to support best practices and increase the conservation and welfare success of rehabilitation efforts.

Post release monitoring

 Rehabilitation cannot be deemed a success if animals do not thrive after release. Released animals must behave like their wild conspecifics and reproduce successfully. We can identify the extent to which our rehabilitation process has succeeded by monitoring the animals after release to determine the metrics of success.

Recently released African penguins marked with pink paint for short term post release monitoring and banded as well. Photo credit: Frances Bell.

Africa is home to one of wildlife rehabilitation’s greatest success stories, the African penguin (Spheniscus demersus). From post release monitoring, this vulnerable endemic species has recovered as a result of rehabilitation success6.

Monitoring has also indicated challenges in the rehabilitation process and after. Post release monitoring of rehabilitated leopards and cheetah found that all three tagged cheetahs were killed by humans upon leaving the protected release site7. Clearly successful conservation rehabilitation is not solely dependent on what occurs during the rehab process.


To achieve success, rehabilitators must work with each other and also with colleagues in other professions and with our governments. Related fields offer insights into our practices and procedures: including advances in veterinary medicine, emerging knowledge in conservation science, and challenges faced in species reintroductions. We can use the re-introduction guidelines created by the IUCN, partner with scientists on post release studies, discuss sticky problems with biologists, and work in concert with government to create wildlife protection policies. Each of these potential collaborations brings us closer to our goals.

1.       Wimberger, K., Downs, C. T., & Boyes, R. S. (2010). A survey of wildlife rehabilitation in South Africa: is there a need for improved management? Animal Welfare , 19.

2.       Dubois, S., & Fraser, D. (2003). Conversations with stakeholders, part I: goals, impediments, and relationships in wildlife rehabilitation. Journal of Wildlife Rehabilitation, 26(1), 14–22.

3.       Deem, S. L., Karesh, W. B., & Weisman, W. (2001). Putting Theory into Practice: Wildlife Health in Conservation. Conservation Biology: The Journal of the Society for Conservation Biology, 15(5), 1224–1233.

4.       Guy, A. J., Curnoe, D., & Banks, P. B. (2013). A survey of current mammal rehabilitation and release practices. Biodiversity and Conservation, 22(4), 825–837.

5.       Guy, A. J., & Curnoe, D. (2013). Guidelines for the Rehabilitation and Release of Vervet Monkeys. Primate Conservation: The Newsletter and Journal of the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group, 27(1), 55–63.

6.       Wolfaardt, A. C., Williams, A. J., Underhill, L. G., Crawford, R., & Whittington, P. A. (2009). Review of the rescue, rehabilitation and restoration of oiled seabirds in South Africa, especially African penguins Spheniscus demersus and Cape gannets Morus capensis, 1983–2005. African Journal of Marine Science, 31(1), 31–54.

Houser, AnnMarie, Gusset, Markus, Bragg, Christy J., Boast, Lorraine K., Somers, Michael J. (2011). Pre-release hunting training and post-release monitoring are key components in the rehabilitation of orphaned large felids.

Kai Williams is the Executive Director at International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council (IWRC).