New hope for savaged Hope
Pioneering procedure carried out on female East Cape rhino
GROUNDBREAKING surgery to save the life of a victim of rhino-horn poaching amazed a group of American students who witnessed the nearly three-hour procedure. Three expert veterinary surgeons worked meticulously to clean out and close up a gaping wound on the face of a four-year-old female white rhino, Hope, and fit a shield on Friday.
Hope was attacked by poachers on a game farm near Jeffreys Bay earlier this year and miraculously survived.
Renowned Amakhala Game Reserve veterinary surgeon Dr William Fowlds – who works closely with the Saving the Survivors organisation – said the procedure to cover Hope’s wound was a success, although traumatising and emotional.
“No one is trained to do this type of procedure – it is all pioneering work,” Fowlds said.
The poachers not only hacked off Hope’s horn but a substantial part of bone and flesh as well.
“Approximately 15% of her skull – 7.5cm to 10cm – of skin, tissue and bone was removed from below the horn,” Fowlds said.
At the Shamwari Wildlife Centre, where the surgery was completed, Fowlds said it seemed Hope was awake during the attack. Typically, poachers dart their targets.
“Possibly she was conscious for the poachers to preserve the horn and that’s why they hacked so deeply,” Fowlds said.
University of Pretoria senior veterinary lecturer Dr Gerhard Steenkamp, co-founder of Saving the Survivors, said although it was the fifth time a procedure had been carried out on Hope, this time it was a fresh approach and he was still optimistic about her recovery.
“In the past the shield was very rigid, so increasing the likelihood of her pulling it off. This is the first time she is getting some more flexibility.”
Steenkamp said the three-hour procedure was uncharted territory and required a six-hour recovery period.
The procedure, which included removing necrotic (rotting) tissue and placing a dressing and plastic shield over the massive hole left by the poachers, required seven stainless steel screws to be drilled into the skull. Thick surgical wire was used to secure the shield to the animal’s face.
Dr Johan Marais, equine and wildlife surgeon at the University of Pretoria’s Onderstepoort veterinary science faculty, was also part of the team.
He said this type of surgery was important because “there is nobody looking after the survivors”.
Marais said after more than 1 200 rhinos were killed last year, there was still no real effort to bring animals which survive back to health.
“There is no true solution to the problem, especially after seeing a 9 000% increase in rhino poaching over the years,” Marais said.
Fowlds said Hope had been found four days after the attack.
“It is the most mutilated [rhino] I have seen, but also the strongest,” he said.
After the gruelling procedure witnessed by more than 50 people, Fowlds said although the suffering experienced by the rhino was enormous, Hope was safe and awake. “It looks like she came through it OK,” Fowlds said.
Steenkamp said if Hope did not pull off the shield herself as she had done with previous ones, the vets would re-evaluate the situation in roughly six weeks’ time.
Visiting students from the Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort Worth, who are on a study programme, witnessed the procedure as part of a geo-political learning programme hosted by their institution.
Professor Michael Slattery said he believed his students found the experience “overwhelming”.
“Talking academically [in a classroom] is one thing, but it is very different in the field,” Slattery said.
Student Ellen Hall, from St Louis, said it was amazing to see South Africa and that knowing more about the plight of rhinos was life-changing.
Hall said it was incredible to watch the procedure on Hope but also “heartbreaking to see the brutality humans are capable of”.
The TCU students will be presenting proposals for funding projects to help save the rhino.
‘ It is the most mutilated [rhino] I have seen, but also the strongest
HEALING HANDS: Shamwari ranger Bruce Main, left, assists Dr William Fowlds, centre, and Dr Gerhard Steenkamp as they perform an operation on Hope, the female rhino which was so badly mutilated by poachers that she has had to undergo several rounds of surgery, including a groundbreaking technique carried out last week