New hope for sav­aged Hope

Pi­o­neer­ing pro­ce­dure car­ried out on fe­male East Cape rhino

The Herald (South Africa) - - NEWS - Devon Koen koend@times­me­dia.co.za

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

Pic­ture: FREDLIN ADRI­AAN

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

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