Saving a poached rhino

2015-08-15 14:19
Saving the Survivors, headed by Dr Johan Marais (front right), treat iThemba the poached pregnant white rhino cow.

Saving the Survivors, headed by Dr Johan Marais (front right), treat iThemba the poached pregnant white rhino cow. (Susan Scott)

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ITHEMBA, the pregnant white rhino cow who was shot last week, is the first of her kind to be operated on using the innovative method of covering her wound with elephant hide.

iThemba was believed to have been strolling the grounds of the park last Monday with her five-year-old bull calf when poachers shot the two, hacking off their front horns with an axe before making an escape.

The bull calf was found dead on Tuesday. However, iThemba, who is pregnant, was found on Wednesday morning, clinging to life, with a deep, gaping wound where her front horn used to be.

Zululand wildlife vet Dr Mike Toft said the poachers had cut so deeply into the horn with an axe that they had “taken a lot of the bone underneath the horn” with them, which made the job of healing iThemba “challenging”.

Vet Dr Johan Marais of Saving the Survivors — a rhino project to help rhinos that have been victims of poaching or dramatic incidents — said he has operated on rhinos with similar injuries, but due to the deep wound and loss of bone, he knew the standard treatment of screwing a fibre-glass cap onto the wound would not work.

“We had to come up with a material that was light, pliable and strong, and we found that elephant hide might work to cover the wound.

“It is still trial and error, and we have spoken to many people about different methods and materials to help treat these horrific wounds.

“It is very challenging and we are still in the beginning stages but the wound heals quicker when it is closed up and to leave it open would be cruel.”

Toft said the hide had come from a taxidermist and was fairly easy to get hold of.

“She is wild and will be difficult to monitor, but given time she should be fully healed after a year to 18 months.”

Toft said that as a Zululand wildlife vet, he has performed many post-mortems on poached rhinos so to be able to operate on a rhino to save her life was “wonderful”.

Mahlalela Park shareholder Mark Dedekind said iThemba appeared to be doing “well” after the operation and was fortunate that Saving the Survivors and Toft were on board to save her.

“It will be a long road to recovery but we will get there.

“In three weeks we will take some blood samples to see if she is still pregnant but should she have her calf, we have decided to call her or him Nhlanhla, which means ‘lucky’.

DR Mike Toft explained how he and Dr Johan Marais attached the elephant hide.

“With other surviving rhinos who have had their horns removed, we are able to screw on a fibre-glass cover to the wounded area, but in this case they had taken a lot of the bone away so we were not able to use the fibre-glass cap.”

Toft said Marais suggested that elephant hide would work well to cover the wound as it healed. “First we cleaned all the dead tissue, flushed out all the maggots that had started eating the dead tissue and freshened it up as best we could,” said Toft.

“Multi-resistant bacteria is a huge problem and although we would like to treat the animal every three days, it puts the animal at risk so we are able to treat them only once a month.”

Toft said they applied medical grade honey, typically used on burn victims, on iThemba’s wounds to draw out the resistant bacteria.

“Once the honey had been applied, we added a thin anti-bacterial fibre that has healing properties and turns into a gel.” He said a thin layer of foam was then placed on top of the fibre and then the elephant hide was stitched into place.

“It is the first time we have used elephant hide and it will be interesting to see how it works.”

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  rhino

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