Rhino Rescue: The Dream Team Saving the Animals Poachers Leave Behind

Led by a veterinarian in South Africa, surgeons from around the world have come together to fight rhino poaching.

rhino poaching
Richard Conniff is the author of 'The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth' and other books.

In the middle of a war on rhinos, it’s easy to get desensitized by endless photographs of horribly butchered corpses. South Africa alone has already lost 428 animals so far this year. Their horns have been hacked off with chainsaws and machetes to supply the traditional Chinese medicine trade. But what happens when an animal survives the butchery?

Will Fowlds, a 42-year-old veterinarian, was living at Amakhala Game Reserve outside Port Elizabeth, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, when he got the call in February 2011. Poachers had attacked a rhino on a neighboring reserve. After a moment, the owner of the reserve added, “William, he’s still alive.”

When Fowlds arrived at the scene, the owner simply pointed him into the bush. He’d already seen too much. Fowlds found the rhino propped up on three legs, with his mouth pushed into the ground as a kind of crutch. His left front leg was crippled, from having been caught under his own massive weight after the poachers’ tranquilizer knocked him out. His face was hacked open, with loose flesh hanging off either side. Blood bubbled in the exposed nasal passages.

This stirred up anger and despair and regret and shame more than anything I had ever experienced.The rhino saw Fowlds and stumbled toward him. There was nothing aggressive or threatening about it, remarkably, “for an animal that had been hacked to pieces by things that smelled like me.” As the two of them faced each other, at a distance of 15 meters, Fowlds told himself that he ought by now to be professionally hardened to the sight of animals mutilated by poachers. But “this stirred up anger and despair and regret and shame more than anything I had ever experienced,” he later wrote. In an interview with TakePart, he added that the animal, a young male, seemed to be looking for “comfort of some description, some sort of relief. If he were a human, he’d have been asking me to end it.”

Fowlds knew immediately that he would never again be able to think about rhino poaching in quite the same way, with the same sense of clinical distance, and that led to a decision that still haunts him: He asked the owner of the reserve for permission to keep the animal alive long enough for a camera crew to record the suffering, so the rest of the world could see what he was seeing.

It took three hours, and during that time Fowlds learned that this rhino was no stranger. He had been born six years earlier at Amakhala, the reserve where Fowlds resided, and had been transferred to form a new rhino population—the standard conservation practice by which, in the decades before the current rhino poaching crisis, South Africa built up the largest remaining rhino population in the world. At Amakhala, they had named this animal Geza, “the naughty one,” for his habit of challenging older rhinos, then scooting back to safety at his mother’s side.

As they waited, Fowlds phoned other veterinarians for advice. But they mostly felt as helpless as he did. Then, when the camera crews had recorded the poachers’ bloody work, Fowlds injected Geza with tranquilizer to make a final assessment of the injuries. It was of course hopeless. Fowlds asked one of the reserve staff to fire the bullet. In the final moments, he covered the rhino’s eyes with his hands so Geza would not have to witness his own death.

For Fowlds, that was the beginning of what has become an international effort to rescue and rehabilitate poaching survivors. The video drew volunteers from around the world: Facial surgeons and plastic surgeons trained to work on humans now also treat butchered rhinos. And at the O’Bleness Memorial Hospital in Athens, Ohio, researchers ran a 256-pound frozen white rhino head through a CAT scanner to help the volunteer surgeons visualize how the understructure of an intact rhino’s face is supposed to look. A financial company agreed to sponsor a project led by Fowlds and now known as the Investec Rhino Lifeline.

So far, the Lifeline has treated just eight cases. It has been, by Fowld’s own description, a difficult learning curve, with a mixed record of success. Rhinos are difficult, curious, often combative animals. The collective name is a “crash” of rhinos, but they can be trouble enough even solo. Moreover, treatment takes place in the wild, because the stress of captivity would be overwhelming.

The best results so far have been with rhinos that have suffered bullet wounds, but escaped with their horns intact. It’s always more complicated for animals that have been overdosed with tranquilizers, according to Fowlds. In one case, he was called back to the same reserve where Geza had died, to treat two more rhinos butchered the same way, and probably by the same poachers. Themba, the male, seemed to recover. But a hind leg that had been trapped beneath his own weight developed “compartmental syndrome,” cut off from the rest of the body so that blood tests failed to alert the medical team as the muscle there was becoming necrotic. Themba died after 24 days.

Thandi, the female in that case, is still alive a year later. Facial injuries that had been big enough for Fowlds to put his entire hand in “healed magnificently,” seemingly without a scar. But then, this past April, a rhino bull once again damaged Thandi’s face “through fairly normal rhino social behavior, because they’re quite rough animals.” So the team is now investigating how to repair the understructure of the face more permanently and whether skin grafts could yield more durable healing.

Is all this incredible effort worth it for the rhinos? Is it worth it for the medical workers? “For us, it’s far easier to just put them to sleep, I can promise you,” said Fowlds. “So there’s always the temptation to end it all. Because you’re the one that has to carry the burden of the animal’s suffering. But what keeps me going is the response I see from them. I see this incredible will to survive. Some of them have absolutely horrific injuries and yet they keep going. They really fight.” They’re fighting for their own lives. But what makes it worthwhile to Fowlds is that they are also fighting for their species.

“We know we’re not going to save a species by saving two or three or four of these animals every six months or so,” said Fowlds. But statistics don’t save animals either. The escalating death toll—448 rhinos in South Africa murdered by poachers in 2011, 668 in 2012—has done nothing to discourage further rhino poaching. Neither have photographs of dead rhinos, because there will be another two or three dead rhinos to be photographed tomorrow. “But there’s an enormous power in surviving,” said Fowlds. “The ones that survive can tell the story of poaching better than any dead animal. People want to know how they’re doing out there. They want to know if they’re still alive. They want to know from me whether I think they’re in a lot of pain, whether I think they’re stressed.”

For a veterinarian, this is a Faustian bargain, and Fowlds still clearly struggles with the idea that he may at times prolong the suffering of an individual animal in the interest of the larger cause. “But the power of survivors is that they keep people plugged into a horrific, brutal, greedy system which we find difficult to comprehend.”

With persistence, the story of these survivors may perhaps eventually touch the only people who can actually end the rhino poaching crisis: the buyers in China and other nations whose irrational faith in a medical myth has now driven the price of rhino horn to $30,000 a pound.

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