Hanging on to Hope: White rhino gets facial reconstruction surgery

By Karin Brulliard

Eighty to 120 rhinos that are attacked each year in South Africa survive, but often with hideous injuries. Photo / via YouTube
Eighty to 120 rhinos that are attacked each year in South Africa survive, but often with hideous injuries. Photo / via YouTube

The white rhino was left to die last spring.

Poachers had entered the reserve in South Africa's Eastern Cape province, sedated the female with a dart tranquilizer, and hacked off her horns and part of the skull under them. When the reserve's owners found the rhino days later, news reports said, the gruesome hole in her face was riddled with maggots. But she was alive.

Last week, the rhino - who has since been dubbed Hope - underwent facial reconstruction surgery intended to close up that wound. It was the sixth major surgery she has had since her horns were cut off, according to the Independent Online, and it's unclear whether it will work.

The recent procedure was performed - and livestreamed - by veterinarians in northeastern South Africa, where Hope was taken in last year by a wildlife rehabilitation organization that, given the thriving black market for rhino horn, probably has far too much work on its hands. It is called Saving the Survivors, and it focuses on caring for rhinoceroses wounded by poachers, who last year killed 1,175 of the animals in South Africa.

The groups says 80 to 120 rhinos that are attacked each year survive, but often with hideous injuries.

"There is no manual on how to deal with the kinds of wounds that we are seeing on poached rhino," Gerhard Steenkamp, one of the veterinarians who heads the organisation, said in a blog post on the group's website.

"What we are learning every day will allow us to try to ensure the continuation of this iconic species that are being killed for something that has no medical benefit to humans."

Hope has become the emblem of the rhino survivors, but not always a star patient. She has removed the plates that veterinarians previously drilled into her skull to cover the wound, by rubbing them against her enclosure. Nevertheless, Johan Marais, the veterinarian who founded Saving the Survivors, told reporters before the surgery last week that 60 per cent of her injury had healed, though it remained a major hole that exposed her sinuses, as seen in this video (which is not for the weak of stomach).

The veterinarians used elasticized cords that were imported from Canada and are typically used in human stomach surgeries. They are supposed to pull the skin on both sides of the rhino's wound together without breaking it, sort of like shoelaces, Marais told reporters. The wound was then wrapped in bandages and blue tape.

"It is the first time this has ever been done on an animal, let alone a rhino," Marais said, according to Anadolu Agency.

"Two weeks will tell. If she just doesn't rip it off. . .The biggest challenge with Hope so far is not to put the dressing on her but to keep them on, as she keeps ripping them off," Marais said.

On Tuesday, one week after the procedure, Saving the Survivors said on its Facebook page that the rhino hadn't yet tried to remove the cords or bandages. And, the group reported, a bit of horn "the size of a fried egg" has grown back. The group said it does not expect much more horn to regenerate - rhinoceros horns can re-grow, but rarely if part of the skull is removed - but still said veterinarians were "gobsmacked."

- Washington Post

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