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South Africa: vets struggle to treat hurt rhinos

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 19, 2013 at 7:49 am •  Published: January 19, 2013

"In a small clearing enclosed by bush, stood an animal, hardly recognizable as a rhino. His profile completely changed by the absence of those iconic horns attributed to no other species," Fowlds wrote in an emotional account. "More nauseating than that, the skull and soft tissue trauma extended down into the remnants of his face, through the outer layer of bones, to expose the underlying nasal passages."

After consultations, he euthanized Geza with a dart containing an overdose of anesthetics.

Phila, the rhino that recently left the Johannesburg Zoo, was shot a total of nine times on two separate occasions and suffered injuries to her sinus cavity, nose and shoulder area, and she lost hearing in her right ear, according to veterinarians. Despite the heavy injuries, Phila escaped from poachers in both attacks.

Although some bullet fragments could not be removed, she recovered after six months of treatment with antibiotics, as well as a medicinal spray and fly repellent for her wounds. It took another year and a half before her handlers settled on a location in the wild where they thought she would be safe from poachers.

Still, Phila's departure from the zoo was conducted without publicity because of fears that poachers might infiltrate the zoo or hijack the vehicle transporting her to a game reserve. There are reports of poachers offering more than $1,000 just for a tip about where to find a rhino.

In November 2011, the University of Pretoria hosted a workshop for more than 80 veterinarians who discussed the care of injured rhinos, post-mortem methods and the collection of blood samples whose analysis can guide treatment. One research goal is to be able to make hard choices about whether to try to save an injured rhino, or resort to euthanasia.

Facial gouging is not always fatal, but what seem like minor injuries can be. A rhino sedated by poacher darts might lie too long on its side, causing myopathy — or muscle damage — because the tremendous weight of the rhino's body reduces blood flow. Myopathy can kill rhinos, Cole said.

Frederick Selous a British hunter and conservationist who died in 1917 wrote how rhinos die quickly if shot through both lungs or the upper part of the heart, but said they "will go on to all eternity" if shot from in front, and the bullet only perforates one lung. He also wrote about the elemental role of the horn in the mother-offspring relationship.

"A small calf always runs in front of its mother, and she appears to guide it by holding the point of her horn upon the little animal's rump; and it is perfectly wonderful to note how in all sudden changes of paces, from a trot to a gallop or vice versa, the same position is always exactly maintained."

This month, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a South Africa-based conservation group, said it was recently called to help rescue a 2-month-old rhino that lost its mother to poachers and suffered 18 deep lacerations on her face. The group believes the gang slashed at the baby, whose horns have not yet grown out, because it tried to return to its dead mother while they were removing its horn.

The calf, the trust says, is doing well.