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Conservation: Thandi the rhino

ThandiThembiAn endearing story of survival
A rhino survival story is winning hearts and minds for conservation, says wildlife vet Dr William Fowlds, of Investec Rhino Lifeline.


Q: How bad were Thandi the rhino’s injuries after poachers darted her and hacked off her horns at Kariega Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape on 2 March 2012?
They were horrific – I could put my hand into the holes in her face where they hacked off her horns, leaving her sinuses exposed. One of the males was dead when we found them and Themba, the other, died 24 days later. It was only then that we discovered the massive extent of their internal injuries. There was huge muscle damage from being down for so long.

Q: What did you and your team do to heal her?
At that stage, there had been only one case of a rhino that survived a face mutilation like this. In the first phase of treatment, we stimulated growth of new cells by removing dead tissue and controlling the maggot problem, and filled the holes. It took a year for her to develop a big fat scab as skin regrew over her back horn, but the front skin was weak. In phase two, the surgical team performed the first skin grafts on a rhino.

Q: Where there any complications?
It was decided to replace the dead bulls 14 months after the poaching incident so that the Kariega population could remain viable. We dehorned the new male first as during mating they use their horns as a point of contact. Despite this, the amorous bull ripped her face open. We continued with the skin grafts and were researching how to attach a protective plate when we found she was pregnant and decided not to risk another op on her, apart from cleaning up the maggots on her face once.

Q: Tell us about Kariega’s happy event on 13 January this year?
Almost three years after the attack on her, Thandi gave birth to a little girl. We named her Thembi, ‘Hope’ in Xhosa. Watching her playing is so endearing! And the noises the family makes are delightful, soft sounds, like nothing you’ve heard before. Whale song is about the closest.

Q: Has there been any positive spinoff from this awful poaching event?
Thandi has become an icon for rhino survival and this has grown from a poaching incident to a big drive and inspired people to become proactive. It’s not just about giving money, but it’s resulted in concrete projects. For instance, the Rooting for Rhino education programme is active in schools. We’ve also learned a lot more about rhino anatomy and other rhinos in similar predicaments have benefited from this.

ThandiThembi-walkQ: What are you doing to counter public ‘rhino fatigue’?
We’ve started a campaign to endear rhinos to people. We’re recording the lives of the rhinos at Kariega with special video equipment sponsored by a university in Texas. Thembi is about to get a new playmate: a camera disguised as a large tortoise!

Q: What kind of a future does Thembi face?
Unlike her mother, she is a normal rhino and faces all the risks of other rhinos. The statistics are scary: poaching rates have increased by twice as much as three years ago when Thandi’s horns were hacked off. We will try to match the risk with increased security, but we’re also tackling the problem with education campaigns in the East now. Changing behaviour in other cultures is a huge challenge, but modern telecoms and social media make it easier to reach people.

Q: Where do you stand on dehorning rhino to protect them?
It’s not a solution for the species as it just displaces poachers to other rhino populations by taking away 90% of the reward. But it is a tool to consider and all the Kariega rhino have been dehorned.


This article first appeared in AA Traveller

Keep track of Thembi on her Facebook page courtesy of Kariega Game Reserve and download a rhino ringtone to help conserve these endangered animals at .
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