By Ihsaan Haffejee
LIMPOPO, South Africa (AA) - A group of South African veterinary surgeons have performed a pioneering operation on a wounded rhino in an attempt to rebuild the animal’s face, which was brutally removed by poachers.
Last May, the six-year-old white rhino named Hope was left for dead when poachers removed her entire face for her horn on a nature reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. Having survived the attack, Hope was rescued and brought to a rhino rehabilitation center in the northern province of Limpopo where the groundbreaking surgery took place.
The hour-long operation was performed last week by Dr. Johan Marais, an equine and wildlife surgeon who, in 2012, started Save the Survivors, a project to care and look after rhinos that have fallen victim to poaching or traumatic incidents.
Hope was the very first rhino to undergo this operation, which is normally performed on humans who have undergone abdominal surgery. “It is the first time this has ever been done on an animal, let alone a rhino,” said Marais, who is also president of the South African Veterinary Association.
Marais was joined by Chris du Plessis, a product manager at Surgitech, a supplier of innovative specialty surgical devices, who imported the specialized materials needed for the operation from Canada.
The two men used surgical utensils and scissors to puncture holes into the skin of the sedated rhino. They then stretched the skin and proceeded to insert the imported elasticized cords. It is the use of these scientifically advanced rubber bands that the surgeons hope will ultimately lead to the closing of the large wound.
“We’re going to stretch her skin, anchor it, and that will draw her skin closer to close the wound,” said du Plessis.
Dubbed the abdominal re-approximation anchor system, it utilizes a crank-and-pulley system relying on tension to draw the sides of the gaping wound together.
“Basically it’s developed for people who’ve had stomach surgery where they can’t close the wound but they need to be able to close them,” said Save the Survivors member Suzanne Boswell-Rudham. “Whereas before they used it to stitch it and staple it, now this system works where you insert it, so it actually pulls in the tissue without destroying any cells.”
The healing process takes up to seven days but the success of the operation can only be determined after two weeks.
“Two weeks will tell. If she just doesn’t rip it off,” commented Marais after he bandaged Hope’s wound. “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.”
According to statistics from South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs 1,175 rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2015 — 40 fewer than in 2014 but still significantly higher than the 13 killed in 2007.
Demand for rhino horns has dramatically increased in recent years, with the main market being Asian countries like Vietnam.
The horn, made of keratin, is believed by some to have medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities, but scientific proof of these claims is lacking.
In Vietnam, the demand for rhino horn has increased to the point that the price has risen to around $60,000 per kilogram, “twice the value of gold and platinum – and it is now more valuable on the black market than diamonds and cocaine”, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Environmental Minister Edna Molewa said in Pretoria on Sunday that 363 rhinos had been poached compared to 404 to the same period last year, according to online news publication News24.
Spokesman for the South African police service brigadier Vishnu Naidoo attributed the reduction to a joint police and army operation, which for instance oversaw the arrest of 49 poaching suspects in April in the northwestern Kruger National Park.
According to Suzanne Boswell Rudham from the Saving the Survivors organization, South Africa holds around 90 percent of the total Southern White rhino population - approximately between 16,000 and 18,000. She indicated that an exact black rhino population was difficult to establish, as many animals are held on private game reserves with owners reluctant to disclose numbers for fear of having their animals poached. She estimated the number of black rhinos in South Africa to be between 2,500 and 3,000.