Vets Combine Forces to Aid Forgotten Survivors of Rhino Poaching

RAI_3616 The South African Veterinary Association (SAVA) hosted its third and final workshop for 2013 on Friday 18 October in Cape Town. The national workshops, sponsored by the Veterinary Rhino Rescue Fund, were aimed at equipping vets, generally used to working in small or mixed animal environments, with guidelines on how to deal with the specifics of rhino poaching injuries should they encounter them. As the spiral of poaching incidents continues, it is estimated that for every 5 deaths, one rhino will survive and is often left without treatment due to lack of knowledge and resources. Unfortunately, rhinos are not alone in their struggle.

Ivory poaching is once again on the increase. It is expected the ivory poaching impact will soon be felt in South Africa, as elephant numbers are rapidly decreasing in neighbouring countries, there is even more reason for vets to be adequately prepared. Calling on vets, who are known to be specialists in survivor treatment, topics covered during the training sessions included all aspects of incident management, from informing police and dealing with crime scene forensics to the current thinking in the treatment of survivors, as well as the veterinarians’ role in reducing and preventing rhino poaching. After a day of interactive discussions at Val de Vie in Paarl, day two offered a unique practical session for the 40 veterinarians in attendance to assess the condition of ‘Lady’ and ‘Higgins’, two white rhinos who survived a poaching incident in December 2011 at Fairy Glen Private Game Reserve near Worcester. Both rhinos required follow up treatments and presented a unique first hand learning opportunity for the vets. Drs William Fowlds, Johan Marais and Gerhard Steenkamp have worked on a number of landmark survivor cases and were able to share their combined knowledge of  rhino survivor treatment and give advice on the latest protocols to provide injured animals with the best chance of survival.

A rhino support unit (RSU) has been established at Ondersterpoort, as a point of reference for vets needing help treating rhino related injuries, and a specialist team is ‘on call’ to assist rhino owners faced with survivor management, if necessary travelling to the trauma scene.

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The two Fairy Glen rhinos were moved to an enclosed boma area to be darted and treated. Although Higgins behaved impeccably throughout the intervention, Lady made the decision she was happier elsewhere and was eventually sedated in a patch of vegetation. As a result, the specially assembled medical equipment had to be moved to the new site, including a mobile X-ray machine and endoscope.

It was a great experience for the 40 vets in attendance on how to minimize stress when treating rhinos that are survivors of poaching incidents, and navigating the unpredictable environment of large animal anaesthetics. Both rhinos had abscesses on their original wound sites, where the horns had been removed. These had to be inspected and cleaned, after which a shot of antibiotics was administered. Both procedures were fortunately a resounding success, and the wounds will be evaluated again in three weeks time.

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The treatment of rhino survivors is still in its pioneering stages and developing suitable treatment protocols is now urgent as vets face a new struggle – the protection our iconic animal species. The workshops will continue around the country in 2014.

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