The story of an African Rhino – by Delia Thompson
It was a crisp morning on the 23rd April as the group gathered at the gates of Kariega Game reserve. Men and women with one goal in mind – to successfully perform another procedure on the brave Rhino Thandi, who had survived a brutal attack on her once magnificent face 53 days prior by a group of poachers.
As they set to work filling countless syringes with a cocktail of treatments, the cold didn’t seem to cross their minds. Haunted by images of the two Rhino that lost their lives because of that attack, carrying the burden of responsibility for the life of this now fragile creature that was once the toughest of the magnificent animals that grace the African bush, I took a moment to appreciate the surrounding bush.
Buck spotted the hills and went on about their morning routine of grazing in this place of wonder that is – the African bush. The animals were unfazed by the group that had gathered at the gates, unaware of the possibilities the day held. There was so much that could go wrong! The burden of this responsibility was shared by the knowledgeable few that brought their own unique skills to this team.
But I knew that Dr William Fowlds, the team leader and vet carried it all in his heart – a heavy burden that only he could feel. He briefed us on safety, worrying about the many human lives that had joined this team, to help where they could. I felt so honoured to witness this amazing act of bravery, determination and love for Thandi.
As the helicopter whisked him away to find Thandi with a birds eye view, I held my breath as I watched. William was strapped into the small helicopter but it did not make me feel more comfortable as there was more of his body on the outside of the helicopter than inside as he leaned out, tranquiliser gun in hand. I thought about his beautiful family I had met the previous evening. His wife’s sparkling personality was contagious, his loving parents and his polite children that had happily cuddled my puppy the evening before, showing the same love for animals that their parents and grandparents and those before them had. It was nurtured in them from an early age.
I wished that the poachers that had been on these grounds in the dark of night 53 evenings ago panga in hand, sack ready to take away their bloodied treasure had been taught this love and appreciation for God’s magnificent creatures. Did they not know that man was put on earth to protect and care for God’s animals! No, they did not. They were driven by the money and greed and the thought of a fancy cell phone and trendy takkies. Could they not just have stolen those and left these Rhinos alone?
Anger towards them welled up as I watched the helicopter manoeuvre, hovering, twisting in the grey sky. To the untrained eye it looked as though the pilot was purely enjoying his time in the air like a bumble bee, effortless. But his movements were precise and highly skilled honed by hours and hours of flying time.
They had located the group Thandi had found refuge with – two new friends as her previous herd lay under the African soil, dust to dust…. Dr Fowlds took aim and fired a tranquiliser at Thandi, a successful hit. But the gas from the rifle had been a bit low and the job was not done yet as the tough skin deflected the dart. Calmly he took aim again, we held our breaths waiting for news. Success! Now the work began. The pilot herded the group away from dangerous areas and into a clearing that would make it easier to work.
Thandi ran – it can take up to 10 minutes before the drug takes effect and her survival instincts had kicked in Fight or flight! This is normal behaviour for a Rhino that has just received a dose of tranquiliser. The poachers had to track them on foot in the dark of the night to reach their victims. Practice makes perfect they say. How sad that one can be taught those skills.
“We are moving out, she is going down.” The landrover engines fired up and we were off. In a clearing not too far from the gate we arrived to see Thandi sleeping, blindfold covering her eyes awaiting the much needed medical treatment. She was roped down – it is not uncommon for a Rhino to wake several times once tranquilised. Dr Fowlds had given her only what he needed to, too much drugs would do her system harm.
With the speed of light the team got to work. Working at her head and rear at the same time, the medical team went about administering numerous injections into her rump a mixture of anti inflammatories, antibiotics and other needed drugs. More the 30 at least. Helpers took all her vitals blood pressure, pulse heart rate, breathing, while William ensured not a second was wasted.
Building up confidence I moved around to her head – nothing could prepare me for actually seeing her face to face. I had looked at the wound many times on the photos but, have mercy! It was savage! Dr Gerhard Steenkamp a maxilla veterinary Facial Surgeon from the University from Pretoria worked at her face. His hands did not shake once, what an expert he is. Calm controlled, pliers in hand he worked into the wound taking out bits of bone fragments – the panga had done terrible damage to her face. She must have tossed and turned her head many times as they hacked deep into the bone and sinus cavities to remove the horn. Digging out every last bit – it is sold by weight so they leave nothing behind.
I marvelled at her beauty, her size – speechless as my eyes welled up. The emotions were hard to explain. Honoured to be witness to this amazing life saving team and sadness for her pain but a very strong feeling of embarrassment had crept into my soul. Embarrassed ashamed to be human! One of my fellow mankind members had done this. “Love your neighbour” not this one, not the Panga man! Him I hate with my entire body. Anger again, sadness, awe, respect. So many emotions.
I touched her back – risking being sent straight to the landrover for getting in the way. I couldn’t help myself. “ Oh Thandi” You are warm, you are alive. “Would you like to feel her pulse?” I was asked. Oh what a question!! I held onto the top of her thick tail underneath I felt the flicker of her bloodstream. She was most certainly alive and the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. I will remember the feeling of her pulse under my finger tips for the rest of my life. My motherly instincts crept in I wanted so much to help protect her from harm and others like her. I will in my small way, that is a promise Thandi! Then gratitude overwhelmed me. Thank you God that she is still alive, Thank you William and Gerhard for your skill and dedication. Thank you that I could be there.
When it was all done, we moved onto and behind the vehicles so she could get up. She stood awhile looking at us closely. Calm and peaceful. Then she casually strolled into the bush and was gone. On the way home I thought about the panga man again. As children we told each other scary stories about the panga man “ Panga man lives on the hill and he will get you!” Well he didn’t, but he certainly got TO me through this act.
He will not stop unless we all stand together, united to fight this savagery. Help us please, in any way you can. Even if you just sponsor one injection in one survivor. God speed Thandi, get well soon. You are a symbol of Love.
Dr William Fowlds has set up the Thandi Injection fund to raise money to cover the costs involved in the treatment of Rhino poaching. In this way we can all help Thandi and the others still to come, have a chance, a hope, a life. It is administrated by the Wilderness fund. A single injection costs R 50 and at least 20 are needed for only one procedure on one Rhino. The least each one of us can do is sponsor an injection.
Bank transfers can be made to:
First National Bank
Branch code: 211417
Account number 50750071629
Please include the reference “THANDI RHINO”