When animals fall victim to poaching and survive, there are one of two options. They can either be euthanaised and their genes lost forever, or given a second chance. René de Klerk finds out how Saving the Survivors is creating hope from hurt…
• 200: The team has dealt with more than 200 rhino cases since 2012.
• 3–4 months: The amount of time it takes for less severe facial injuries to heal. They require between three and five treatments.
• 2 years: The amount of time (often longer) taken for severe rhino face injuries to close up by
• Fibreglass: Material used to close the wounds, combined with orthopaedic screws. It is sometimes reinforced with aluminium.
• Elephant or buffalo skin: The material used to cover the large wounds.
With the increase in rhino poaching in recent years, gory scenes of mutilated animals often greet those working on the ground. In addition, elephant poaching has always been an problem, but has moved closer to home. Subsistence poachers set snares to target small antelope, but larger species are often
Those behind the attacks are not necessarily skilled and shots fired can easily miss the vital organs. While these animals frequently survive, the consequences are often dire.
For this reason, veterinarian Dr Johan Marais started Saving the Survivors (STS) in 2012. The non-profit organisation treats endangered wild animals affected by poaching. Much of their work takes place in the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces of South Africa, an area that is home to the Kruger National Park and a number of private game reserves.
STS treats a variety of endangered species, including lion, elephant, African wild dog, pangolin and cheetah,
but in more recent years, most of their work has been directed towards rhino. Rhino are at the heart of the poaching crisis and are often treated for facial injuries and gunshot wounds, while other species are injured as a result of snares. STS launched when rhino poaching was on the increase.
“We received numerous calls in relation to injured and poached rhino at the time,” Marais explains.
As a qualified veterinary surgeon he spent many years working with horses, and in 2007 he acquired an MSc wildlife degree.
The organisation is the only one in the world doing this kind of work. Marais says most vets would rather euthanaise animals in similar situations, although he does not agree with it. “We will save the animal and spend time and money on it. The animal will go back into the wild and breed again. This proves the concept of STS.”
Over the years, they have done pioneering work and developed unique procedures, including facial treatment on rhino that have lost their horns to poaching. The success rate of the procedure is quite high.
“Initially we thought it was heroic to try and save these animals, and we did not know what was possible. However, the animal has no chance if we do not try, and if we do not try, we will never know what is possible.”
Marais says the team has learned a lot over the last seven years and they have been amazed at how the animals respond to treatment. Some of the biggest success stories include a rhino cow named Thandi whose horn was poached in 2012 in the Eastern Cape. She was treated with the help of veterinarian Dr William Fowlds. Since the treatment, which included a skin graft, she has had three calves.
Another success story is that of Seha, a severely injured bull that would not have made it due to the severity of his injuries. STS rescued and treated the animal and he made a full recovery. Poachers took both his horns, leaving a gaping wound extending into his nasal cavities. He was treated and bred with another survivor, resulting in a calf. While an iconic rhino cow survivor named Hope died from an intestinal related disease six months after her surgeries, she taught the team a lot about the treatment of facial injuries.
The injured animals are mostly treated in their natural environment and released immediately to prevent additional stress. “Initially we thought it was a good idea to build a facility and transport injured animals there, but it would have been logistically complicated due to different permit systems in different provinces,” explains Marais. “If it requires ongoing treatment, we get a small camp system going where the animal is housed, just to cut down on the cost of a helicopter.”
Marais says poaching is a huge problem on the African continent. “I was born in 1968 and there were 70 000 black rhino in Africa then. Now there are not even 5 000. We have gone down from 23 000 white rhino to 12 000,” he says. “We are 11 years into this poaching problem. People still don’t know about the massive issue we have with elephant poaching. The pangolin is the most trafficked animal in the world – it is on the verge of extinction and many people still don’t even know what a pangolin is,” he says.
There are numerous challenges in the field, he adds. “One is the difficulty of dealing with an animal three times the size of our domesticated large animals. Their mere size poses great challenges with regards to any kind of ongoing treatment, like wounds, fractures and infections,” he says. “Also, most of the time a wild animal can only be immobilised (and therefore treated) maybe every three to four weeks,” he explains.
STS is has also expanded into neighbouring Mozambique. As one of the most untouched and remote regions on the African continent, the country started investing heavily in wildlife conservation.
Marais says they were called in twice to assist with poached rhino in the country and saw the need for another vet to support their current veterinarian Dr Joao Almeida. “He attends to a number of poached and injured animals, as well as responding to human-wildlife conflict cases,” says Marais.
While there are two wildlife veterinarians in Mozambique, one is permanently stationed in Gorongosa National Park, leaving Almeida as the only person to give input on veterinary problems in the country.
When working on the ground it is easy to lose focus and become depressed, Marais says.
“It is quite hard sometimes. Many vets, owners, rangers and anti-poaching units feel the same.”
Despite the ongoing slaughter of these species, Marais believes the crisis can be stopped. “It is surely our duty towards future generations and this planet to keep on fighting,” he says.
For more information and details on how you can help, visit www.savingthesurvivors.org
Do your bit and save the survivors
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Written by René de Klerk
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