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Video: 2 Rhinos Fight for Life after Their Horns Are Chopped Off


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mauled white rhinoTwo endangered rhinos have been critically injured and a third died after poachers in South Africa hunted the animals down and chopped off their horns.

Rhino horn—possession of which is banned under international law—is valued for use in traditional Asian medicine to treat cancer and other disorders, even though the horns—made of keratin like that in our fingernails and hair—have no actual medicinal value. Still, demand is so high that horns can fetch prices higher than gold. As a result, poachers have devastated rhino populations across Africa and Asia in the past decade, sending multiple species into extinction and threatening those that remain. At least 448 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa in 2011, up from 333 in 2010 and just 13 in 2007. At least 80 more have been killed in South Africa in the first two months of 2012.

Thanks to decades of conservation efforts, the southern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum simum) is the most populous remaining rhino species on Earth, with approximately 17,000 animals in the wild, 93 percent of which live in South Africa.

The attack on the three white rhinos took place on Friday, March 2, at the privately owned Kariega Game Reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province. Poachers darted the family with sedatives, then killed one of the animals and left the other two for dead after removing their horns.

One of the surviving animals, a male, suffered injuries to his leg when he was tranquilized and may need to be euthanized. “He sustained a serious amount of tissue damage to his left back leg,” Kariega general manager Alan Weyer told Dispatchonline, saying the rhino fell on its leg during the attack. “That amount of tissue damage is not something that a veterinarian can fix. At the moment, he can walk but he is limping quite badly.” According to the Saving Private Rhino page on Facebook, the rhino was treated with anti-inflammatory drugs and antibiotics on Saturday, the day after the attack. On Monday, the animal was treated for wounds on his face where its horn had been hacked off. The leg injury and resulting risk of infection is the biggest threat to the rhino’s survival. Kariega veterinarian William Fowlds reported that “there are large areas of his left back leg that have little or no blood supply.” In addition, his right eye is clouded over, limiting his vision, and he has not been observed eating or drinking since the attack.

Photographer Paul Mills provided the following footage of the wounded male rhino. (Warning: Some viewers may find the video below disturbing due to its graphic nature.)

The other surviving rhino, a female, was not located until early March 4, when she was found grazing near the site of the attack. The wounds on her body and head, although not immediately life-threatening, were quite severe. On Monday, Fowlds reported the heartbreaking details:

“Her body appears to be recovering well but her facial injuries are worse than they appear from a distance. There is an area 30 centimeters long and 15 centimeters wide of exposed hacked skull and gaping holes into the underlying sinuses. The infection has already set in and maggots have started in the crevices left behind by the panga [machete] lesions. We cut away as much dead tissue as possible but there is still an area of bony tissue that will need removing probably at a later stage. An application of medical tar will sort the maggots out but there is a long road ahead for this poor lady. Her fighting spirit is humbling to witness as her face depicts such utter shame on humanity. The whole team were deeply moved by this horrendous experience and the bravery if this soul.”

It is extremely rare for rhinos to survive poaching attempts, as they usually bleed to death from their wounds. Another dehorned Kariega rhino was found in February. Its injuries were so severe that the animal had to be euthanized.

Sadly, the rising rhino death toll in South Africa is sometimes enabled by the very people who are supposed to protect the animals. All of the following incidents occurred in the past week in South Africa: four employees of Kruger National Park—the site of more than half of South Africa’s rhino poaching—were arrested on charges connecting them with poaching; three veterinarians appeared in court in Johannesburg to face charges of distributing veterinary drugs often used to subdue rhinos in order to hack off their horns; a game ranger and two farmers were arrested after they cut the fence around Mkuze Falls Private Game Reserve, where they allegedly planned to target seven rhinos; and a former police officer was arrested for possession of two rhino horns.

According to the organization Saving Rhinos, LLC, conviction rates for rhino-related crimes is below 5 percent and crimes committed by white persons appear to receive lower punishments than those committed by persons of color.

On March 6 Kariega announced that the two injured rhinos have been named: “Our rangers have come up with two beautiful Xhosa names for the surviving Kariega rhinos. Our strong and willful female has been named Thandiswa, meaning tenacity and courage; and for our young male, Themba, the Xhosa word meaning hope.” Xhosa is one of the official languages of South Africa. The Kariega Foundation has also set up a fund to help care for and rehabilitate the animals.

Photo courtesy of Paul Mills

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. adamsunny 1:13 pm 03/7/2012

    Perhaps ecologists can devise a means of making the horns toxic to humans by coating them with a compound that wouldn’t affect the rhinoceros. If the horns of living rhinos could be infused with a toxic organic chemical that wouldn’t impact the horn’s integrity for the life of the rhino, it would make the horns undesirable.

    The horns offer no actual medicinal use – the poaching and sales of rhino horns is the result of superstitions. The solution is to make the horn undesirable to such people, though it’s unlikely you’d convince such ignorant people that the horns are useless. That said, if someone studied the culture and superstition surrounding the horn, perhaps ecologists could do something equally non-scientific to the horns that would nullify (in the minds of the superstitious) whatever magical qualities they attribute to the horns.

    For example, if the horns are viewed as an aphrodisiac, one might look into what compounds (or even rituals) are associated with impotence or a lack of male virility. Whether the horns are adulterated in a culturally sensitive way or outright made toxic (lethal) for human consumption, it would need to be made known publicly. I would think even a publicity stunt based on a false suggestion (bluff) that the horns have been poisoned would be sufficient to offset or reduce at least some of the black market value. I would think ELF would have taken action by now.

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  2. 2. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 1:45 pm 03/7/2012

    Adam, the idea of making horns toxic is being explored by some rhino owners. Check out this previous story: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/2011/09/15/return-toxic-avenger-rhino-advocate-poisoning-horns-poachers/

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  3. 3. AJRussell 5:21 pm 03/7/2012

    Why can’t we poach the poachers, cut off their horn and leave them for dead?

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  4. 4. silliusmillius53 12:15 pm 03/10/2012

    The Latest Update from Will Fowlds at Kariega (Sat 10 March) Posted by Paul Mills.

    It has been a dramatic day at Kariega. Having set out with the possibility of loosing Themba, we ended emotionally drained but relieved that they are both still alive. We all find it so difficult to get used to the gruesome extent of their injuries and the senslesness behind them, that every procedure is an emotionally jarring one for the whole team. But how can we possibly conceive what Themba and Thandi are going through. Today we got a better understanding of the extent of Themba’s leg injuries as nine days after the poaching, the tissues that were starved of blood are now apparent. This tells a story of nine days of hell. Every breath and every step adding to the constant level of pain. The resilience and bravery of these conservation icons is such a humbling thing to witness.
    Themba has a semi circle of dead skin behind his knee where it folds when flexed. We estimate he lay on that leg for between 3 and 10 hours after his face was hacked to pieces. The underlying muscles have also been badly affected by the same process but the good news is that these areas still have a good blood supply and they have already forced their own draining sinuses out through the dead skin. We have enlarged these holes to encourage drainage and the antibiotics and pain releaving drugs will provide support from the inside.
    Both their faces are plagued by maggots which have found their way into every possible recess in spite of treatment on day four. This is now of major concern and will need more frequent attention at the risk of negative side effects.
    Today’s procedures took place with the aid of a large team of dedicated people. My partner, Dr Peter Brothers, helped spread the veterinary responsibilities and I counted nine separate teams all with focused tasks to fulfil during different stages of the procedures. This excludes the journalists and camera crews who were there to tell the world the story of incredible bravery and a will to survive under conditions of exceptional trauma. I feel very privileged to have worked with such passionate people.
    Today we served at the feet of giants. These two, like so many others, have been humiliated by greed and mans inadequacies. Surely a creature unequalled in all of creation deserves better than this. Will fowlds.

    From Paul Mills: I don’t think that the readers have any idea how emotional it gets when you have to work under these conditions. Will is a tower of strength, but I have seen him weep, I weep. But we all do what we can to turn this into a better stroy than the usual scenario. Today, we de-horned twp rhino, to prevent this happening to them. Will is convinced that the male rhino seems to understand that we are trying to help him. And this wouldn’t be possible without the help of so many volunteers who assist at this site. I will try and keep you all posted.

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  5. 5. silliusmillius53 4:46 am 03/11/2012

    Kariega update Sun 2012/03/11 – 11:00
    News from Kariega team.

    Day 10 for Thandi and Themba. Thandi spent a lot of time after her procedure yesterday out on the plains grazing like a healthy rhino which is quite remarkable. The inclusion of the sedative drug in the dart which we hope causes short-term amnesia is an interesting consideration here as her behaviour does not match her circumstances.

    Themba has only been in the open during the night thus far and is obviously in a different psychological space to Thandi.

    Today we have the invaluable assistance of tracking bracelets on both rhino after the Chipembere Foundation sourced and donated them to this cause. These devices are a vital part of a treatment strategy in the wild as they allow the Kariega monitoring team to keep check of their progress at any time of the day. The technology also indicates if the device is stationery or moving. Without this improved monitoring capacity we will not be able to respond quickly to changes in their circumstances.
    Report from Daniel and Lance is that Themba is more alert than in previous days. He is still in the thickets but is definitely grazing. We cannot confirm water intake today yet. Thandi is on the edge of the stream and has been seen through the night grazing well.

    It appears that they have come through the procedures yesterday as well as we can expect which is good news. We have started processing the video material of the first nine days and believe me, I constantly question my own decisions as these images remind me of all they have come through. Many people will ask why these gentle giants should be allowed go through this painful healing process at all. Only time will tell if I have made the right decision or not concerning their welfare and the responsibility of this will be mine to answer for. While we fight with them for the return of their comfortable lives at Kariega, everyone reading this has the opportunity to fight for the life, dignity and respect which this entire species deserves. I urge you to expose the brutal reality of poaching to the world by sharing the story of Themba and Thandi. What we do for them on the ground will only make a fraction of a difference in the battle to save a species. What YOU do for them by telling the world or their senseless sufferings and their brave fight for survival WILL make a difference.
    Will Fowlds

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  6. 6. silliusmillius53 2:31 pm 03/25/2012

    The saddest news is that Themba, the male Rhino from Kariega died this morning Sun 25th March 2012. We went to see him yesterday and he seemed to be holding on, and his blood test results from Tuesday seemed to indicate that he was in some way winning the fight. But observation of his condition meant that we went to see him yesterday, unsure whether or not he should be euthanized. Will decided to assess his behaviour, and for his efforts was chased on few occasions. Because he demonstrated such spunky behaviour, he had a treatment and we left him. The last time I saw him alive, he was standing in this beautiful landscape, with the sun shining.

    In order to relieve the pain from his leg, he went into the watering hole, as he has done in the past. Sadly, he just didn’t have the strength to pull himself out of the water and apparently drowned. The people at Kariega are in shock, I am in shock. We were all crying, I am crying now writing this. For me he was a personal symbol of the ability to fight against all odds. Yesterday I wrote on the update video that my hope was that he would be a success story. The update video was about to go out this morning when I got the call from Will. I know that Will Fowlds is particularly affected by this turn of events. He was weeping aloud while talking to me about this. Ironically the name Themba means hope.

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