To start off my second week, Mia left and went back home to Pennsylvania, and a new student named Mary came to live with me at the Burns’ house. Mary was just as nice as Mia, and as soon as she arrived we began to work on a ton of rhino cases with Dr. Rogers. On June 1st, we headed out extremely early to a reserve where we were going to dart and relocate two adult rhino bulls to new game farms. After working with Dr. Rogers, I have learned a ton about techniques and drug combinations for darting rhinos. In the veterinary industry, the opioid M99 is very popular for darting adults, since it is 10,000 times stronger than morphine and causes the dangerous animals to be immobilized quickly. However, M99 often causes respiratory depression, so oxygen is always administered and breathing is carefully monitored. Transporting rhinos though requires different drug combinations, since the animals cannot be sedated too heavily because they are extremely heavy and thus need to be walked into the crates. After Dr. Rogers darted each rhino bull, a blindfold was used to cover the rhino’s face and a rope was attached to the horn. A few people pulled the rope towards a steel crate to guide the rhino’s movement, while a few other guys and I manned the sides of the rhino and repeatedly had to push it to prevent it from falling during its drugged stupor. Since the bulls weighed close to three tons, this was nearly impossible; I can now say that I have almost been crushed by rhinos more times than I can count. Their skin is also as rough as sandpaper, so pushing with all your weight tears apart your hands. Moving each bull was painstaking, but we eventually got each into its crate without injury. It was exhausting work, but it was simply amazing to interact with wild rhinos and witness their strength first hand.
Working with all the rhinos was not always that fun though. Over the month I was in South Africa, we were called out to work on many rhinos that were victims of poachers; I’ve seen a rhino that had been shot, a rhino that was recovering after being left alive after its horn was hacked off, and orphaned baby rhinos whose mothers were killed. Everyone hears about poaching and all of the statistics in the news, but it’s simply impossible to grasp how big of a crisis it is without actually seeing it. It is astounding how commonplace the crime actually is – one rhino gets poached every six hours, and no one is surprised at all when it happens. Poachers are literally everywhere and groups are almost constantly in each reserve, and although owners spend tons of money on fencing, security, and anti-poaching teams, there is no way to successfully combat such an insanely large group of people. On June 2nd, we got called out to see a female rhino that had escaped after being shot by poachers. The bullet had penetrated so deep that it had entered her lungs, so when we injected antibiotics and antiseptics into the wound they proceeded to poor out of the poor girl’s nose. Even though Dr. Rogers said she was most likely going to die, she was still alive each time we re-checked her over the course of my stay. It was awful seeing for myself what happens as a result of poaching, and really makes you realize how little the rest of world knows how to handle the issue. Almost everyone in South Africa wants to legalize trade in the horn, since the horn can be painlessly removed and regrown, in order to reduce demand and thus poaching, but conservationists removed from the issue in other parts of the world have prevented them from doing so.
We also did a lot of work with orphaned baby rhino at the Hoedspruit Exotic Species Center (HESC). There were four babies, all of which had lost their mother’s to poachers at some point in time. Two of the little guys kept coming down with cases of diarrhea, so we repeatedly gave them antibiotic treatments to help them feel better. After spending so much time working with rhinos, talking to experts and veterinarians, and being on the front lines of South Africa’s poaching crisis, I decided to change the itinerary of my project and continue working with Dr. Rogers for my entire stay instead of going to the Care for Wild rhino sanctuary as I originally planned. Looking back I’m very glad that I made that decision, since I saw so much more in the extended period that I spent with Dr. Rogers.
Once the week ended, the Burns drove us to two awesome attractions over the weekend. The first was Jessica the Hippo, a tame hippopotamus that was hand reared after she was rescued from a flood the day that she was born. Hippos are typically vicious – they kill the most people in all of Africa each year – so it was very cool to be able to get up close to one. There isn’t really any other way to get to feed and pet a hippo. After seeing Jessica, we traveled to a section of a game reserve where we walked through the bush with two 11 month old white lions. The lions had also been hand-reared after they were found abandoned at five days old, so they were somewhat tame and we were able to pet and interact with them. It was pretty awesome to be able to kneel down next to the kings of the jungle.