During my third week in South Africa, we spent a day working with other ACE (African Conservation Experience) students at Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center, a rehab facility in Hoedspruit that is the home to many different African species, including leopards, wild dogs, hyenas, and various birds. The staff and students walked us through a typical day at the facility, and it was really interesting to see how a different ACE project worked. We were put into one of four groups and helped feed and clean the enclosures of certain animals, which included some servals and owls. We also got to participate in a lot of the cool activities available at the rehab center – we bottle fed some baby sable antelope, played with three baby leopard cubs that were being cared for after being rejected by their mothers in the bush, and got to hand feed zebras at Moholoholo’s neighboring game reserve. The rehabilitation center is almost iconic in Hoedspruit and has been there for years, and they do a really great job of educating tourists while giving homes to animals that would otherwise have nowhere to go. Visiting was a nice break from all of the veterinary work with Dr. Rogers.
The day after we went to Moholoholo, I went back to working with Dr. Rogers to dehorn a bunch of rhinos. Dehorning is a relatively new practice, and involves cutting off a large portion of a rhino’s horn in order to make it an unattractive target to poachers. Even though dehorning is widely supported by veterinarians and conservationists in South Africa, it’s still a very controversial practice – many feel that removing the horn is cruel, and others believe that tourists won’t want to see a rhino whose horn has been removed. After speaking to the men and women at the forefront of rhino conservation and assisting in the procedure myself though, it was clear that skeptics of the procedure are completely wrong. Removing the horn is completely painless; the rhino are darted, and the horn is cut off with a chainsaw and polished down to a small stump using a grinder. A rhino horn is similar to a fingernail in that they’re made of the same material, keratin, they regrow after being cut, and cutting them is literally the same – as long as the horn isn’t cut too low into blood vessels, the rhino is 100% fine. Furthermore, dehorning rhinos about every two years has remarkably reduced poaching, since poachers are less willing to risk their lives when they payout is significantly lower for a smaller horn. Ground rhino horn is worth about 600,000 rand, or $40,000, for just 1 kg, so the insane prices fetched for a single horn are significantly reduced when there’s much less horn to begin with. In a single day, we darted and dehorned 14 white rhinos, and assisting and learning from the experts involved was one of the best parts of my trip. I didn’t even know dehorning was a common practice, and after helping I am absolutely convinced that the procedure is an incredibly effective stop-gap to help slow the poaching crisis until a solution can be found.
Later in the week, Dr. Rogers continued the trend of bringing us to incredible cases involving rhino conservation when we went back to HESC in order to attach a prosthetic cap to a young rhino whose horn had been chopped off by poachers a few months ago. The rhino had been illegally darted using drugs that could have only been obtained from a corrupt veterinarian, and was left with a mutilated face after poachers had removed its horn and left it to die. With an open wound on its face, Dr. Rogers feared for both infection and an infestation by maggots, which would lead the rhino to self-mutilate itself and cause further damage. To avoid this and let the wound heal, Dr. Rogers collaborated with human surgeons in order to develop a prosthetic cap that could be screwed onto the rhino’s face and provide the injury time to heal. The procedure was just amazing to be a part of. The fact that so many people were willing to go to such great lengths to think of an abstract, innovative solution to help the rhino was a good reminder that there are people that care about these amazing creatures.
To finish off the week, we traveled to a breeding facility that specialized in breeding “disease free” buffalo to treat a calf that had a very swollen front and back leg. In South Africa, all truly wild buffalo are carriers for diseases. The most common ones are Corridor Disease and Foot and Mouth, both of which the buffalo are carriers for and thus show no symptoms but are capable of transmitting to other hoofed animals. Corridor Disease is transmitted by ticks and leads to the destruction of both red and white blood cells, while Foot and Mouth is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact and causes debilitating lesions to form on the feet and in the mouth. Since these diseases are so widespread in buffalo, there is a massive initiative in South Africa to attempt eliminating the diseases. Permits need to be filed to move buffalo anywhere, blood tests are routinely performed to identify diseased populations, and there are disease free zones in the country that diseased buffalo cannot enter. As a result, disease free buffalo are extremely valuable, worth about 300,000 to 800,000 rand (about $20,000-$60,000) each, and are heavily desired as status symbols on game farms. Dr. Rogers said that the sick calf had septic arthritis, so a bacterial infection was causing the swelling in the legs. We injected the calf with antibiotics and took samples from its legs, and although Dr. Rogers believed it would recover, it would most likely be somewhat lame for its entire life. That was disappointing to the owner, since that calf would then be much harder to sell as an adult.