My last week in South Africa had some of the most interesting veterinary cases that I’ve ever heard of. On the 17th, we traveled again to HESC to examine cheetahs that had severe hair loss and infections on their tails. We had treated a different group of cheetahs there previously for the same symptoms by wrapping the tails in bandages and stitching them to the skin to stop the them from chewing them off, but Dr. Rogers had thought the damage was caused by the cheetahs biting each others tails. Since an entirely different population with no contact with the others had now developed the same condition, something else was at play and causing the injuries. Interestingly, a third group of cheetahs had also just contracted ringworm, which is extremely abnormal because the circumstances are usually not present to allow cheetahs to get a ringworm infection. The HESC employees believed that they had somehow gotten it from a volunteer at the center, so it was possible that the ringworm had somehow spread between all of the different cheetah populations and caused widespread hair loss on the tails. Dr. Rogers was honestly perplexed, so we took biopsies of the tails and rear-ends of some of the cheetahs and bandaged them up like we had done for the other group beforehand. He planned on sending the samples to a histopathologist to get a more definitive cause of disease, but in the meantime everyone was hoping it wasn’t due to a widespread ringworm infection. In house cats, ringworm can be treated quickly and easily by giving the cats a bath and using an anti-fungal dip or shampoo. However, the same treatment cannot be applied to cheetahs because they are highly susceptible to catching pneumonia and dying if they get very wet. Furthermore, ringworm can be subclinical and show no symptoms in cats, so there would be no way to know for sure which cheetah at the center were actually infected. I had to return home before the pathology report came back, so I still don’t know what the actual cause was, but the case was extremely interesting and would be difficult for HESC to manage.
After working on the cheetahs, we went to a reserve to investigate and conduct a post-mortem on three rhinos that had suddenly died of mysterious causes. Upon arrival, we learned that many of the water sources at the reserve had become saturated with a blue-green algae called cyanobacterium, which can release neurotoxins and hepatotoxins that are lethal to animals in high quantities. The entire situation was ridiculously strange, because so many factors had to come together to lead to the death of the rhinos. South Africa is currently in a massive drought, and as a result water sources are scarce. This caused hippos to congregate in the few remaining ones, and all of their feces caused the water to become extremely nutrient rich in order to cause an algal bloom of cyanobacterium. On top of that, the previous day was very windy, which concentrated most of the cyanobacterium into one specific point in the water which the rhino then drank out of. Since the algae was very concentrated, the toxins were present in lethal amounts and ended up killing the three rhinos within the next day. This hypothesis was confirmed by conducting a post-mortem; Dr. Rogers performed the entire procedure in the field, showing us all of the internal organs and taking samples to send to a histopathologist to confirm his diagnosis. The liver was twice the size that it should be, providing clear evidence of a large concentration of toxins, and there was hemorrhaging in most major organs, especially the heart. It was extremely interesting to see a post-mortem on a rhino, but at the same time it was so sad to see so many rhino day from such rare circumstances. We had done so much to stop rhinos from getting killed by poachers over the course of my trip, so it was disheartening to see them die from circumstances beyond our control.
Later in the week, we went to different reserves in order to deworm both an adult sable bull and a young rhino calf. The sable had a heavy parasite load of haemonchus contortus, a worm that attaches to the abomasum and sucks blood in order to cause anemia. All sable have a certain level of the worms in their body naturally, but the population on the reserve had somehow gotten loads that were too heavy, leading to the death of one female and causing the male we were working on to become very sick. We darted the sable and injected it with a dewormer to reduce the parasite load, which should allow it to recover. Similarly, the reserve with the young rhino had a similar problem. The rhino had colic, so it was experiencing debilitating stomach pain for unknown reasons. Dr. Rogers looked at a fecal sample the reserve had gathered, and their were many more worms than usual, so he decided to deworm the rhino as well and give it fluids. Rhinos along with zebras are actually naturally among the most parasitized animals, so Dr. Rogers was nervous about deworming it and removing helpful worms that aid in digestion, but he had no choice. The rhino later recovered.
Over the weekend, Mary and I took a break from veterinary work and went to a nearby airstrip and got a ride in a gyrocopter, an extremely tiny helicopter that’s open to the air. The pilot flew us over the Blyde River Canyon in the Drakensberg Mountain Range, which was absolutely gorgeous. We saw the mountains up close and the entire town of Hoedspruit from above, and even spotted some giraffe from the sky in one of the game reserves. It was pretty scary, but at the same time an awesome experience that I would definitely do again.
On my last day, we ended up having to go back to the reserve where the rhino had died from drinking the algae-contaminated water to look at a mother rhino and calf that appeared to be suffering the same fate as the others. By the time we arrived and darted the two, they were both in awful condition; the calf was shaking and weak, and the mother could barely move. We tried to treat the mother and help her recover, but we were simply to late. She ended up dying after being sedated while we were treating her, leaving the baby behind. Dr. Rogers had us then focus completely on the calf, which we moved to our car and immediately gave fluids to in order to flush its system of toxins. It seemed like it was getting better, and we drove it off the reserve to a rehabilitation center where it would hopefully be able to fully recover. Once again, it was awful to see more rhino succumb to drinking algae in the midst of the poaching crisis. It was absolutely heartbreaking to watch the mom die and another orphan get left behind and unable to re-enter the wild, but at least the calf survived. A lot of the work we did was bittersweet.