By Maddie Stone
It was a hot July day in Hoedspruit, South Africa, when wildlife veterinarian Peter Rogers got the call: A band of poachers had just shot a rhino in the head. But it hadn’t died yet—the injured, terrified creature had been running for miles. By the time Rogers and his crew caught up with the rhino, it has collapsed from sheer exhaustion. Before additional medical supplies could be brought in, the massive animal had drawn its last, shuddering breath.
Pioneering vets like Rogers hope to avert future tragedies like this one by getting there first, and lopping off rhinos’ horns before the poachers do.
Rogers is among a handful of wildlife vets—less than a dozen in South Africa—whose work places him at the front lines of the rhino-poaching crisis. And phone calls about poaching incidents are nearly a daily occurrence.
“Getting to help a rhino is the exception,” Rogers said. “Most often we just find them dead, with half their face hacked off. The poachers are completely barbaric.”
The last few years have seen the worst rash of rhino poaching in recent history, thanks to an upsurge in demand amongst wealthy Vietnamese and Chinese buyers, who use the horns for pseudo-medicinal purposes and as status symbols. South Africa, home to nearly eighty percent of Africa’s 25,000 remaining rhinos, has been particularly hard-hit. As the situation grows desperate, vets like Rogers have begun implementing what may seem like a radical solution: dehorning rhinos to deter poachers.
Their ideas have seen some influence: The Namibian government just officially endorsed this strategy. But South African vets—who tend to the largest population of rhinos on the planet—have to rely on the cooperation of smaller, better policed private parks to see the strategy put into action.
For private game wardens, at least, there are incentives to support dehorning. Eco-tourism is one of South Africa’s largest industries and dead rhinos don’t exactly make for happy vacation memories. On the other hand, some international tourists will pay top dollar to witness a dehorning.
“It’s a big money-maker,” said Max Emanuel, a veterinary student at the University of Pennsylvania who spent this summer volunteering in Rogers’s wildlife clinic. “A safari is one thing, but catching a rhino dehorning is a whole new experience for most people.”
Rogers began his career doing rhino capture and re-location work in the late 80s. He’s now putting his unique skills to work performing an operation that is best likened to a scene right out of out of Jurassic Park.
It goes something like this: Vet and game warden get into a helicopter, spot a rhino, and shoot it with a dart filled with a powerful opiod.
“The rest of us are in pursuit on the ground. All of a sudden, this dazed rhino bursts out of the brush, wobbles along for a few minutes and collapses, ” Emanuel said, explaining a real-life incident.
Then it’s a race against the clock. The downed rhino is roped to a tree, and its respiratory rate is carefully monitored while a medical team takes hair and blood samples. Finally, somebody swoops in with a chainsaw and hacks off the rhino’s horn roughly 8 centimeters above the base—a safe distance that avoids cutting into the rhino’s sinuses.
Reviving a rhino post-op is the riskiest part of the whole business. Following a healthy dose of naltrexone—chemically similar to the drug used to treat heroin overdoses—the two-ton beast goes from comatose to wide-awake and panicky.
“That’s when we all make for the SUVs as fast as possible,” said Emanuel.
Dehorning may be a deterrent, but the process is dangerous, laborious and contingent on the support of wardens. While Emanuel helped Rogers dehorn nearly forty animals this summer, rhino horns—made of the same stuff as our fingernails—grow back, and the operation needs to be repeated every few years. More....