Hope in the Battle Against Rhino Poaching

One rhino’s inspirational recovery helps spread the word

Thandi and baby Thembi

Photo: ©Angie Goody

Meeting an animal in distress is never easy; meeting such an animal in the wild—one that can weigh over two tons—can be extremely difficult. Dr. Will Fowlds, an IDEXX customer who has dedicated much of his life to protecting rhinos and other species from poachers, knows this firsthand. In 2012, Thandi, a white rhinoceros, and two other rhinos were brutally hacked by poachers and left to die in the Kariega Game Reserve in South Africa. Dr. Fowlds was on hand to lend assistance.

The fight against poaching

The biggest threat facing rhinos isn’t other animals, but poaching, driven by the illegal trade in rhinoceros horns. South Africa, with the largest rhino population in the world, is at the heart of the battle to save rhinos. Sadly, 2014 was a rough year, with a record 1,215 poachings—that’s one rhino death every 8 hours. The dangers facing the rapidly dwindling rhino population today, with the five remaining rhino species now either threatened, endangered or critically endangered, means that at the current rate of poaching these species will become extinct in the wild sometime in this century.

While the situation is grim, there are some bright spots thanks to the work of veterinarians like Dr. Fowlds and other vets who cared for Thandi, Themba and the other rhino found with them. Two of the rhinos did not recover but, under Dr. Fowlds’s care, Thandi has not only recuperated from her life-threatening injuries but also bore a calf earlier this year, named Thembi—the Xhosa word for “hope.”

“Both Thandi and Themba were experiencing severe trauma and blood loss,” Dr. Fowlds said. “We also noticed that Themba was lame. One of the injuries that these animals tend to sustain is loss of blood supply to major muscle groups. Themba’s condition was slowly deteriorating and 25 days after the attack, he drowned in a watering hole because he did not have the strength to get back up after he had fallen.”

But Thandi’s battle for life continued and—against all odds—she survived.

Rhino treatment: not your everyday protocol

“Some poachers use immobilizing drugs to incapacitate the rhino, but they aren’t careful administering them,” Dr. Fowlds said.

So, the first step in treating the rhinos was to reverse the effects of the anesthetics and prevent overdose. The next step included a physical examination as well as blood work to assess the degree of trauma. Because typical large-animal blood screens are difficult to interpret for rhinos, Professor Fred Reyers ran serum electrophoresis in an attempt to extrapolate what acute phase proteins, indicators of tissue trauma not yet available for rhino, were showing. This support from a clinical pathologist was invaluable in assisting decisions in the field.

”We know very little about their physiology, anatomy and biochemistry and a lot of this work is in its pioneering stage,” said Dr. Fowlds. “In the absence of other diagnostic aids in the wild, we rely heavily on blood testing to help guide our diagnosis and treatment plans. IDEXX was a big help with both Thandi and Themba by providing free blood testing and Professor Reyer’s consultation on the results.”

Above all, it takes time for a rhino to heal, a luxury most poaching victims don’t have. But rhinos don’t cope well in captivity when they have been traumatized, and their sheer size, thickness of skin and wild natures make them challenging patients.


Photo: ©Jacques Matthysen

One rhino at a time

Thandi and Thembi’s story provides a crucial glimmer of hope in a difficult battle. Her recovery shows that the efforts of a dedicated veterinary team can truly make a difference in the survival of a species. The lessons learned from these initial cases are being carried forward into other survivors through the work of Saving the Survivors, pioneered by Doctors Gerhard Steenkamp and Johan Marais from the Faculty of Veterinary Science, Onderstepoort.

Thembi’s birth represents a new chapter of the story and one that draws people into the lives of these animals, who have become social media sensations. People the world over have followed her story and watched videos of her recovery and Thembi’s birth. Most importantly, stories like this prompt people to take action to help in the fight against poaching.

To learn more about these rhinos and to find out how you can help others like Thandi, visit the Kariega Game Reserve and Saving the Survivors websites.

Dr. William Fowlds, Wildlife Veterinarian
Dr. Fowlds

“My work with veterinary students from around the world, who come out to South Africa to participate in the Vets Go Wild courses I designed and facilitate, is one of the highlights of my year. I see these courses as a chance to give something back to my profession, which has given me so much. I love the contact with students still discovering their specific directions in their careers and, most importantly, sowing seeds into their lives that I hope will fill them with a new perspective on wildlife, conservation and the environment, wherever they may end up in life. Some of these courses have been documented through a series called Safari Vet School via ITV and Animal Planet.”