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Rhino gets skin graft in effort to heal poaching injuries

08/07/2013 09:46:31

Thandi receiving a skin graft on Kariega Game Reserve

Thandi, a rhino on Kariega Reserve, survived an attack by poachers in March 2012
July 2013. Poaching survivor Thandi, a rhino at the Kariega Game Reserve, has received ground breaking skin grafting treatment due to her wounds re-opening more than one year after being attacked by poachers.

While her initial wounds healed up some months after the incident, it is suspected that the recent damage was caused by a new rhino bull on the Eastern Cape reserve. It is hoped that the pioneering surgery will answer many unknown questions about the viability of treating poached rhino using grafting techniques which have never before been used on a rhino.

Thandi was attended to by wildlife veterinarian Dr William Fowlds of Investec Rhino Lifeline as well as two specialist veterinary surgeons Dr Gerhard Steenkamp and Dr Johan Marais along with a human plastic surgeon Dr Alistair Lamont.

Multiple grafts
Following an hour of surgery Thandi woke with a small dressing over part of her face under which the surgeons applied three different grafting techniques to areas that were established enough to receive new tissue. A small strip of skin was grafted from behind her ear, another from the keratinised area over the place where her back horn used to be, and then multiple small flakes of skin from the side of her neck.

Research on healing rhino attacked by poachers
Dr Steenkamp, Marais and Lamont have spent the past 14 months collaborating on new techniques to repair facial damage in rhino attacked by poachers. Three of these techniques were applied to Thandi on Monday and it is hoped that a fourth technique will be able to be applied during Thandi's next procedure in 3 to 4 weeks time. The surgeons commented that they were satisfied with their progress and what they had managed to apply at this stage.

One of the first questions to be answered about viability of the surgery is whether Thandi will tolerate the small pressure dressing which has been attached to the depression in her face. The Kariega monitoring team will keep a watchful eye on her and report back daily to the surgical team on her progress.

Dr Fowlds who has been treating Thandi since she was poached in March last year comments on the procedure and collaboration: "A relieved team left Kariega yesterday having completed the first of a series of reconstructive efforts on Thandi's face. Three highly respected surgeons travelled the length of the country to apply their collective experience and expertise to finding improved techniques of making Thandi's face more robust and less prone to damage in the future. Once again I am always so humbled by the dedicated efforts that converge on a few square metres of Africa and just one rhino."

Attacked in March 2012

Themba, Thandi and bull #84 were attacked by poachers on Kariega Game Reserve in March 2012, with Thandi being the only survivor of the incident. She survived against all odds and made a miraculous recovery. As part of a number of steps in her rehabilitation back to some degree of normality, as well as to restore the breeding capacity on the reserve after the loss of Themba and bull #84, a new bull was introduced. Head to head confrontation is normal behaviour between rhino and it is suspected that this is the cause of her injuries.

Dr Fowlds comments on her recent injuries: "In a process which has involved ground breaking efforts to give her back a normal rhino life, we have been reminded just how much poaching took away from her and just how much more she still needs our support through her recovery. It's been more than 14 months since Thandi was poached and to think we are still having to deal with the complications of her ordeal is a reminder to us of yet another implication of poaching. In spite of our best efforts to restore her face to some degree of normal functionality, it appears that her new skin simply didn't have the capacity to deal with the rigors of rhino life."

Graeme Rushmere, co-owner of Kariega commented, "We are all saddened by Thandi's injury. We will continue to ensure that she receives the best care possible and are so grateful to the team of Doctors and everyone involved for their expertise and commitment to Thandi's ongoing care and wellbeing."

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