Thandi: A survivor’s story
Very few rhinos survive having their horns poached, but in the Eastern Cape of South Africa one lucky individual fights on. Sophie Stafford tells Thandi’s incredible true story and asks what it will take to stop the killing.
Images by Neil Aldridge
“Everyone asks me what Thandi was like before the attack” Jason Loest, Manager of Kariega Game Reserve, begins. “The truth is: we don’t know. Until that day she was just another white rhino.” Everything changed on 2nd March 2012 when Thandi and two others were mutilated and left for dead.
“Early that morning I got a call from one of our rangers to say that a rhino had been poached. Racing to the scene, I found a young bull named Themba lying under a tree with his horns and half of his face hacked off. He was still alive.” As Jason called for veterinary assistance and the police, little did he suspect that there were more horrors yet to be discovered.
“When I backed out of the crime scene, I found our biggest male rhino lying on his side,” he continues. “He was dead.” As Jason waited for back-up, there came another call – a female named Thandi had been found, thrashing about in a pool of blood, 300m down the hill. “After that it was chaos.”
Dealing with the morning afterDr William Fowlds, a local wildlife veterinary surgeon, scrambled to the scene. “What haunts me to this day is the sense of helplessness,” he says. “There was blood everywhere, but I just had to ignore the hacked bone and bloodied tissue on their poor faces, and concentrate on getting those rhinos awake and on their feet.”
Themba and Thandi had been darted with a potent opioid anesthetic used to immobilise large animals during capture and transportation, and it was estimated that they had been lying on their sides for almost eight hours. This was potentially more life-threatening even than their terrible wounds, as it compromises respiration and cuts off the blood supply to vital muscles, causing tissue death. The priority was to revive them – and fast.
As Themba started to come round, he began struggling to his feet. “When he stood up, it was clear he was lame in one leg,” says Will. “We just had to hope it was temporary, like pins and needles, and not as serious as it looked.”
Next the team raced to treat Thandi. “My first thought was that there was no chance we could save her,’ says Will. “She had lost at least 20 litres of blood and the poachers had cut so deeply into her skull they had exposed her nasal passages. Foam oozed from her nostrils and the holes into her sinuses were so big I could’ve fit my fist inside them.”
But he gave her the antidote anyway and, to his surprise, she started responding. “It was traumatic to watch her struggle to her feet, fighting to breathe with pieces of flesh hanging off her face,” says Will. “She was weak and traumatised. I can’t imagine what was going through her mind. It must be like waking up to find a limb missing. All I knew was that these poor animals had already suffered through one night of agony, and now they relied on me for relief from their torture.”
Over the following weeks, both rhinos were monitored day and night. Will treated their wounds, but doubt plagued him: “I couldn’t help wondering if we were doing the right thing keeping them alive.” And events were soon to confirm his worst fears.
“At first, we were optimistic we could save Themba,” sighs Jason. “He appeared to rally and we thought he’d turned the corner. But we were hoping against all odds. Twenty-three days after the attack, Themba was drinking when he slipped into the water and was too weak and crippled to get out. Rushing to the scene Jason jumped in and tried to hold his head up out of the water, but it was too heavy. Eventually the rhino drowned. “Fate stepped in and put him out of his misery,” sighs Jason.
During the autopsy, Will realised that they had been fighting a losing battle. Themba had developed an infection in the joints of his legs due to lying on one side for so long. Beneath that thick skin, his muscle tissues were disintegrating. “Nothing can prepare you for a loss like that,” says Will. “We pushed him beyond what he had the capacity to bounce back from – and I have to live with that every day.”
After Themba died, the team were determined not to lose Thandi as well. “We would save her – whatever it took,” swore Jason.
One year and innumerable treatments later, Thandi was showing signs of recovery, both physical and psychological. Her face was healing and she began following her old routines again. But, in May 2013, there was a set back. Kariega introduced a new bull to replace the two that had been poached and give their females the chance to breed. The 10-year-old bull was dehorned, but a few weeks after his arrival, he and Thandi had an altercation and the fragile skin covering her nose was scraped off.
Will reconvened the veterinary team to reassess Thandi’s treatment. Over the past year, the consultants had developed new skin graft techniques, which they agreed to trial on her nose to determine the most effective. So began a phase of pioneering wildlife surgery. Four new skin graft treatments were applied, including split skin (slicing off a sheet of epidermis and placing it on the tissue bed), pinch biopsies (snipping off pinches of skin and embedding them into the tissues), full skin thickness (removing an inch strip of skin from behind Thandi’s ear and sewing it in place) and a technique halfway between the latter two.
But Thandi is not a pliant patient and keeps rubbing off the tender grafted tissue. The team can do little but wait and see if any clusters of skin cells survive. “We hope, in time, she will grow some horny tissue,” says William. “It won’t look pretty, but we will tidy it up as we go.”
For William it’s about more than just saving Thandi’s looks. “If we can’t get her face right, enabling her to live a normal life with other rhinos in the wild and contribute to her species by reproducing, we will have to ask ourselves if we can justify everything we have put her through.” There’s a lot at stake. Since Thandi’s attack, several other rhinos have survived being poached and William is now using what he has learned to treat their damaged faces.
Support William Fowld’s pioneering veterinary work on rhino survivors at www.investecrhinolifeline.com
Protection against poachers
Everyone at Kariega lives in fear that the poachers will return. So the reserve has beefed up its security and anti-poaching patrols, especially on full moon nights when visibility is good. Local reserves exchange information about suspicious vehicles, share advance warnings of potential attacks and dehorn their rhinos to deflect attacks.
Jason hopes that this battery of defences will deter poaching syndicates from targeting Kariega again, but fears that someone close to the reserve was involved. “The local community probably pass on information to poachers for money. They’re desperate; they need to feed their families.”
"The poachers are way ahead of us – and we’re not catching up,” explains Jason. “What we need is a multipronged plan that involves better protection, increased global awareness, education in countries that use horn for medicinal purposes, and to eliminate corruption in our government. But that will all take time – time our rhinos don’t have.”
Like many conservationists, Jason believes that one answer is to legalise the trade in rhino horn. “Ultimately, we want to eradicate the use of horn. But to alleviate pressure in the short-term, farmers could rear rhinos to harvest their horn, which grows continuously when cut. A sustainable, highly regulated trade could make it profitable to breed, manage and, crucially, protect rhinos.”
Critics claim this strategy will not eradicate poaching as there will not be enough farmed rhino horn available to satisfy demand. But Jason believes that releasing existing stockpiles of removed horn into the market could reduce poaching to a level at which the situation can be managed more effectively. “It’s difficult to convince people that it makes sense to legalise a trade that’s causing the deaths of so many animals, when all you want to do is stamp it out. But the trade ban isn’t working. Perhaps it’s time to try something else.”
The power of belief
William fears this attitude is prevalent in South Africa. “As the crisis becomes more desperate, we’re repeatedly told that we’ve tried to protect our rhinos and we can’t. Education, enforcement, protection and raising awareness have all failed to stem demand – now the only thing left to do is to trade. But it’s not. The first step in stopping the demand for rhino horn is to believe that we can stop it.”
Meeting the international requirements of “control” and “sustainability” to legalise the trade in rhino horn will take too long for the rhino, William argues. It will not be on the international agenda until CITES 2016 and it could be two years or more before it is implemented. Plus it’s controversial and risky. Meanwhile, he believes, demand reduction is not only possible but essential, and could happen quickly. “For the first time in the history of rhino poaching, the channels to influence and educate Asian countries against the use of rhino horn are opening.”
Conducting rhino workshops in China and Vietnam in 2013, William noticed a marked change in attitudes. During a visit to Hanoi University, he was surprised that his lecture was not censored and the students were open and engaged. “The youth in Vietnam is an accessible market to get the message across,” he said. “And they are highly influenced by Western celebrities such as David Beckham, which could give us a way in.”
And it’s not just young people who are willing to listen. William believes that international pressure brought to bear by CITES has helped to open doors and is one reason why he was offered the assistance of the Vietnamese Government to spread his anti-poaching message. “Political will is highly influenced by global economics,” he explains.
Today, Thandi looks healthy and happy, and though she is hardly recognisable as a rhino, her profile completely changed by the absence of her kind’s iconic horns, she has become the international face of the rhino’s plight. Her story has inspired thousands of people worldwide to rally to her cause. “When I see the amazing human response, I know we can win this war,” says William. “Thandi has never given up – and we won’t either.”