On 18th September Dr William Fowlds, a deeply passionate South African wildlife vet who has had first-hand experience in dealing with poached rhinos, spoke at the Royal Geographical Society in London giving an inspirational personal account of his fight to save the mutilated survivors of rhino poaching and how one particular incident is reshaping attitudes towards a conservation crisis.
The evening commenced with an introduction by adventurer and survival expert Bear Grylls with opening and closing words by the Born Free Foundation’s founder, Virginia McKenna OBE and CEO Will Travers OBE. To conclude the evening, a small auction was held to raise funds for TUSK Trust and Born Free Foundation to further support their conservation efforts and help tackle the poaching crisis.
Rhino horn has been heralded in Asian society to be a cure for many ailments ranging from hang-overs to cancer; none of these claims has ever been scientifically proven. Rhino horn is in fact made of keratin, a hard fibrous protein also found amongst other mammals as well as in human fingernails. Faced with a direct threat from trade, member countries to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) instituted a ban on the trade of horns from all species of rhino in the 1970s. However, despite this, rhinos are continuing to be poached at an ever increasing rate due to the relentless demand for their horn, driven by an ever increasing black market price. The situation is most critical in South Africa where the largest number of rhino is found. The rhino horn poaching epidemic has grown out of control in recent years with a staggering 668 rhino poached in 2012 in South Africa alone and a further 900 or more predicted to be poached in 2013.
William Travers OBE, CEO of the Born Free Foundation said, “There are possibly 30,000 wild rhino in Africa. As one of the continent’s most iconic species, it’s impossible to imagine their extinction. But it could happen. The Northern White Rhino is all but gone. The Western sub-species of the Black Rhino is no more. Now a wave of poaching is sweeping the creatures’ last strongholds including South Africa and Kenya, fuelled by demand from South East Asia for spurious, bogus medicinal products.”
The methods used by poachers to dehorn rhinos are deeply shocking, with horns often hacked out with the rhino still alive. Whilst many believe dehorning by private rhino owners to be a viable solution this unfortunately is not the case as such is the demand for rhino horn that these rhino are still targeted for the miniscule amount of re-growth horn they may still carry and even young rhinos are not spared.
Dr William Fowlds has worked across South Africa and is used to dealing with difficult situations, but nothing quite prepared him for the sight he came across on 2nd March last year at the Kariega Game Reserve when he was called to help three rhinos who had had their horns brutally removed. The poachers had even taken part of the rhino’s bone and skin in the process, leaving the rhinos for dead.
Sadly, one of the rhinos had already died from its injuries but luckily two had survived the attack, a male, later named Themba (meaning hope) and a female named Thandi (meaning courage). Despite their horrific injuries, the decision was made to give the two rhino a chance at life rather than euthanizing them straight away and so the challenge began.
Unfortunately, as the poachers had used veterinary drugs to immobilise the two rhinos, all Will and his team could do initially was try and bring them out of their anaesthetized state and to their feet. The horrific injuries to their faces could not be treated until day three and by this time infection and other complications had already set in. The holes in their frontal sinuses were so big that Will could fit both his hands inside and a great deal of dead tissue had to be removed. As if this wasn’t enough, not only were both rhinos having to cope with the excruciating pain from the trauma they received to their faces, but poor Themba was also having to battle with a horrendous leg injury. He had fallen on his leg during the attack and due to the drugs administered by the poachers, had not been able to move from this position for the entire night, causing the blood flow to his leg to be cut off and the leg to become severely infected.
Will and the team at Kariega worked tirelessly to save the two rhinos, checking on them regularly and tending to their wounds as much as they could but unfortunately, after a gruelling and agonising 24 days they sadly lost Themba after he fell into a watering hole and was too weak from his injuries to pull himself out. Will and the team were distraught that they were unable to save Themba; most of the crew had known him from birth and his bravery through this ordeal had inspired them.
Miraculously however, Thandi has now recovered to the point where she needs no further treatment, proving that their efforts were not in vain.
Dr Fowlds story of Themba and Thandi should be used as a catalyst for action. This kind of brutality must not be allowed to continue and it is up to all of us to spread the message that we should say no to any trade in rhino horn if we are to secure a future for one of the world’s most charismatic species.
Tara Stimpson – Marketing Assistant – Born Free Foundation
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