BELA-BELA, South Africa – "Dancing with rhinos," the South African veterinarian joked as he supported the head of his staggering, nearly 2-ton patient, an injured rhino woozy with sedatives.
Dr. Gerhard Steenkamp's allusion to "Dances with Wolves," a 1990 film starring Kevin Costner, injected humor into the serious business of treating the 5-year-old, female rhino named Hope, a yearlong saga that began when poachers darted her and then hacked off her horns and part of her face. Since then, the mutilated rhino has had at least 16 medical procedures requiring anesthetics, testifying to her resilience and the tenacity of caregivers learning about the threatened species as they go along.
"We don't even know what antibiotics to give it, we don't know what painkillers to give it, at what dosage," said Dr. Johan Marais, an equine and wildlife surgeon at the University of Pretoria who works with Steenkamp. "We don't know the anatomy of the legs. We don't even know the anatomy of the face, where we work."
Wildlife veterinarians say there is an urgent need for anatomical research on rhinos, which have been heavily poached for their horns, because an increasing number survive attacks and need treatment for injuries including gunshot wounds or deep cuts from axes or machetes. Similarities between horses and rhinos serve as a rough guide for drug regimens for rhinos, according to Marais.
The facial reconstruction of Hope, whose gaping wound left her sinus cavities exposed, is a see-saw of progress and setbacks. The rhino has suffered maggot infestations, had wire stitches and steel screws drilled into her skull and has torn off protective coverings by rubbing her face against the sides of her pen. Still, the wound has closed by about 60 percent and veterinarians estimate Hope will require care for at least another year and a half.
For easier access, the conservation group treating the rhino, Saving the Survivors, moved her this year from eastern South Africa to a wildlife-holding facility in Bela-Bela, north of Johannesburg. South Africa, home to most of the world's rhinos, is struggling to curb the slaughter of the species, whose horns are coveted in parts of Asia, particularly Vietnam. Some consumers believe the horns have medicinal benefits, but there is no supporting evidence.
Last week, veterinarians fixed medical elastic bands across the sedated rhino's wound, a new treatment using equipment provided by a Canadian company, Southmedic. The bands are designed for human patients who have received abdominal surgery and act like shoelaces, stretching skin on both sides closer together.
A cloth covering Hope's eyes and cotton wool stuffed in her hair-fringed ears blocked out movement and noise that might have jolted her from slumber.
"I see she's getting a little bit awake because she's flicking her tail a bit more," said veterinarian Jana Pretorius, who monitored the rhino's breathing and blood pressure while injecting antibiotics and other drugs. At one point, workers got the rhino on her feet and steadied her great bulk as she swayed.
A rhino can suffer potentially fatal muscle damage if it lies or sits too long in one position because its tremendous weight reduces blood flow.
Hope's veterinary team say she deserves treatment as long as there is a chance of recovery and, eventually, giving birth. Remarkably, there are signs that Hope's upper, smaller horn is growing back, albeit at a lopsided angle — it might have to be removed if there is a risk of infection or some other complication.
"There are many nights that I lie awake and I worry and I wonder, 'What shall we do next?' It's probably the animal that has challenged me the most in the last 20 years of my life," Marais said.
But he added: "It's a good feeling."
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