The rhino who survived against all odds

A rhino in South Africa gets a second chance at life thanks to some clever veterinarians, and a dead elephant.

Back in May, orn pope the Black rhino went through something too traumatic for most of us to imagine. Poachers snuck into her home in South Africa’s Lombardi Game Farm, stuck her with a sedation dart, and once she was down, hacked off her horns and left her for dead.

Dr. Gerhard Steenkamp and his colleague Dr. Johan Marias from the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Veterinary Science are the co-founders of Saving the Survivors, one of the few organizations focusing on the recuperation of horn-poaching victims. Steenkamp says cases like Hope’s have become all too familiar—with an ironic surge in poaching since 2008 when it became illegal to export hunting trophies. The last three years have been some of the worst on record for rhinos, and things are getting worse. In 2012 poachers killed 668 rhinos in South Africa, then 1004 in 2013 and 1215 in 2014.

‘Lots of money is going into anti-poaching methods, which is fantastic,’ says Steenkamp, ‘but almost no one was looking out for animals who somehow made it through these events. Rhino horn has become one of the most expensive commodities on earth, and we were simply not equipped to handle the repercussions.’

Steenkamp says he and his partner have tried a lot of methods to heal poaching wounds since they began in 2012, but Hope gave them pause.

‘Most animals we see have some bone carved away, but Hope had most of her face hacked off. We normally use orthopaedic screws secured in the bone to hold a hard plastic cover over the wound, but Hope didn’t have much left to work with,’ says Steenkamp. ‘And a graft was out of the question—Hope’s gash was massive, roughly 56 by 30 cm.’

Back in May Hope underwent the first of her many scheduled surgeries, but despite trying new tricks, nothing worked overly well. The tenacious rhino had a tendency to remove coverings by rubbing them off, causing the team to try a procedure only just tested with another rhino, iThemba (another ‘Hope’ in Zulu). In late August Steenkamp fitted Hope with an elephant-hide patch sewn in place with steel sutures.

The hide came from a naturally deceased elephant, given to the team by a local taxidermist, and Steenkamp says it could be the answer. ‘It’s thin enough to be flexible but also pretty much impervious to the elements and maybe Hope’s best efforts to rub it off.’

Hope still has a long road ahead before she can potentially get back to regular rhino life in the wild. Steenkamp says it will take around 18 months for her wounds to heal, replacing the patch once a month if they’re lucky.

Hope’s estimated to be four or five years of age, so there’s still time for her to make her mark—she could live to be 35. As for Hope’s psychological recovery, that’s a far murkier matter, but Steenkamp says she recently greeted one of her caretakers at the fence of her enclosure, a rare act for a wild rhino.

‘I do think these animals remember what humans did to them, but they also seem to have an amazing capacity to forgive, and we need to take advantage of that.’