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Baby rhino symbolises hope for South African Game Reserve

February 14, 2015
After the attack three years ago, Thandi has had surgery since the attack to help the healing. She may never heal completely because of normal rhino behaviour and the scars were too deep in the bone for skin to graft to. Now that she has had a calf its a sign to all who care for her that they have done the right thing

Thandi showing the scars from the attack three years ago.  The rhino has had surgery since the attack to help the healing. She may never heal completely because of normal rhino behaviour and the wounds being too deep in the bone for skin to graft to. Now that she has had a calf its a sign to all who care for her that they have done the right thing by treating her, as they didn’t know sometimes if she should be put down or not.

As a journalist in Vietnam, I came across the country’s illegal trade in rhino horn with South Africa when Vietnam’s last rhino was killed in 2010. Since then rhino poaching deaths in South Africa have grown from 333 to over 1200, but a month ago an incredibly brave rhino, who survived a brutal poaching attack, had a calf. The birth has been heralded as a symbol of hope, so I came to see this very special rhino called Thandi for myself and meet the people at Kariega Game Reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, who have helped her on her amazing journey of recovery.

The assistant head ranger at Kariega Game Reserve, Jacques Matthysen, known to his friends as Matt, is passionate about rhino conservation.

He smiles as he leans against the 4WD somewhere in the reserve’s 9000 hectares.

I’m out here with Matt and a local TV crew to see Thandi, one of the few rhinos in South Africa to survive a poaching attack.

ABOVE. This video shows Thandi’s calf hiding in the thicket almost 4 weeks after the birth. I was taken into the hiding place in the last light of the day and focusing through the dense thicket was very difficult. Rhinos generally stay out of sight for about 6 weeks after giving birth.

We talk while we wait for the Head of the Reserve Protection Agency, Mirko Barnard, to come back with news of where Thandi is hiding in the dense thicket below us.

The ranger says he can’t believe that Mirko and his young anti-poaching offsider, JC Crouse, didn’t take a video when they were lucky enough to witness Thandi give birth in the bush.

There’s no excuse, Matt says, the two anti-poaching guys had plenty of time to get out their iPhones to video the baby rhino’s arrival.

“A wild rhino giving birth and they don’t think to get a picture?” he shakes his head.

“Not just a wild rhino, the most famous wild rhino?”

Matt has nine years of working with Thandi. He loves the new mother like she was family.

The Southern White Rhino and Matt have shared the best times and the worst; he’s been with her during her 16 month pregnancy and he’s been with her through the most agonising nightmare that a rhino can endure.

Vet Will Fowlds gives Thandi emergency first aid after the attack. He says the poachers must have hacked desperately at the rhinos heads to try and get the horns off quickly. When Themba died Dr Fowlds was so distraught he went down to the water and stroked rhino's back

Vet Will Fowlds gives Thandi emergency first aid after the attack. He says the poachers must have hacked desperately at the rhinos heads to try and get the horns off quickly. When Themba died Dr Fowlds was so distraught he went down to the water and stroked rhino’s back

Thandi was poached for her horn almost three years ago along with two other rhinos at Kariega Game Reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape.

The three rhinos had been out in the open plain for days in plain sight of a road. The poachers came at night, darted them at with tranquilizers, followed them until they were drugged and defenceless, then moved in and hacked their horns off below the bone with pangas (machetes).

Thandi’s injuries were the worst (photos taken on the day show multiple hack marks that didn’t hit their mark) but she was the only survivor. Of her two companions, one bull rhino bled out before the vet arrived and the other bull, Themba, died 24 days later in a waterhole.

The vets and the Game Reserve didn’t find out until Themba’s autopsy that the muscles in the bull rhino’s leg had been slowly dying. The awkward way he had fallen during the attack had cut off the leg’s circulation. Though the rangers tried to hold him out of the water, Themba (which means courage) was too heavy for them and he drowned.

The morning the three rhinos were discovered Kariega decided to call the media and tell the world.

Kariega General Manager Alan Weyer says they don't know how not having a horn effects rhinos socially but dehorning Kariega's rhinos was a choice that had to be made

Kariega General Manager Alan Weyer says they don’t know how not having a horn effects rhinos socially but dehorning Kariega’s rhinos was a choice that had to be made

Though many game reserves try to keep the negative stories about rhino poaching on their properties out of the media, Kariega General Manager Alan Weyer says, “We wanted to let people know what was going on.”

The vet, Will Fowlds, who was first at the scene, says he got the call from Kariega that a rhino had been butchered by poachers and was still alive. He was in the car when he got another call that there was a second rhino.  Ten minutes later they called again to say there was a third.

Grahamstown vet Will Fowlds has developed new knowledge and techniques to treat Thandi which can be applied to other survivors of rhino poaching. He says the impacts of the poaching extend further than the obvious

Grahamstown vet Will Fowlds has developed new knowledge and techniques to treat Thandi which can be applied to other survivors of rhino poaching. He says the impacts of the poaching extend further than the obvious

“It was traumatic before I even arrived,” Dr Fowlds says.

“The rhinos were found within a few hundred meters of each other. It was obvious they had stuck together during the attack.”

An Eastern Cape journalist, Sandy McCowen, who has reported on wars and natural disasters around the world, says the aftermath of the attack was the “worst thing she’s ever seen with animals”.

Port Elizabeth journalist Sandy McCowen says it was chaos the day Thandi was found after the poaching attack

Port Elizabeth journalist Sandy McCowen says it was chaos the day Thandi was found after the poaching attack

The scene overwhelmed her and she cried along with the other journalists present, because the animals were “so defenceless” and obviously suffering such pain.

The TV journalist, who is now doing the follow-up/flipside of the story at Kariega covering the calf’s birth, remembers asking the vets to do something for the rhinos’ pain, but the vets said it was too risky because the pain killers could react fatally with whatever drugs the poachers had used.

“I felt so helpless, so powerless,” she says.

For the crowd of staff, rangers, journos, police and vets running around the reserve’s top plain that day it was a scene they will never forget.

Amid the chaos Thandi got back to her feet and shambled bubbling blood into the bush. At the same time, her horn was being passed through the hands of a syndicate, moving quickly to its final destination in Asia – most likely Vietnam (the biggest end market for rhino horn, sung te giac) or China. The three horns were probably out of the country within two or three days.

The gate by the road where Thandi was found three years ago

The gate by the road where Thandi was found three years ago

Since the media got the story of the mayhem and tragedy that occurred, people from every corner of the world have opened their hearts to Thandi.

Shock and helplessness has turned to joy now Thandi has calved; sheltering with her new son or daughter in dense thicket on the reserve. Much to Sandy’s camera man and editor’s frustration, rhino and calf will avoid the cameras until the calf is four to six weeks old.

The return to motherhood is a return to normalcy for the rhino and a return to normalcy for everyone at Kariega. It’s a sign for everyone around the world who cares, who’s followed her progress on social media, who’s contributed towards the surgery she needed, that rhinos can survive.

Matt, who has the build of a Springbok rugby player and the heart of Aretha Franklin, says what Thandi has accomplished is “remarkable”. He says after the attack he couldn’t speak for a year of Thandi (whose name means “One who is loved”) without crying.

IMG_6551

Matt has worked with Thandi for nine years. He gets angry when he thinks about what happened to her and the constant threat that rhinos face because of the demand in Vietnam

Matt smiles inwardly when he recalls arriving half an hour after the calf was born, “Seeing that little youngster… it was literally just skin and feet and ears.”

“The birth is a symbol of… the best word that comes to mind… is hope.”

“If we carry on doing what we’re doing there might be a little bit more hope in people’s hearts. By bringing out this whole story of the poaching of rhinos to the world it just gives a little more clarity in people’s minds and hearts of what’s going on.”

A member of Kariega’s kitchen staff, Adri Pienaar, says the whole staff at Kariega were saddened by the attack and inspired by Thandi’s fighting spirit and the birth.

Adri, who like Thandi was attacked a few years ago and left for dead, says when she feels like she can’t cope she thinks of Thandi.

“Thandi is an inspiration that people can survive,” she says.

Thandi and her calf are also an inspiration that rhinos can survive.

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