TIJANA SAKOTA

Saving the Survivors is a project through which rhinos, targeted for horn poaching and other traumatic experiences, are cared for and rehabilitated. Established in 2012, the project is spearheaded by two of UP’s own: Dr Johan Marais and Dr Gerhard Steenkamp of the Faculty of Veterinary Science on the Onderstepoort campus. The doctors treat wounded rhinos in their hospital or in the rhino’s original habitat. These habitats are in areas such as Mpumalanga, Limpopo, and the Northern Cape. In an exclusive interview with Perdeby, Dr Steenkamp describes his passion for his practice and further expresses his views about the growing epidemic that is rhino poaching.

Dr Steenkamp is a qualified veterinarian from Onderstepoort. After studying veterinary dentistry at the European School for Advanced Veterinary Studies, Dr Steenkamp joined the veterinary faculty at UP, as stated on the project’s website. Through treating and consulting cases from the Johannesburg Animal Eye Hospital and the Cape Animal Medical Centre, Dr Steenkamp’s practice has since reached neighbouring countries such as Namibia and Zimbabwe. Dr Steenkamp is well known in South Africa and has participated in over 30 international conferences and contributed greatly through academic publications.

When describing what motivated him to establish the project, Dr Steenkamp explains, “I was driving in my car one morning and heard of yet another rhino calf that died while vets were caring for it. Something in me just said [Onderstepoort campus needs] to support the vets in the field as we are all in this together.” He goes further in stating how he approached Dr Marais, who holds an interest in elephants and elephant surgery. Dr Steenkamp suggested that Dr Marais consider working on rhinos as a PhD topic. “We desperately [needed] answers,” Dr Steenkamp states. It did not take a lot to convince Dr Marais.

The severity of rhino poaching is evident in South Africa. Dr Steenkamp discusses how a recent publication states that rhino poaching is “the worst [environmental] disaster” to plague South Africa. “Students reading this edition of Perdeby may not be able to show their [children] a living rhino in the wild one day,” says Dr Steenkamp.

Ike and iThemba are two recent survivors within the Pilansberg and KwaZulu Natal regions, respectively. Dr Steenkamp explains how he and his colleagues are contacted by the local veterinarian, who is usually the first on the scene.

“These men and women deserve all the applause we can give them,” he says. Dr Steenkamp goes on to say that dealing with a traumatised animal of this kind is not something for the “faint hearted”. During rehabilitative surgery, Dr Steenkamp describes how the brutality of such trauma “just simply gets to you, sooner or later”.

The survivors are treated and subsequently fitted with a protective shield which is placed over their wound. “Wound healing in a moist but not wet environment is ideal,” says Dr Steenkamp. He explains how the shield allows the veterinarians to apply dressing products to the wound. This assists with “granulation tissue formation” and, ultimately, healing.

However, Hope, the four-year-old white rhino that underwent the fourth procedure by Dr Steenkamp and his colleagues, is not adapting to the shield as the veterinarians would like her to. She survived one of the most brutal poaching attacks within the Eastern Cape this year. “She rubs her head on boma poles due to the itchiness of the healing wound,” Dr Steenkamp says. The force Hope applies to the shield is too great and the shield detaches from her face. Dr Steenkamp explains how he and his colleagues never considered that they would be confronted with this type of wound. “We are learning fast,” he says. In Hope’s case, the poachers removed all of the bone which supports the horns. Thus, there is no bone which the veterinarians are able to secure the shield onto. Dr Steenkamp gives credit to the many veterinarians and companies that have assisted in the manufacturing the “ideal shield for Hope”. Once Hope has healed, her private owner will decide where she will go. After treatment, if survivors are placed with other horned animals – like another survivor, Thandi – the reserves rely on anti-poaching units for the protection of these animals.

After rehabilitation, rhinos are timid and difficult to approach. They try to run and hide in dense bush for protection, as described by Dr Steenkamp. “[Thandi] would stick to [the] dense Eastern Cape [surroundings] and only after a week [did she] come out into the open,” he says. As their wounds heal, the rhinos progressively start to relax. UP’s Faculty of Veterinary Science is closely linked with the project. The project “cannot exist without the backing of UP”, says Dr Steenkamp.

Both Dr Steenkamp and Dr Marais are senior lecturers within the Department of Companion Animal Clinical Studies. Their involvement and work with rhinos is over and above their normal duties. The department attempts to research better ways to treat targeted rhinos. Dr Mike Kok of the Department of Production Animal Studies at Onderstepoort is a wildlife veterinarian who conducted some of the first work on dehorning rhinos in Zimbabwe in the 1980s. He too conducts this work in South Africa.

Information from the National Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit is presented by Dr Steenkamp. This information indicates how organised crime regarding rhino horn conduits begins with individual poachers and then moves to local, national, and international couriers, buyers and exporters. The international consumer is placed at the top of the hierarchical conduit structure. “There seems to be no clear policy on what is going to happen [to combat rhino poaching],” states Dr Steenkamp. He describes how only national couriers, buyers and exporters have been convicted for their actions in illegally trading in rhino horn. “We need to address the consumers of rhino horn and get them to stop using these products,” argues Dr Steenkamp. He also argues that there is a need to increase the value of life of rhinos rather than the value of rhino horns.

Dr Steenkamp does not believe that there is a single way to prevent rhino poaching. He discusses how anti-poaching units have helped tremendously, as well as dehorning methods used in Zimbabwe and soon to be used in Namibia. However, for dehorning to be effective, whole areas would need to undergo the dehorning process. Dr Steenkamp tells how he is about to undertake a pilot study to determine if “complete surgical dehorning” is feasible.

Dr Steenkamp says that every person is responsible for combating and preventing rhino poaching. Although the majority of the public is not qualified in this area, Dr Steenkamp believes that communication within society’s networks regarding raising awareness of the plight of the rhino is “a very good starting point”. He also says that refraining from involving oneself in “illegal wildlife activities” is a “no-brainer”, but that it still needs to be said. “Do not buy animals or animal products which have not been obtained legitimately,” urges Dr Steenkamp.

Saving the Survivors aims to “save as many rhinos as possible”, Dr Steenkamp says. He believes that by saving targeted rhinos that have lost their horns through poaching, an insurance policy of hornless animals may be created, with the aim of restocking games reserves in the future.

Students of the Onderstepoort campus organise fundraisers for work that needs to be done for these animals. “All the work that we as Saving the Survivors do is done with public funds donated to us,” Dr Steenkamp says. He discusses how the project is receiving sufficient funds to treat the rhinos for the moment. Donations toward the project may be made by visiting SavingTheSurvivors.co.za. One can also contact the project and follow its developments via their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.

“Losing one more rhino is one too many … we are all in this together,” says Dr Steenkamp.

 Illustration: Jackie Zhang

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