JOHANNESBURG — A high-value target survives two attempts on her life. After recovering from multiple gunshot wounds, she is secretly moved to an undisclosed location in hopes that the killers won’t track her down again.
This isn’t a Hollywood thriller about a hunted witness in a police protection program. It is the tale of Phila, one of a growing number of rhinoceroses that survive horrific injuries during attempts by poachers to hack off their horns. With her horns still intact, Phila is a rare survivor of a surge in rhino killings in South Africa, home to most of the world’s rhinos.
In a new push, veterinarians are racing to learn more about rhino anatomy so they can swiftly treat survivors of attacks by poachers whose arsenal includes assault rifles and drug-tipped darts. The obstacles are funding, a dearth of past research and the logistics of helping fearsome-looking behemoths that are easily traumatized if moved from their habitat.
There are “suddenly a lot of live rhinos needing medical attention,” said Dr. Katja Koeppel, senior veterinarian at the Johannesburg Zoo, where Phila spent two years before her surreptitious return to a game reserve in November. She cautioned that treatments for rhinos are inexact: “We know very little about rhinos. We treat them as a large horse.”
The South African government says a record 668 rhinos were killed in the country in 2012, an increase of nearly 50 percent over the previous year. Demand is growing in Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia where rhino horn is believed to have medical benefits despite evidence to the contrary. The horn is made of keratin, a protein also found in human fingernails.
Veterinarians say there are no reliable statistics for the number of rhinos injured by poachers, partly because some game reserve owners prefer to keep quiet for fear other criminals will flock to any location known to harbor rhino. Those involved in the protection of rhinos are skittish, and suspicion that people are colluding with poachers is plentiful.
One of Phila’s guardians refused to talk on the telephone, saying: “I don’t know who you are.”
Dr. Georgina Cole, a veterinarian at the Johannesburg Zoo, said she knew of 10 rhinos that survived poaching attacks in South Africa in the past year, and she believes the unreported number is much higher.
Dr. Johan Marais, an equine and wildlife surgeon at the University of Pretoria, said a “conservative” estimate of rhino survivors is 40 to 60 a year. Marais predicted: “As the amount of poaching goes up, we’ll probably get more and more of these survivors.”
Marais said he recently visited a rhino that still had bullet pieces in its flesh from a shooting a year ago. The rhino suffered lingering wound infections. While a few lucky rhinos elude their shooters, others survive a grislier fate: being shot with a tranquilizer dart and having their horns hurriedly carved out of their faces while they are unconscious.
“Guys are calling us up and saying, `Listen, I have a rhino that was poached and its horn has been hacked off. It’s alive. Can you please come and fix it,”` said Marais, who seeks funding for CAT scan software to map the head of the white rhino. Three-dimensional images of facial muscles, nerves, blood vessels and the sinuses around the horns would make surgical treatment easier.
In February 2011, Dr. William Fowlds, a wildlife veterinarian, was summoned to a game reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province where Geza, a rhino, had lost its horns to machete-wielding poachers. The rhino was clinging to life.
“In a small clearing enclosed by bush, stood an animal, hardly recognizable as a rhino. His profile completely changed by the absence of those iconic horns attributed to no other species,” Fowlds wrote in an emotional account. “More nauseating than that, the skull and soft tissue trauma extended down into the remnants of his face, through the outer layer of bones, to expose the underlying nasal passages.”
After consultations, he euthanized Geza with a dart containing an overdose of anesthetics.
Phila, the rhino that recently left the Johannesburg Zoo, was shot a total of nine times on two separate occasions and suffered injuries to her sinus cavity, nose and shoulder area, and she lost hearing in her right ear, according to veterinarians. Despite the heavy injuries, Phila escaped from poachers in both attacks.
Although some bullet fragments could not be removed, she recovered after six months of treatment with antibiotics, as well as a medicinal spray and fly repellent for her wounds. It took another year and a half before her handlers settled on a location in the wild where they thought she would be safe from poachers.
Still, Phila’s departure from the zoo was conducted without publicity because of fears that poachers might infiltrate the zoo or hijack the vehicle transporting her to a game reserve. There are reports of poachers offering more than $1,000 just for a tip about where to find a rhino.
In November 2011, the University of Pretoria hosted a workshop for more than 80 veterinarians who discussed the care of injured rhinos, post-mortem methods and the collection of blood samples whose analysis can guide treatment. One research goal is to be able to make hard choices about whether to try to save an injured rhino, or resort to euthanasia.
Facial gouging is not always fatal, but what seem like minor injuries can be. A rhino sedated by poacher darts might lie too long on its side, causing myopathy — or muscle damage — because the tremendous weight of the rhino’s body reduces blood flow. Myopathy can kill rhinos, Cole said.
Frederick Selous a British hunter and conservationist who died in 1917 wrote how rhinos die quickly if shot through both lungs or the upper part of the heart, but said they “will go on to all eternity” if shot from in front, and the bullet only perforates one lung. He also wrote about the elemental role of the horn in the mother-offspring relationship.
“A small calf always runs in front of its mother, and she appears to guide it by holding the point of her horn upon the little animal’s rump; and it is perfectly wonderful to note how in all sudden changes of paces, from a trot to a gallop or vice versa, the same position is always exactly maintained.”
This month, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a South Africa-based conservation group, said it was recently called to help rescue a 2-month-old rhino that lost its mother to poachers and suffered 18 deep lacerations on her face. The group believes the gang slashed at the baby, whose horns have not yet grown out, because it tried to return to its dead mother while they were removing its horn.
The calf, the trust says, is doing well.