Saving the Survivors

Creating Hope From Hurt


Rhino in Kwazulu Natal survives brutal poaching through veterinary intervention | 24th August 2015

iThemba's Shield

iThemba’s Shield

iThemba (Hope in the Zulu language) is a 12 year old White rhino female that was shot along with her 5 year old calf in Kwazulu-Natal. When she was found her face was a mangled mess of damaged tissue and bone. She was down just for long enough so the poachers could start their grizzly work of hacking at her face to get the horns and leaving her for dead. Due to the massive trauma on iThemba’s face treating physician Dr Mike Toft called in Dr Johan Marais of Saving the Survivors, from the University of Pretoria Faculty of Veterinary Science, to see if there was any way this rhino could be saved.

Dr’s Marais and Toft assessed the wound and both decided that she had a good chance of survival. “Her front horn had been completely removed and it looks like the poachers were in the process of removing her back horn when they were either disturbed or she tried to get up. Initially she was slightly lame on her left front leg due to the damage from the bullet, but the lameness has improved substantially.

iThemba Treatment

iThemba Treatment

Drawing from the experience gained from treating other survivors, the wound was debrided and cleaned, antibacterial cream and several dressings that would enhance wound healing were applied to her facial wound. Instead of the hard inflexible shield that has been used on other survivors, a thick leather shield is being used and fastened to the to iThemba’s face using stainless steel suture sutures. It is hoped that this will stay on for 4 weeks.

“As we treat more and more survivors with facial injuries we are learning and gaining vital experience that we can apply to more poaching victims, and in doing so helping them heal quicker and better. Every one is worth saving as poaching numbers are only increasing and if we are to save this species we need to know how to treat these animals” says an impassioned Dr Marais.

iThemba is being closely monitored and follow-up treatments are being planned by the attending veterinarian Dr Toft and the Saving the Survivors team.


“Hope” – Fearless rhino with a desire to survive second makes it through fourth vital procedure | 16 June 2015


“Through the work that Saving the Survivors does, this rhino, Hope, is giving victims of poaching a voice which cries out to the world for our help. She is becoming a living symbol of this poaching crisis, and an inspirational example of the fight for survival against seemingly insurmountable odds. Her struggle to claim back her life and her dignity must become our fight to change human behaviour and restore value and respect and care for all living things.” – Dr Will Fowlds

Hope - The Survivor

Hope – The Survivor

Saving South Africa’s rhino through Surgical Conservation

Saving the Survivors, an organisation committed to rescuing and medically treating injured rhino and endangered species, completed the fourth procedure on Hope, the four year old white rhino that survived one of the most brutal poaching attacks in the Eastern Cape recently.

Hope has become the reluctant hero (or in this case heroine) in the war against poaching worldwide. The organisation, though small, is making huge strides in the treatment of rhino which have been affected by poaching, snaring and other traumatic incidents. Hope has captured hearts around the world and thrown the spotlight on a situation, that until now, has been an African problem with minimal awareness of the dire situation of the rhino crisis internationally.

Hope - Teameffort

Hope – Team effort

“Our motto is ‘creating hope from hurt’. We believe that every rhino is worth saving because in five years’ time there may only be a few rhino left and by then to try and do something will be too late. If we don’t do something NOW we cannot just fix one quickly or make a new rhino out of nothing. We simply cannot allow our rhino population to end up in the same situation that the northern white rhino finds itself at this very moment, virtually extinct ” comments an impassioned Dr Johan Marais who heads up Saving the Survivors together with Dr Gerhard Steenkamp, both from the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Veterinary Science. “When I am presented with a survivor like Hope my immediate reaction is rage. Rage at the fact that a member of my own species has done this to a living breathing animal, it is so foreign to me and upsets me so much that it galvanises my resolve to do everything in my power to save these animals,” he says.

Dr Gerhard Steenkamp had this to say, “If one would ask me exactly what we do my response is ‘Surgical Conservation’. We take our experience as veterinarians and apply it to injured wildlife that we come into contact with. We owe it to these animals to do our best to save them. If we went to every animal and euthanased them there would be no hope. Hope, in this case, survived so long in her mutilated state that we owed it to her to do our best, to give her the best chance at survival. Her tenacity and will to survive has played a major factor in her recovery. There is no manual on how to deal with the kinds of wounds that we are seeing on poached rhino. What we are learning every day will allow us to try to ensure the continuation of this iconic species that are being killed for something that has no medical benefit to humans.”

Hope - Recovery

Hope – Recovery

The procedure on Hope lasted more than three hours. There were four vets in attendance; Dr Johan Marais, Dr Gerhard Steenkamp, Dr William Fowlds and Dr Johan Joubert (who is the resident vet at Shamwari Game Reserve, where Hope is currently being housed and monitored). The wound was cleaned and debrided and a new shield placed over her mutilated facial features. The biggest challenge is keeping the shield in place for extended periods of time, when there is not enough of her skull bone left to anchor it onto. The Saving the Survivors team are currently investigating a variety of materials to try and find the best composite and structure that can aid the healing process.

“When we removed the shield we were satisfied with how the wound was looking. There was little evidence of infection which was encouraging. There was a presence of maggots on the outer edges of the wound but nothing that concerned us. The rate of healing, although not as accelerated as much as we had hoped, was good. There was quite a bit of granulation tissue and the areas closest to her eyes were healing well,” commented Dr Marais.

Hope - Another operation

Hope – Another operation

This time the shield was made out of metal covered with fibreglass. This work is still in its pioneering stages and is far from perfected, but every variation is a step closer to finding a solution that is hardy, light and perhaps flexible enough to protect her face and endure for long enough. There is no handbook on how to make a shield that is best suited to this wound. Five weeks into her recovery, which is expected to take more than a year, Hope is proving to be an incredibly resilient patient. In the context of the current poaching crisis, what is needed from both the animals targeted by poachers as well as the humans who care for them, is an abundance of resilience and the determination to overcome adversity against the odds.

Hope - Desire to Survive second to none.

Hope – Desire to Survive second to none.

The good news is that she is eating and moving around freely 24 hours after the procedure. If there was no shield you would probably not even realise that she has sustained such a horrific injury. “Once again we have to recognise the monumental efforts from the team of people looking after this incredible survivor. Shamwari Game Reserve, for the excellent facilities and care that Hope is receiving, headed up by Dr Johan Joubert and Bruce Main together with Megan Sinclair, who monitors Hope continuously. Thanks must be extended to The Wilderness Foundation and Medivet UK for their contribution to these procedures. And lastly to members of the public from around the world that are spreading the message that every rhino counts,” concludes Dr Steenkamp.


Saving the Survivors

Thandi, one of the first survivors, is now a mother

Thandi, one of the first survivors, is now a mother

2012, 2013 and 2014 has been three of the worst years on record for rhinos. Poachers in South Africa killed 668, 1004 and 1215 respectively in these three years. 2015 is on track for another record year.

As with other wild animals, managerial talk of simply “conserving the species” can miss the point, as if they are to be thought of and cared about only in the collective. But taking the basic numbers — some 65 000 Black rhino in the 1970’s versus a mere 4000 today – this is a species killed off to about 6 percent of its population in the space of half a century. One would never know from those numbers how universally appreciated they are, the esteem in which these “charismatic mega-fauna” are held in every part of the world, at least by people who can look at a rhino and see more than rhino horn to sell or a “trophy” to mount. The mania for rhino horn among carvers, collectors, and well-to-do buyers in Asia is especially hard to comprehend, since no work of man could begin to match the glorious beauty of a rhino. They cherish rhino horn for its “purity,” once the blood is washed off… The White rhino, which is near threatened at 18,500 individuals, and the Black rhino, which is already critically endangered with just 4,000 individuals left in the wild, is facing an uncertain future. Although millions of rands were earmarked for anti – poaching, we still lost 1215 rhinos during 2014…

Project SAVE THE SURVIVORS uses the collective force of the SAVA, University of Pretoria and private individuals and/or companies to look after and treat the survivors of poaching incidents. As time plays a big role in acting and treating these animals as soon as possible to give them the best change for recovering and surviving. We also need to transport the specialized equipment e.g. ultrasound machine, generator, radiographic machine, endoscope and surgical instruments with us. This much needed work will help us to treat survivors so that these animals may have the best chance of survival.

Help us against the war on poaching. We need your help and assistance to reach out and save our precious animals for generations to come.