Deep dive: The wild vet helping reconstruct the faces of rhino

·5-min read
Johan Marais from Saving the Survivors treating Seha (Johan Marais/ Saving the Survivors)
Johan Marais from Saving the Survivors treating Seha (Johan Marais/ Saving the Survivors)

Dr Johan Marais spends his days reconstructing the faces of rhinos that have been left barely alive, in fields across South Africa, after savage attacks from poachers.

The vet deals with animals that have been shot, cut open or wounded by poachers looking to smuggle horns.

The horn of a rhino is made of keratin, the same substance as fingernails, which means it can grow back. It’s considered to be worth more by weight than cocaine, so traffickers go to great lengths to smuggle it out of, or around, Africa.

Dr Marais’ work and that of his team at Saving the Survivors, a dedicated charity focused on treating rhinos, is considered vital as he is one of few wild vets that can help reconstruct badly injured rhinos.

 (Johan Marais/ Saving the Survivors)
(Johan Marais/ Saving the Survivors)

South Africa is home to 80 per cent of Africa’s rhino population, but, due to poaching, they number just 25,000 with about 1,000 killed every year for their horn.

Now, Dr Marais has joined our Stop the Illegal Wildlife Trade campaign in demanding that syndicates stop poaching, smuggling and consuming wildlife.

Our campaign seeks an international effort to clamp down on poaching and the illegal trade of wild animals, which remains one of the greatest threats to biodiversity in the future.

Last year 394 rhinos were poached in South Africa, 30 per cent fewer than the year before and the lowest yearly tally since 2011. The majority of these incidents came from Kruger National Park (245) and the Kwa-Zulu Natal (93), according to South Africa’s Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries.

Some have praised the lockdowns imposed by government and believe these have contributed to the low poaching figures, while others say that because so many rhinos have been killed, there are hardly any more left for criminals to poach.

 (Johan Marais/ Saving the Survivors)
(Johan Marais/ Saving the Survivors)

But what’s it like working in one of the deadliest trades, in a country where the animals you’ve been asked to care for are dying at a rapid rate?

The Evening Standard spoke with Dr Marais about job and how he’s contributing to the fight against the illegal wildlife trade.

This interview was conducted just a month after Dr Marais’ team rushed to the aid of a rhino that had been shot in the leg following a poaching attempt on a private reserve in the Limpopo region.

His team of rangers managed to locate the injured rhino and direct a helicopter through thick bush so that he could dart and immobilise the wounded animal before treating it.

How would you describe your job?

“In the beginning when poaching first started, there was a massive issue with rhinos being shot and having their faces hacked off. We first saw this issue when we started ‘Saving the Survivors’ back in 2012. We decided to just focus on Rhino’s because there were a lot of injuries.

“We would either get a call during the day, or the previous night, and then depending on where it is it would take either a two or three hour drive to get to this injured rhino.

“If it’s further than that, then we would fly to the area, immobilise the animal and then we would either treat the gunshot wound, or if it’s a fracture, we’d deal with that.

“We actually treated a lot of fractures because the poachers aim was luckily not so good.”

 (ESI Media)
(ESI Media)

What are your typical working hours?

“Because in South Africa you often have to immobilise these animal when it’s hot - you sometimes actually have to get up at four o’clock in the morning to avoid the heat.

“In winter time, which is what we’re in now, it’s much better because it actually doesn’t get that hot now and you can work better.

“You can easily stay at work until five o’clock in the evening and head off but summer time is a problem because you often wake up at four and leave around seven.”

How do you know where rhinos have been poached - do you wait for people to contact you?

“We are either contacted by the owner of the rhino, the police, by the local veterinary or passerbys.”

Did the pandemic and the lockdowns that soon followed affect your work?

“During our lockdown 4 and 5 we were still able to travel because we got special permits to travel and because people couldn’t move around - the poaching actually decreased substantially last year for about three, four months.

“But the moment that restrictions eased it just increased so severe lockdowns seemed to work in favour of our animals because people can’t move around.”

What are some of the challenges you experience in your job?

“When we tried to treat some of these facial wounds in the beginning it was a massive challenge, because we didn’t know how to close these injuries.

“Another challenge is that the skin of a rhino’s face is exceedingly thick. So much so that there was no commercial medical person that was available and could actually penetrate the skin of a rhino properly.

“Whether you go to medical or human science it just didn’t exist. So it was a matter of thinking, ‘if we do put an antibiotic or whatever onto these mess of wounds - how do you cover it or do you keep it in place on on the face of the rhino’.

“So we had to work with engineers to actually get a specific instrument that would penetrate the skin of a rhino.”

How has the growth of your team over the last few years helped save more rhinos?

“We did manage to expand the team. In the beginning it was quite a challenge because it was only me but at least we now have four veterinaries so makes it easier.

“We are really scattered throughout the country so it’s much easier for people to get access to us and our work.”

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