By Meghan Frank
Just days after we aired “Last Stand,” a Rock Center story on the epidemic of illegal rhino poaching in South Africa, we received horrible news. Poachers had attacked three of the rhinos featured in our report.
Our Rock Center investigation that aired in February looked at the dramatic spike in rhino poaching in South Africa. The rise in illegal poaching stems from a growing demand for rhino horn in Asia, where the horn is believed to be a miracle cure.
On the night of March 2, poachers targeted several rhinos that belonged to Graeme Rushmere, the owner of Kariega Game Reserve in South Africa. Veterinarian Will Fowlds, who was also featured in our story, rushed to the scene to try to save the injured rhinos. Fowlds found one of the rhinos dead at the scene, but the two others were still alive, clinging to life. Poachers had shot the rhinos with tranquilizer darts, hacked through their skulls with a machete to get every inch of their horns and left them to bleed to death.
Fowlds and the Kariega team began working around the clock to try to save the two surviving rhinos, a female rhino named Thandi and a male named Themba. Fowlds cleaned their wounds, injected them with antibiotics and gave them medicine to try to ease their pain. For weeks Fowlds and the game reserve staff monitored and tended to the rhinos, but after surviving for nearly a month, Themba died from his injuries. Thandi is still alive.
The traumatic experience of trying to save these severely injured rhinos has been heartbreaking for Fowlds, but it’s also been a call to arms.
“I made a promise to a dead rhino, his name was Themba, that I would make every single day, all 24 days of suffering, count, that I would do everything in my ability to turn suffering into a pain-free future for other rhino,” Fowlds said.
Themba’s death is part of a scourge that’s threatening the rhinos in South Africa and the species as a whole. Already this year poachers have slaughtered more than 170 rhinos for their valuable horns.
Rhino horn has long been prescribed to cure fevers and colds in traditional Asian medicine, but demand in recent years has skyrocketed, and some experts believe this is due to a rumor circulating in Vietnam that rhino horn cures cancer. Scientists have found rhino horn’s medicinal value to be next to nonexistent, but demand continues to grow and the price of rhino horn rises with it. Gram for gram, rhino horn can be more valuable than gold or cocaine.
South Africa is trying every means possible to protect the species, but poachers are wiping out rhinos at a rate of more than one a day and conservationists fear the poaching will continue to rise. Already the killing this year is poised to outpace last year’s record death toll of 448 rhinos.
Fowlds says he is trying not to get thrown into a state of despair by the figures.
“The fear of where this is heading could quite easily paralyze us if we don't remain focused on that which we are able to do. In this war, being fought on so many sides, the most important thing is for each one of us to take care of our portion of the frontline,” Fowlds said.
At the moment, Will Fowld’s frontline is tending to the wounds of Thandi, who is still fighting against all odds to stay alive.
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