Elephant skin may save injured rhinos

PATCHED UP: iThemba, the rhino mutilated by poachers for her horn has a good chance of recovery after getting a skin graft from an elephant.  Image by: SAVING THE SURVIVORS
PATCHED UP: iThemba, the rhino mutilated by poachers for her horn has a good chance of recovery after getting a skin graft from an elephant.
Image by: SAVING THE SURVIVORS

Grafts of elephant skin could be a solution to healing rhino injured by poachers.

iThemba, a rhino from KwaZulu-Natal, received a skin graft on Monday last week to treat a wound left by poachers as they hacked out her horn. The graft came from an elephant.

The female rhino was attacked two weeks ago. Poachers got away with one of her horns and killed her baby.

Johan Marais, a wildlife surgeon and a member of the veterinary science faculty at the University of Pretoria, performed the operation, which was funded by NGO Saving the Survivors.

Marais and another vet, Gerhard Steenkamp, work with the NGO to rescue and care for animals mutilated by poachers.

“The problem with such poaching is that they remove the underlying bone. If there is any bone left we can use a fibreglass casting which we attach to the remaining bone with screws,” said Marais.

He said that, when poachers attack rhinos the way they attacked iThemba vets are forced to find new ways of attaching dressings to the skin of the animals.

Marais worked with a taxidermist to test different types of skin from donor animals before the surgery.

Elephant skin, which came from an animal that died of natural causes, was the only kind that was sufficiently pliable, durable and light.

“This is the first time we have used elephant skin to heal a wound on a rhinoceros,” said Marais.

Marais and his team will know the outcome of the surgery in two to three weeks. After that, it will take 12 to 16 months of monthly treatments to ensure satisfactory healing.

There has been an upsurge in poaching and Marais and his colleagues have their hands full, flying across the country to attend to injured animals.

“Every year we are working on more animals. We are getting a lot of calls, especially about rhinos and elephants,” said Marais.

-Kaunda Selisho, Additional reporting by AFP

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