WORLD RHINO DAY – 22ND SEPTEMBER 2011

A true story – ‘GEZA’ the white rhino  – THE FINAL HOURS’

 

Last weeks article focused on facts and figures around rhino and poaching in Southern Africa. This year alone 287 rhino have been poached in South Africa. Having just completed a six week conservation awareness tour of New Zealand and Australia, part of our presentation included film footage of a rhino whose horns were hacked off whilst alive. I had seen the footage on a local current affairs program and it had moved me so much that i made contact with the vet who had bred this rhino to get permission to use the footage.  I have always wondered how he has mentally coped with the trauma and while we were on tour i received a letter from Dr Fowlds describing this experience. These are excerpts from his letter.

 

‘This is the story of a white rhino callously mutilated by poachers, his horns and part of his face hacked off with pangas and left alive.’ – Dr Will Fowlds

 

On the 11th February 2011 I found myself forced into a personal experience of the most horrific, man-inflicted animal suffering. An experience that has affected me beyond what I thought was possible. More than five months on and I still struggle to contain and express the emotions burned within me. I don’t expect to make sense of it, or the similar rhino deaths that take place daily in my country. I do intend to ensure that the account of this one rhino’s tragic end, will reach into the conscience and hearts of all men and women, and compel each of us to do something towards stopping the suffering of this magnificent species and others like it.

 

I count myself truly blessed to be able to live my dream as a wildlife vet in a part of Africa that satisfies my senses and fills my soul.  One of my many privileges is that I get to work with rhino in the wild. These living dinosaurs are truly iconic symbols of our successes and failures as custodians of this planet.  The current rhino situation is a dying testimony of our conservation efforts. If we are not able to save the rhino from extinction, this flagship species that’s larger than life, what hope do we have of saving the rest?

 

On that fateful morning in February, I was called by the owner of a private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape, who informed me that one of their rhino had been poached. Horrific memories flooded my senses from a few months before, when a rhino was poached on my own game reserve.  Knowing how slow the initial crime scene proceedings can take, I expressed my heart-felt remorse and said I would get there later in the morning. There was a silent pause before the sledge-hammer response….. ”William, he is still alive! The horns are gone, it’s a bloody mess”. As I now drove rapidly to the location, the description and the circumstances around this animal started to sound familiar.  Two rhino from my own reserve, had been moved to this reserve three years before and I prayed it wasn’t one of them.

 

On approaching the location where the rhino had last been seen, I was struck by the tranquil beauty of the place.  The horror of that first encounter will remain branded in my memory forever. There in a small clearing stood an animal, hardly recognisable as a rhino, his profile completely changed by the absence of those iconic horns attributed to no other species. More nauseating was the skull and soft tissue trauma extending down into the remnants of his face, to expose the underlying nasal passages.  As he became more aware of my presence he lifted his head revealing pieces of loose flesh which hung semi-detached from his deformed and bloodied face. He turned in my direction, his left front leg providing no support and could only be dragged behind him. To compensate for this, he used his mutilated muzzle and nose as a crutch and staggered toward me. His one eye was injured and clouded over, adding to his horrific appearance.

 

At first I stood in unbelieving shock at the sight before me and then, the realisation of the pain he must be in overwhelmed me. What possible way could I have any reference of understanding the agony he was in?  How long had he been like this?  I crouched down trying to steady my shaking hand which held my camera I had brought with me, as I realised that this was possibly “Geza” a young rhino I had bred and sent to this sanctuary three years ago. Thoughts and emotions raged through my head. How low, had we as humans had fallen to inflict so much suffering on such a magnificent creature whose care had been entrusted to us?  Without thinking I apologised under my breath, “I am sorry boy, I am so, so sorry.” His breathing quickened in response to the sound.  I was close enough to see the blood bubbling inside his skull cavities and wondered how every breath must add to the agony, the cold air flowing over inflamed tissues and exposed nerves.  I expected at any moment for his suffering to snap into a full blown rage, but it never came. I backed away slowly but he kept staggering in my direction, not showing any aggression, just one agonising effort after another.  The thought crossed my mind that this animal who was in an incomprehensible amount of pain, could be desperately seeking something, anything, to take away the pain, that he a comprehension of finality, a broken spirit crying out to die.  I didn’t trust my own eyes to recall the detail of these injuries and so I recorded some images, and backed away from this vortex of emotions and pain.

 

As i walked back to my vehicle, the weight of responsibility began to descend on my shoulders. This animal, having suffered at the hands of my own species, through at least one night of absolute agony, now relied on me for relief from this torture. Believing I was fairly hardened to trauma and the sight of poached rhino and mutilated bodies I was overwhelmed by emotions of anger, despair, regret and shame, more than anything I had ever experienced. This brought the suffering of this and many other rhino right into the living room of my soul.  If we are shaped by our experiences, then this experience was a watershed moment in my life. Part of that watershed was out of my control, but the other part involved decisions which were optional and would take me across an ethical line which had been formed by a lifetime of nurturing and training.  Knowing that this reserve relied on my professional opinion on what to do next, I buried my personal emotions and gave three recommendations. Firstly, I confirmed their fears that, in my opinion, there was no chance of saving this life and the most humane thing to do would be to end this tragedy by euthanasia for this animal. Secondly, I asked for time to consult with some of the other vets who had experienced similar survivors just in case there might be some hope for this animal.

 

Thirdly, with considerable trepidation, I asked if they would consider allowing the world to see the horrendous suffering that was taking place a short distance from where we stood. The practicalities, though, would involve getting a camera on site to take broadcast quality footage, something that would take a few hours to happen in this remote part of the reserve. Could a vet, who is supposed to care deeply for animals; who is trained to be the mouthpiece for those that can’t speak for themselves; who more than most should understand the extent of suffering that this animal had gone through and was still enduring, be at ethical liberty to extend the suffering of this animal a little longer?  Would those who do care, and even those who purport not to care, be shocked out of their complacency at the sight of such inhumanity?   If they could, in some way, be made to feel part of the massacre, then perhaps this cruel and senseless killing might stop.

 

It was agreed to call in a camera team to get footage while I phoned colleagues for second opinions. For the next three hours I went back several times and agonised over my decisions while watching his condition deteriorate. During those hours I learned that this rhino was indeed “Geza” – the Naughty One – a male born on Amakhala, the reserve on which I live. He was born in January 2006 as the second calf of “Nomabongo” – the Proud Lady.  Geza’s name came about because from a very early age he would challenge older rhino in a mischievous manner and then bundle back to the safety of his ever protective mother. In social gatherings with other mothers and calves, Geza was always the instigator in the interactions, always playful to a point of seeming to show off.

 

As the hours passed slowly by, the location of the actual poaching was discovered and a crime scene investigation commenced, piecing together the train of events which had taken place there. A large pool of blood marked Geza’s initial fall and where the hacking took place. Pieces of flesh and bone lay in the blood stained grass nearby. He had stood up at some stage and staggered about ten paces before falling on a small tree, where, judging by the signs of his struggling, he had lain for some time. Again, a large area of blood stained earth bore testimony to his solitary ordeal. Every dozen or so paces another pool of blood marked where he had stood a while. I imagined his body going through the phases of drug recovery which, without an antidote, would have taken him through cycles of semi-consciousness before he was plunged back into the reality of his painful wounds. His front left leg had been cut off from circulation while he struggled on his side and this accounted for his eye injuries too. When cells get starved of oxygen they die off and release inflammatory chemicals inducing a cycle of swelling, pressure and pain ending in necrosis. By the time Geza was found, he had lost all use of his left front leg. Through blood loss, shock, dehydration and pain this animal was paying dearly for man’s senseless greed.

 

The camera-crew finally arrived and I was finally able to bring this nightmare to an end. The most humane way to end it all was to administer an overdose of opioid anaesthetic.  Within a few minutes the drugs were taking effect, I knew that the pain would be subsiding as he began to slip away. One final close up inspection of his wounds confirmed there was no going back and I injected more anaesthetic directly into his bloodstream. A sense of relief mingled with sadness, disgust and shame descended over that small piece of Africa, which for long hours had been gripped in tension and violation. The heavy bullet which would ensure finality to this living nightmare slammed though his skull, with the noise and shock wave blasting out across the landscape, heralding the end to a tortured and agonising struggle.

 

Geza, the Naughty One, who had touched my heart as a playful calf, died while  I held my hand over his intact eye, his shaking body growing still and peaceful.  Geza, who had his horns and part of his face hacked off while he was still alive by poachers, feeding a chain of insatiable greed and ignorant demand. Will this rhino, whose suffering I prolonged, so that the world could get a visual glimpse of this tragedy, end up as just another statistic in a war that rages on? Or, will this rhino’s ordeal touch us in a way that compels us to do something about it?  What I have witnessed ensures that I will never find peace until the killing stops.

 

Rhino Poster.

22nd October is World Rhino Day – please pass on this story to as many people as possible and it is true, rhino horn has no medicinal value.  The killing has to STOP now.  Do your bit for rhino and sponsor a Rhino Acre in Southern Africa – www.environmentafrica.org

Speak Your Mind

*