Lion's Den and Dingle Dell have started a healthy chapter, having been released after their rehabilitation. Photo: Supplied
Cape Town – The Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC) in Limpopo released two white rhinos back into the wild that were brought to the centre five years ago after a brutal poaching attack on a neighbouring reserve left them severely maimed and barely alive.

The condition of the animals that ran off into an undisclosed location on Monday was a far cry from that in which they arrived in 2013. Their horns had been cut off with a chainsaw while they were grazing in the reserve. The bull died on the scene and the two cows were left with gaping holes and their sinus cavities exposed.

Since named Lion’s Den and Dingle Dell by HESC, the two cows have undergone extensive treatment with a team of specialised wildlife veterinary surgeons. 

HESC executive director and founder Lente Roode said: “I will never forget the sight of these poor animals when they arrived at HESC. No creature should have to endure what these two cows went through. While we do our utmost to rehabilitate poaching victims, every incident strengthens our resolve to help eradicate this scourge.”

The treatment of Lion’s Den and her calf Dingle Dell not only saved the animals’ lives, but resulted in a pioneering procedure being developed that would serve as the blueprint for rhino rehabilitation in the future.

For every treatment, the animals were darted and sedated, the wounds cleaned, blood samples taken to check for infection, blood pressure and temperature measured, antibiotic ointment and dressing applied and a protective cast drilled into place over their wounds. Initial treatment entailed cleaning the wounds and closing the cavities with a fibreglass cast that covered the entire nasal area.

However, because the casts were a source of irritation to the animals, they were rubbed off. In subsequent treatments, a sonar machine was used to locate and remove dead tissue, canals spooled and pens drilled into the bone as a supportive base for an acrylic fixture to close the sinus cavities.

After healing sufficiently, skin grafts were harvested and placed in the wounds - a procedure that had never before been performed on rhinos.

Because the healing process caused the wounds to itch and the rhinos to rub off their casts, flies and maggots infested the wounds, resulting in repeated infection.

A metal plate placed over the casts and fixed in place with pop rivets and screws proved a solution to the problem. In August 2016, Lion’s Den and Dingle Dell were dehorned to protect them from further poaching.

It had taken almost 23 months, 26 treatments and close on 400 screws for Lion’s Den to reach this point. Dingle Dell recovered with fewer treatments.

By releasing the animals, their chance of procreating is now greater, as there were not suitable sexually mature bulls at HESC.

Roode said the biggest challenge in terms of rehabilitating rhinos, besides the costly treatments, was the financial burden of providing security to prevent further poaching atrocities.