(L-R) Chris du Plessis from Surgitech, DR Johan Marais from Saving the Survivors with  Shamwaris vet nurse Megan Sinclaire performing the reconstruction of the face of Hope the rhino. Her face was hacked off by poachers but she survived. Picture: Itumeleng English
(L-R) Chris du Plessis from Surgitech, DR Johan Marais from Saving the Survivors with Shamwaris vet nurse Megan Sinclaire performing the reconstruction of the face of Hope the rhino. Her face was hacked off by poachers but she survived. Picture: Itumeleng English

Groundbreaking facial surgery for rhino Hope

By Sheree Bega Time of article published May 4, 2016

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Shoelaces on steroids. That’s how Suzanne Boswell Rudham described Tuesday's groundbreaking procedure using human abdominal surgery technology to stretch the skin of the world’s most famous rhino, Hope.

The Saving the Survivors team member joined a team of top wildlife vets on a Limpopo plot of land, where they gingerly stitched the elastymers, imported from Canada, onto Hope’s battered face. They are hoping it will heal the massive wound on her face.

Last May, poachers hacked off almost all of her face. But the world-famous animal with the indomitable spirit has clung to life – and has become an ambassador for the conservation of her ever-threatened species, Johan Marais, a wildlife vet and founder of Saving the Survivors, told a small group of onlookers, gathered around him and his team.

There, in a procedure that lasted just over an hour, they inserted pulley systems on her skin to “crank the laces” closed to close the massive cavity on her face.

In Hope’s latest procedure – she has already had five major surgeries and other smaller ones – they used an abdominal re-approximation anchor system, imported from Canada by local distributors Surgitech.

“Basically it’s developed for people who’ve had stomach surgery where they can’t close the wound but they need to be able to close them,” Rudham said. “Whereas before they used it to stitch it and staple it, now this system works where you insert it, so it actually pulls in the tissue without destroying any cells.”

The cells don’t die, so the hope is that Hope will heal faster. In the past year, 60 percent of her face has healed, but she’s not out of the woods yet, said Marais, of the gaping wound, which is constantly attacked by flies and maggots. “We’re hoping to make that cavity a lot closer and then we’ll put a wound matrix over that with collagen for the cells to start growing together,” added Rudham.

Chris du Plessis, a product manager at Surgitech who helped place the elastymer on her face said: “It’s never been used on any animal, and never on a rhino.”

After the procedure, the bandaged rhino chased Marais out of her boma. “That’s Hope – she’s very feisty. Now we know she’s fine because she’s back to herself. The question of if it will work, we’ll see – two weeks will tell. If she just doesn’t rip it off.”

Hope has already had a steel plate inserted over her wound to protect it, and elephant skin placed over it. But it never lasts because she rips it off. “Anything, you name it, she’s destroyed it. But she’s a strong girl. These rhinos are the most resilient. They are prehistoric because they just don’t give up.”

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