A rhino called Thandi, from the Kariega Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape, has plastic surgery on her face after a poaching attack last year. Picture: Supplied

Durban - It was “rhino plasty” of a different kind for a team of surgeons this week when they conducted facial reconstruction surgery on a rhino injured in a poaching attempt.

Rhino Thandi, of the Kariega Game Reserve near Kenton-on-Sea in the Eastern Cape, was dehorned by poachers in March last year and the operation was for skin grafts to repair facial damage.

An update on the Eastern Cape reserve’s website this week, by wildlife veterinarian William Fowlds, of Investec Rhino Lifeline, said Thandi had woken after an hour of surgery. She had a small dressing over part of her face.

The operation was deemed necessary after Thandi, who recovered after her poaching ordeal, was injured when she was butted by a bull introduced to replace the breeding capacity lost when two prized rhinos were killed in the attack.

Doctors had suspected that Thandi’s new skin was not strong enough to deal with usual rhino life.

Surgeons – including specialist veterinary surgeons Gerhard Steenkamp and Johan Marais, and plastic surgeon Alistair Lamont (who usually operates on humans) – applied three different grafting techniques to areas which were able to receive new tissue.

Fowlds said: “A small strip of skin was grafted from behind her ear, another from the keratinised area over the place where her back horn used to be, and then multiple small flakes of skin from the side of her neck.”

He wrote that this “pioneering work” would answer questions about the viability of grafting techniques, never before used on a rhino.

“A fourth technique was not applied in the procedure as the tissue bed was not considered ready for this method yet. It is hoped that by the next treatment scheduled in three to four weeks’ time, this may be possible.”

Fowlds said the doctors were all satisfied with Thandi’s progress.

“The Kariega monitoring team will keep a watchful eye on her and report back daily to the surgical team on her progress.”

In March the reserve celebrated the birth of a rhino almost a year after the poaching attack.

The number of rhino poaching incidents has dramatically increased from 333 in 2010, 448 in 2011, 668 last year and 428 this year, according to an update last week by the Department of Environmental Affairs. Most were in the Kruger National Park, KwaZulu-Natal, North West and Limpopo. - The Mercury