Doctor Charles van Niekerk works on the horn of a bull rhino at the Lion & Rhino Park in the Cradle of Human Kind.The rhino was captured and had a tracking device placed in its horn in attempt to prevent poaching. The rhino subsequently died after the attempt. 090212. Picture: Chris Collingridge 970

For 45 minutes it went well – “swimmingly well”, in fact. In those 45 minutes on Thursday, journalists, both local and international, watched as wildlife vets worked on the horn of a sedated rhino.

The old bull rhino’s name was Spencer, and he was just the latest in the herd to have his horn doctored – a measure to prevent any further poaching in the Lion & Rhino Nature Reserve at the Cradle of Humankind.

The plan was to drill into Spencer’s horn, take a DNA sample, then place a microchip and a transmitter inside.

The vet in charge of the operation, Dr Charles van Niekerk, had done this procedure at least 10 times before.

Then something went wrong.

Spencer’s limbs began to quiver. Earlier, his legs had shaken – but that is called paddling, said the vets, something that is normal in darted rhinos. But now those shakes were more like spasms.

A vet noticed a flutter in Spencer’s heartbeat. Those journalists watching didn’t realise the danger Spencer was in. The bull had developed an arrhythmia. His heart was packing up.

The journalists and spectators were told to go back to the visitors’ centre, and it was there that they learnt that Spencer had died.

“We immediately closed up the hole (in his horn) and attempted to wake him up,” said Van Niekerk.

“Up to that point, everything had proceeded swimmingly,” said Lorinda Hern, the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve’s marketing manager.

They couldn’t wake Spencer up. The vets, working with the bull, suspect that his age and a possible underlying heart condition killed him.

But Spencer did have a dark side. In recent years he had become a problem animal, had tried to dominate the herd and had killed several calves.

Spencer’s last hour alive began when a small Robinson helicopter buzzed him and separated him from the herd. Vets working on the ground darted him.

After the drug had taken effect, the crew blindfolded Spencer and got to work. They placed cottonwool in his ears, so as not to stress him. The media were there to see the entire procedure.

 

Never before, said Van Niekerk, had a rhino died on him. The procedure, he said, was safe. Spencer will be autopsied to try to establish the cause of death. - The Star