Johannesburg - Kudu skin – too soft. Hippo skin – too thick. Elephant skin – perfect.
An elephant skin plaster fashioned from harvested skin from an elephant that died of natural causes is the basis of a novel approach to treating a horrendously wounded rhino , named Hope, who keeps removing her protective face shield
On Friday Dr Johan Marais and his team at Saving the Survivors fitted the elephant hide plaster over Hope’s huge facial wound in a pioneering two-hour operation at the Shamwari Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape. They hope she will keep it on long enough to allow her to heal.
In May, the 4-year-old rhino survived one of the most brutal poaching attacks. The poachers who removed her horns hacked away some of her face, exposing part of her skull and nasal passages, and left her to die.
But Hope, who has undergone several procedures, including fitting a fibreglass shield over her wound, has clung to life.
She is the second rhino to be fitted with the novel elephant plaster. Last week, Marais, resident vet at Shamwari, fitted iThemba, a KwaZulu-Natal rhino whose face had also been mutilated by poachers, with the elephant hide.
“Because it worked on iThemba, we thought let’s try it on Hope,” explains Marais.
“It looks good so far. If we’re lucky, this may be the material we’re looking for. We can put on the wound dressing and the antibacterial cream… but you need something that’ll stay there and is strong.
“You must remember that you have behind it a 1.5-ton animal that rubs the wound. It has to be strong and tough. So that’s why we think elephant skin may work.”
For the procedure, the team, led by Dr Gerhard Steenkamp, darted Hope, put her under cover and removed the dead tissue. They applied medical grade honey, which acts as a natural antibiotic, put wound sponges in place – and then the plaster.
Steenkamp used stainless steel orthopaedic wire to suture the elephant hide cover in place to secure the dressings.
“We were looking for a long time for a material that’s strong, lightweight, but pliable that you can conform to a wound,” said Marais, who is from the University of Pretoria’s faculty of veterinary science.
“We were struggling over the past eight months to get a material like that. We tried several, but none worked. They were all too rigid. Kudu skin had the same thickness as elephant skin, but the orthopaedic wire we use tore through it.
“Hippo skin was way too thick and couldn’t conform. Then we tried elephant skin, it was really strong. You can put the orthopaedic wire through it and it doesn’t tear out. We may use (skin from) rhinos that died of natural causes in future.”
Hope’s wound is “healing beautifully”, Marais says.
“It’s obviously a horrific, terrible wound. But she is doing well. The next step is to get a companion for her, because she will remain in her enclosure for 12 months or longer.”
Saving the Survivors’ spokeswoman, Suzanne Boswell Rudham, says Hope is “under continuous anaesthetic”. She was given a light dose of anaesthetic, to minimise damage.
“It’s such a relief when she stands up. She got up, huffed and puffed, was a bit grumpy and then basically did a patrol of her new enclosure. She also decided it was a good idea to eat, which is an excellent sign.”
The team remain positive her newest shield will hold. “Obviously, we don’t want to keep sedating her for long periods, and we hope she plays ball. Then again, this is Hope, and she usually has other plans. She’s a diva, she likes the attention,” Rudham laughs. “But the fact she has improved shows she has an iron will.
“She won’t give up.”