The white rhino was left to die in 2014.
Poachers had entered the reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, sedated the female with a dart tranquilizer, and hacked off her horns and part of the skull under them. When the reserve’s owners found the rhino days later, news reports said, the gruesome hole in her face was riddled with maggots. But she was alive.
In May, the rhino — who had since been dubbed Hope — underwent facial reconstruction surgery intended to close up that wound. It was the sixth major surgery she had endured since her horns were cut off, according to the Independent Online.
But Hope, whose disfigured face made her a symbol of Africa’s rhino poaching crisis, made it just six more months. This week, the organization that rescued her announced that she had died on Nov. 13, perhaps from a bacterial infection in her small intestine.
“We don’t know yet what dimmed Hope’s light and we are left with a huge ‘WHY?’,” Saving the Survivors posted on Facebook, adding that it was performing additional tests to determine the cause of death.
Hope’s surgery in May was performed — and livestreamed — by veterinarians in northeastern South Africa, where Hope was taken in last year by the wildlife rehabilitation organization that, given the thriving black market for rhino horn, probably has far too much work on its hands. Saving the Survivors focuses on caring for rhinoceroses wounded by poachers, who last year killed 1,175 of the animals in South Africa. The groups says 80 to 120 rhinos that are attacked each year survive, but often with hideous injuries.
“There is no manual on how to deal with the kinds of wounds that we are seeing on poached rhino,” Gerhard Steenkamp, one of the veterinarians who heads the organization, said in a blog post on the group’s website. “What we are learning every day will allow us to try to ensure the continuation of this iconic species that are being killed for something that has no medical benefit to humans.”
Hope had become an ambassador for rhino survivors, but not always a star patient. She removed the plates that veterinarians previously drilled into her skull to cover the wound, by rubbing them against her enclosure. Nevertheless, Johan Marais, the veterinarian who founded Saving the Survivors, told reporters before the surgery in May that 60 percent of her injury had healed, though it remained a major hole that exposed her sinuses, as seen in this video (which is not for the weak of stomach).
The veterinarians used elasticized cords that were imported from Canada and are typically used in human stomach surgeries. They are supposed to pull the skin on both sides of the rhino’s wound together without breaking it, sort of like shoelaces, Marais told reporters. The wound was then wrapped in bandages and blue tape.
“It is the first time this has ever been done on an animal, let alone a rhino,” Marais said, according to Anadolu Agency.
“Two weeks will tell. If she just doesn’t rip it off…The biggest challenge with Hope so far is not to put the dressing on her but to keep them on, as she keeps ripping them off,” Marais said at the time.
One week after the procedure, Saving the Survivors said on its Facebook page that Hope hadn’t yet tried to remove the cords or bandages. And, the group reported, a bit of horn “the size of a fried egg” had grown back. The group said it did not expect much more horn to regenerate — rhinoceros horns can re-grow, but rarely if part of the skull is removed — but still said veterinarians were “gobsmacked.”
Here’s another video on Hope:
And here’s one of Seha, another poaching victim Saving the Survivors treated this week:
This post was updated on Nov. 18 to include information about Hope’s death.