POACHED! – The Tragic Story of Geza the Rhino is told by the veterinarian who attended him, Dr. William Fowlds. Geza was a white rhino callously mutilated by poachers and left alive with his horns and part of his face hacked off with pangas. There have been almost 300 rhinos killed in South Africa this year – and it’s only July!. The story of Geza takes place in our neighbouring province of the Eastern Cape but is relevant to our Garden Route which has also been tainted with this abhorrent violence for greed.
On 11 February, 2011 I found myself forced into a personal experience of the most horrific, man-inflicted animal suffering. An experience that has affected me beyond what I thought was possible. More than five months on and I still struggle to contain and express the emotions burned within me, that churn to the surface every time I talk about that day.
I don’t expect to make sense of it, or the similar rhino deaths that take place daily in my country. I do intend to ensure that the account of this one rhino’s tragic end, will reach into the conscience and hearts of all men and woman, and compel each of us to do something towards stopping the suffering of this magnificent species and others like it. I count myself truly blessed to be able to live my dream as a wildlife vet in a part of Africa that satisfies my senses and fills my soul. One of my many privileges is that I get to work with rhino in the wild. These living dinosaurs are truly iconic symbols of our successes and failures as custodians of this planet. The current rhino situation is a dying testimony of our conservation efforts. If we are not able to save the rhino from extinction, this flagship species that’s larger than life, what hope do we have of saving the rest?
On that fateful morning in February, I was called by Mike Fuller of Kariega Game Reserve, in the Eastern Cape, who informed me that one of their rhino had been poached. My heart sank, as I relived that dreadful feeling, a few months before, which had hit me when news of a rhino poaching on my own game reserve came through. Knowing how slow the initial crime scene proceedings can take, I expressed my heart-felt remorse and said I would get there later in the morning.
There was a silent pause before the sledge-hammer ….. “William, he is still alive!”
Images of the hacked bone and bloodied tissues I had seen previously came flooding back, doubting the truth of this outrageous claim. As I fumbled for questions to check my own doubts, the description of this poor animal began to take shape. “The horns are gone, it’s a bloody mess”, added Mike. I had seen one picture of a rhino who had suffered the same fate and the anger when I saw it the first time, crowded my thoughts as I tried to listen to directions and get my planned day out of the way.
As I drove rapidly for 30 minutes following the directions; the location, the description and the circumstances around this animal started to sound familiar. I remembered that two rhino from my own reserve, Amakhala, had been moved to Kariega three years before and had been joined by another two animals from a different reserve, making a sub-adult group of four rhino. At least one of these four, was now in an unthinkable situation and I prayed it wasn’t one I knew.
On approaching the location where the rhino had last been seen, I was struck by the tranquil beauty of the place. A small, open area alongside a meandering river with broken vegetation joining up into thickets of valley bushveld on the hill slopes. A picture-book setting which could have been used to depict a piece of heaven. It just didn’t seem possible that somewhere here, there was an animal that was going through a living hell.
Mike could not bring himself to accompany me, having been to hell and back already that morning. I grabbed my small camera and began working my way into the wind to where I was told he was last seen. The horror of that first
encounter will remain branded in my memory forever.
In a small clearing enclosed by bush, stood an animal, hardly recognisable as a rhino. His profile completely changed by the absence of those iconic horns attributed to no other species. More nauseating than that, the skull and soft tissue trauma extended down into the remnants of his face, through the outer layer of bones, to expose the underlying nasal passages.
Initially he stood on three legs with his mouth on the ground. Then he became more aware of my presence and lifted his head up revealing pieces of loose flesh which hung semi-detached from his deformed and bloodied face. He struggled forward and turned in my direction, his left front leg provided no support and could only be dragged behind him. To compensate for this, he used his mutilated muzzle and nose as a crutch and staggered forward toward me. His one eye was injured and clouded over, adding to his horrific appearance.
At first I stood shocked in front of the sight before me, then I struggled to comprehend the extent and implications of the jagged edges and plunging cavities extending into his skull. As he shuffled closer in my direction, now scarcely 15 meters away, the realisation of his pain overwhelmed me. I had been so stunned by the inconceivable, I had neglected to consider the pain. What possible way could I have any reference of understanding the agony he was in?
How long had he been like this? Were his efforts to approach me a weakened attempt of aggression towards the source of his suffering or was there a desperate comprehension of finality, a broken spirit crying out to die.
I crouched down trying to steady my shaking hand which held the camera, as I realised that this was possibly Geza, the young rhino I had sent to this sanctuary three years ago. Thoughts and emotions raged through my head. How low had we fallen to inflict so much suffering on such a magnificent creature whose care had been entrusted to us? Could any reason justify this happening? Without thinking I apologised under my breath, “I am sorry boy, I am so, so sorry.” His breathing quickened in response to the sound. Was he trying to smell me, was this their characteristic huffing which is part of natural investigatory behaviour or was this a pathetic version of rhino aggression in response to a source of threat. I was close enough to see the blood bubbling inside his skull cavities and wondered how every breath must add to the agony, the cold air flowing over inflamed tissues and exposed nerves.
Compliments of Dr. William Fowlds and Nikela ~ www.Nikela.org. You are encouraged to spread this story and promote awareness of the Stop Rhino Poaching cause. You can also donate R50 towards Martin Hatchuel when he Skydives for Rhinos.