Disappointing results of rhino skin graft

Thandi the rhino.
Thandi. (Picture: Fightforrhinos.com)

Thandi is an unusual rhino. Not only did she survive a brutal poaching attack last year, when she lost her horn as well as several of her herd companions, this resilient rhino from South Africa’s Kariega Game Reserve is now helping to break new ground in veterinary surgery, through trialling a number of skin graft procedures designed to treat her wound.

William Fowlds of Investec Rhino Lifeline, and specialist veterinary surgeons Gerhard Steenkamp and Johan Marais, from the Faculty of Veterinary Science, Onderstepoort, spent 14 months collaborating and working on new techniques to repair facial damage in poached rhino, with South African plastic surgeon Alistair Lamont. Their first task was to assess the quality of remaining facial tissues and decide if it was possible some of these new measures could help the regeneration process of robust rhino skin. While studies of the anatomy of rhino skin are available, the tests all involve dead animals. Thandi would be the first live rhino to benefit from this knowledge.

“This team of professionals has the responsibility of taking Thandi safely through an anaesthetic, and ground breaking surgery, and apply ways to repair her face so that she can handle the rigours of rhino life in the future. It’s yet another chapter in a process which has no guaranteed outcomes,” Fowlds said.

Between June and October this year Thandi underwent several surgical procedures and while initial results appeared positive, a recent check has shown the skin grafts were less successful than hoped. Thandi had removed most of the grafted tissues that had been transplanted on the previous two occasions, and only two “small islands of tissue” remained over her front horn area. The exposed bed of granulation tissue was also less blood-rich than anticipated.

“Reports leading up to the procedure indicated that the skin had been traumatised by the rigours of rhino life. It wasn’t clear whether it was due to interaction with a bull, or whether it was simply a result of rubbing and rolling in the mud,” co-owner of the game reserve, Graeme Rushmore said.

“Nature carries far more force than possible human intervention – no matter what we’re trying to do for her. It should be remembered Thandi’s in this position due to poaching, and the procedures we’ve tried are the first of their kind,” he said.

Fowlds said it was clear some kind of hard protective covering would be necessary to allow the fragile tissues time to establish and strengthen themselves. However the possibility Thandi may now be pregnant has forced the team to make the difficult decision and “allow nature and her own resilience to give her a long term solution.”

Rushmore said Thandi might have to live with disability and the ongoing consequences, but despite recovery being a long way off slow progress is being made, and her face is showing some improvement with the wound gradually closing in from the sides.

Blood samples from the latest surgery are being analysed to ensure her vital organs did not suffer from the multiple procedures she has undergone.

“We’re now holding our breath for news of a blood test which should tell us whether she is pregnant,” Fowlds said.

Anne Layton-Bennett


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