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Rhino Themba's passing DAY 25

Jone Haesslich
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Themba’s passing has been desperately tragic and I know that everyone at Kariega is hurting badly having been so intimately involved in his personal struggle to survive. Having deliberated so much about putting him to sleep the day before, his inability to get himself out of the waterhole was a clear indication that he had grown too weak to manage even the simple things he was used to doing.

As I said on day 23 the benefit of hindsight would be the judge of my decisions and now that all information has been revealed, I have to concede that I made the wrong call two days ago. This is my burden, and mine alone.

From the start of this campaign to save these animals we have been determined to ensure that whatever the outcome, I would consult with as many people as possible, give whatever treatment we thought was necessary and ensure that whatever we learned from Themba and Thandi would be used to improve the chances of future survivors. To be true to this promise, under very difficult circumstances, I conducted a post mortem on him with the aid of some of the Kariega team who have been close to him.

What I found hidden under his thick protective skin, has extended my admiration for him even further. The evidence of that first night of assault and what his body endured as he lay there, weakened by pain, loss of blood and the poacher’s drugs, was astounding. It could never be ascertained how long he has been in that position against his left side with his back leg under the weight of his body, so we never knew the exact extent of his injuries. Our normal options to x-ray or scan his body, as we would a smaller animal or pet, simply were not available to us given the size of him. We did our best to use conventional tests on bloods cells and serum to try and get an indication of the extent and progress of conditions not visible from the outside. But the harsh truth of it all, is that Themba’s injuries we far more extensive and far more severe than any of these indicators were able to tell us.

Not only was his bad leg severely damaged by the absence of life giving blood on that first night, he also had extensive damage to the muscles down the left side of his rib cage (intercostals) as well as muscle damage into his left front leg (pectoral muscle groups). The fact that he was able to move as well as he did in the front part of his body is a testimony to the resilience of this rhino. What the post mortem has revealed is that he would never have regained adequate use of his leg and in my mind, with this information now at hand, I now know that his passing was a blessing.

We buried him where he lay and as the ground proudly accepted him back, he took with him the tension that had become a part of that beautiful valley for the past 24 days.

This ordeal he has endured, set in motion by the senseless greed of men who know nothing of their suffering and probably don’t care, this fight which has revealed to us a will to survive beyond our previous comprehension, this tragedy which has captured the hearts of so many; what will his story teach us? What will Themba’s legacy be?

Does that will to survive not tell us the story of his ancestors, who survived when hundreds of thousands of others didn’t? Does his ability to hide such extensive injuries not tell us of a species who have been through the worst of what man and nature could throw at them and made it? Is his story not entwined with other stories that tell of the good side of man, which show that when we do care enough, we do have the ability to bring species like this back from the brink? Themba fought with such bravery to overcome that which the poachers stole from him. Kariega stood with him and gave him the best chance that they could offer him. Many others poured their time and assistance in helping us be the best we could be for him, and still we failed. Still I failed.

The past day’s events have taken me to the lowest point of my battle to help save a species. I know many others feel the same. What we do now is the true test of our resolve to overcome the evil that threatens to overwhelm the worlds remaining rhino. Our ability to act, to actually do something to make a difference, will be the measure of who we are.

On Day 14 I wrote, “Themba and Thandi, surrounded by all we value in nature, live on as icons of animal suffering and the determination to survive. They stand guard at the gate, one strong and one weak, that will lead to the demise of thousands more species because of our apathy. They are adopted, as champions of a cause which goes far beyond “Saving the Rhino” because if we don’t save the Rhino, who move us to this extent, what hope do we have of saving the rest.”

Even though Themba’s life is ended, he has moved us and his legacy lives on. From now on we focus all our treatment efforts on Thandi, even more determined to keep searching for ways to do better for rhino than what we currently can. The legacy of Themba, and all he has taught us, remains at the gate, with Thandi, reminding us of our shortcomings, motivating us to do more, so much more. My promise to him was that I will do everything that I possibly can to make every single day that he suffered count.

I gave two talks to schools today one at Kingwood College and one at St Andrews Prep. Over 600 school children who face the very real possibility of their adult lives devoid of rhino. These young lives are hungry to help save this species and what a powerful force they could be. After the second talk the boys of St Andrews Prep placed out almost 900 crosses along the side of the busy road which passes the school. Each cross representing a rhino killed by poachers since the beginning of 2010. Themba who has carried the heaviest of crosses, is represented there with so many others in the killing fields, a symbol of our shame, an icon of their struggle, an ambassador with the freedom to take their story around the world...with your help.

Will Fowlds