Date Published:

Thursday, January 3, 2019 - 17:30

In a sterling example of the inherent collaboration that drives the conservation machinery in KWS, the afternoon of Friday, 28th December, 2018 saw a veterinary team led by Dr. Matthew Mutinda enter Nairobi National park via East Gate, along Mombasa Road.

The team then criss-crossed the network of roads within the Park in an attempt to find the easiest access route to a location in the Athi Basin area of the park, where an apparently grievously injured rhino had been spotted.

The park’s rhino monitoring unit had reported a sighting of a female black adult rhino, sporting a serious injury on her left hind limb. The animal, named Toprian was accompanied by her calf, which appeared to be in excellent health.

The veterinary team drove off-road in a vehicle donated by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to reach the rhino team, consisting of two land cruisers and a team of 20 uniformed personnel.

Within moments of the vets’ arrival, a KWS bell 407 helicopter 5Y KWM flew into the park and Dr. Mutinda boarded, tranquilizer gun at the ready. He proceeded to expertly administer the tranquilizer – via a dart - to the female and the calf took to its heels, no doubt terrified of the whirring chopper rotor blades.

The tranquilizer is a strong opioid whose pivotal goal is to render the rhino free of pain and anxiety for the duration of a surgical or other therapeutic procedure, with a prompt return to baseline functioning when the procedure is complete. One out of the three KWS vehicles on the scene sped off to follow the fleeing calf in an attempt to herd it back to its mother.

A white luxury SUV belonging to some tourists stood not far off, the male driver taking photos and video of the whole operation with what appeared to be a telephoto camera. 

In the meantime, Dr. Mutinda sprung into action; administering oxygen in order to manage the animal and ensure that it stayed alive. Meanwhile, an assistant had covered the animals’ face with a soft scarf to prevent the eyes and ears from visual excitation and to keep her calm.

The opioid administered to induce unconsciousness may have side effects, including overheating. As such, water was liberally poured onto the unconscious rhino to prevent such a possibility. Dr. Mutinda then proceeded to collect parasite (ticks) and blood samples, plus other biological tissue off the animal’s body for later analysis in the KWS laboratory.

Wildlife genetics research not only furthers understanding of which animals are at risk for particular diseases, but ongoing discoveries can also lead to the development of diagnostic tests and potential gene therapies, resulting in earlier disease intervention and improved health outcomes. Such information will be the basis for more informed decision making on the part of Park Management.

After these routine procedures, Dr. Mutinda examined the nasty-looking wound on the back hind leg of the rhino. The injury on the limb resembled an avulsion, meaning that large chunks of tissue on the area were missing, including all three layers of skin. The cause of the serious injury could not be immediately established.

The veterinary then flushed the wound with plenty of water to remove all dead matter. He also excised the dead flesh bordering the wound. Iodine was then administered to the cleaned wound to enhance rejuvenation and healing. A blue spray was applied as well, to prevent carnivorous insects from interfering with the healing process.

Dr. Mutinda then administered an antidote to rouse the rhino out of its tranquilizer-induced sleep. He exhorted those present at the scene to observe strict silence so as not to bother the patient. “The prognosis for the rhino is good, although there might be need for one further follow-up treatment to ensure a full recovery,” he said.

He then instructed everyone to get into the vehicles and remain motionless, lest the animal charge when fully conscious. The rhino eventually came round and staggered to her feet, appearing disoriented. Eventually she edged away seemingly looking for her calf. Rhinos have poor eyesight; unable to see beyond 30 metres, but their sense of smell is acute.

The rhino teams, satisfied that the female was up and about, joined their colleagues in searching for the prodigal calf. Communication was through hand-held radios, with the vehicles having to stop severally for the rangers to alight and search the horizon for a trace of the missing calf. The unforgiving terrain, marred by extremely stony ground in some areas and impossibly tall grasses in others, made for a Sisyphean task indeed.

All this time, the tourist SUV closely trailed the rangers as they worked, in one instance actually blocking the road whilst taking footage of the goings-on.

The rangers took it all in stride as they went ahead on foot, rifles at the ready, to search out the routes presenting the least obstacles for the drivers to take which would result in the smoothest passage for the vehicles.

The baby rhino was spotted standing near another adult black male rhino, while three other adult white rhinos stood at distance. The male fled upon sighting the vehicles approach the calf, as did the white rhinos. The calf turned around and ran back in the direction from whence it came, to the excitement of the cheering rangers, who were anxious to reunite it with its mother to keep it safe from predators.

Three days later, the KWS Rhino monitoring team confirmed that Toprian is well on the way to making a full recovery, and that she was eventually reunited with her calf, at last.