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STROOP’s filmmakers, Bonné de Bod and Susan Scott, were at a groundbreaking operation earlier in the week, and this is their exclusive report for Africa Geographic.

Filmmaker of STROOP Bonné de Bod ©Susan Scott for STROOP
Filmmaker of STROOP, Bonné de Bod ©Susan Scott for STROOP

It’s not every day that one gets to see ticks and so many of them in a sterile operating theatre! Yet here they all were… grasping on to the soft underbelly of the patient. But this was no ordinary patient and no ordinary operating room.
Walking down the corridor at Onderstepoort Veterinary Academic Hospital, one can see plenty of animals being shaved and prepped for theatre, but the largest room of all is right at the end… and here, a crane hangs a young rhino bull over an operating table.

A rhino being prepared for surgery ©Susan Scott for STROOP
A rhino being prepared for surgery ©Susan Scott for STROOP

In a first for the veterinary training institute, this room, which tends to normally see horses as its patients, now has a poaching survivor dangling from the roof. Dr. Johan Marais, one of the founding veterinary surgeons of Saving the Survivors is hoping to perform arthroscopic surgery on this wounded rhino bull. Shot recently by poachers, who now prefer shooting in the leg to disable and stop rhinos in their tracks, this bull is suffering from shattered bone fragments in his knee as well as crippling osteoarthritis.

Dr Johan Marais explaining the groundbreaking arthroscopic surgery to filmmaker and television presenter Bonné de Bod ©Susan Scott for STROOP
Dr. Johan Marais explains the groundbreaking arthroscopic surgery to filmmaker and television presenter Bonné de Bod ©Susan Scott for STROOP

Dr. Marais is one of the characters we are following in the film STROOP and we have accompanied him and his team to many bush surgeries in far-out places all over South Africa; to places where preparing the wound is urgently but effectively done. Out in the bush, monitoring the breathing of the patient is done by hand – feeling for breaths and by old-fashioned counting. There’s no fancy respiratory computer system printing out oxygen saturation levels for the attending anesthetists. And what usually surrounds us is that early morning indigo blue sky, not white-washed tiles with an intricate pulley system overhead!

A young rhino bull on a respiratory system while being operated on at Onderstepoort in Pretoria ©Susan Scott for STROOP
A young rhino bull on a respiratory system while being operated on at Onderstepoort Veterinary Academic Hospital in Pretoria ©Susan Scott for STROOP
Rhinoceros knee joint being scrubbed down for surgery ©Susan Scott for STROOP
Rhinoceros knee joint being scrubbed down for surgery ©Susan Scott for STROOP

The electronic stuff, the banks of students reminds us that this is groundbreaking. It is the first time that arthroscopic surgery is being used on a rhino. The theatre nurse firmly asks us to cover our mouths with theatre masks, as once the surgery begins all possible infection must be avoided. With the rhino bull under anesthetic, Marais starts probing through the flesh at a point surrounded by needles in the knee. Almost immediately a dirty looking liquid flushes out, prompting Marais to tell us that “the joint fluid shouldn’t look like that. It should be more clear – a straw coloured fluid – not filled with blood like this.”

Dr Johan Marais of Saving The Survivors performing the world's first arthroscopic surgery on a rhino ©Susan Scott for STROOP
Dr. Johan Marais of Saving the Survivors performing the world’s first arthroscopic surgery on a rhino ©Susan Scott for STROOP
Fluid draining from a rhino's osteoarthritic knee at Onderstepoort in Pretoria ©Susan Scott for STROOP
Fluid draining from a rhino’s osteoarthritic knee at Onderstepoort Veterinary Academic Hospital in Pretoria ©Susan Scott for STROOP

He flushes the area out and inserts the tiny camera probe into the joint. He moves quickly and inserts another small probe next to the camera, but this one holds a tiny surgical tool and he starts removing loose pieces of bone as well as drilling away severely damaged bone from inside the rhino. Bony spurs called osteophytes are also blasted away, and these he explains have been causing loss of cartilage, common in osteoarthritis – the debilitating condition the young bull now has. While finishing up, he then talks through the procedures and questions the veterinary students watching.

Keeping the rhino sleeping and loading him into his transport vehicle takes almost as long as the operation itself!  A gargantuan effort of about 20 humans pulling and pushing eventually gets him on to his makeshift bed at the back of a game truck.

Deemed a success by the vets and owners of the rhino, Marais is confident that this will make a difference for the patient, especially with him growing and putting more weight on the leg. As filmmakers we are once again reminded of those using all that is available to us as humans to keep our rhinos on our planet. In a week full of world records and Olympic triumphs, this was undoubtedly the best “world-first” for us all!

Dr Marais (lead-surgeon) performed his groundbreaking surgery with the assistance of a team from the Onderstepoort Veterinary Academic Hospital (OVAH) – Dr Yolandi Smit (surgeon) while the Anesthetists were Prof Brighton Dzikiti, assisted by Dr Gareth Zeiler. The theater nurse was Sr Jana Stander.

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About

The South African feature documentary STROOP – Journey into the Rhino Horn War is an independently made film about the rhino poaching crisis – released in 2018. Expect unique footage – from the killing fields of Kruger to bush town courtrooms and the dingy back rooms of Vietnamese wildlife traffickers. This multiple award-winning feature documentary is available for digital download here.