Rhino Autopsy - Story by Carol Thompson
It was a balmy Friday afternoon in Hoedspruit when I had a telephonic conversation I never expected. The call was from my son and he wanted to know if I would like to attend a necropsy of a Rhino that had been poached.
Saturday morning dawned and I was filled with trepidation at what the day was going to bring. I met up with the Protrack Rhino Task Team, an Investigator from the South African Police as well as a Police photographer. All too soon we were heading towards the crime scene.
Although the chit chat was flowing – the underlying tension, anger and despair permeated the air.
On arrival – the area had already been cordoned off to try and preserve as much evidence as possible. The Rhino Task Team were soon dressed in their protective apparel, knives were sharpened and all required equipment was ready for the grim task ahead. Once the all clear was given by the S.A Police they were ready to start what must be one of the hardest jobs any animal lover has to do.
Overhead the vultures were circling waiting to clean up the remains. Under other circumstances it would have been a beautiful overcast day in the bush, wondering where the vultures had spotted a kill..
My first sighting was what you would expect to see when an animal is dead, but as you walk closer the horrific reality of what has been done starts playing havoc with your thoughts and feelings. As I looked down at the mutilated head, a small dung beetle toddled through the blood leaving minute blood tracks in the sand, for this tiny creature it was just another day to survive.
The team set to work like a well oiled machine as they started the bloody process of looking for entry and exit wounds of the bullets. Assessing the manner in which the horns had been removed and searching the area for any evidence – particularly bullet casings and or bullets. Each step, wound or abnormality was meticulously photographed from various angles.
I looked down at the lifeless, de-horned face of this beautiful creature and my heart not only broke for the rhino but for the team doing the grisly work of having to cut into an animal that should have been grazing peacefully in his place of sanctuary.
The overpowering smell of blood filled the air as the task of probing the entry and exit wounds began. With no luck in finding a bullet the time had come in to start to painstaking tasking of stripping the skin and flesh from the body.
Two of the team were novices and were patiently talked through the process by Vincent. Each step of the process was explained and soon the macabre task of placing the flesh on the sections of removed skin was under way. Each piece of skin was placed in order and each chunk of flesh was placed on the platter of skin in the same position from which it had been removed. Every person involved meticulously carried out their given task – at the same time they offered advice and assistance to anyone who needed help.
The smell of death grew stronger as the ribs were removed and placed in order for further examination. Congealed blood was removed and carefully strained into a bucket. Internal organs were removed and carefully examined with a metal detector.
It is a slow and heartbreaking process – especially for these men who have possibly known the rhino in life. I had a strong feeling of unreality – at one point I felt like I was in a nightmare version of Alice in Wonderland attending a sick version of the mad hatter's party.
Fortunately with the cooler weather the putrid stench from the internal organs was minimal – which does make it a tad easier for the men doing the necropsy.
Finally the first bullet was found photographed and bagged in evidence bags. Not much later after removing fluid and stomach contents a second bullet was found. This too was photographed, measured and bagged. This lead to an in depth discussion of the bullets found. One question that could be asked regarding the one bullet – was it meant for an anti-poacher as it was not the calibre one would expect to be used on a large wild animal.
The hours had drifted past and the men started the clean-up operations. Back in the vehicle, the smell of death clung to everyone like a rotten body spray. It seemed to be impregnated in one’s nose and wafted through the vehicle contaminating the air one breathed.
Then it was a quick detour to re-check the area of a second poaching where no bullets had been found.
My heart was full of pride and admiration for these men. Not only are they professional – but they willingly share their knowledge with the less experienced people on their team. To sit with them and not only see their passion – but feel their heartache was a privilege.
Like most of us – I have seen the brutality in pictures and videos of what is done to our rhino – but to see the damage a bullet does, to hear the gurgling of blood welling out from a dead animal as well as the overwhelming smell of such large quantities of blood, to smell the smell of stomach contents as the stomach is pierced – then opened and the contents spread out across the earth to be examined and experience what these men have to do – not once – not twice – but over and over and over certainly makes me realize just how hard it is for our men out in the field.