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Witness to a Rhino Autopsy

Witness to a Rhino Autopsy

This is the sixth in a series of posts reporting on the Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge fact-finding mission to South Africa.

CHALLENGE UPDATE: Over 80 teams from 20 countries and 6 continents have signed up to compete.

Blogger’s note: I cropped and edited these pictures. They appear as intended.

SANParks veterinarians perform an autopsy on a Rhino that was shot by poachers.
SANParks veterinarians perform an autopsy on a slain Rhino as part of a criminal counter poaching investigation.

SKUKUZA, SOUTH AFRICA — We’re at the operations center waiting for a ride to camp. A gray-haired gentleman sporting a goatee and glasses approaches us.

“Are you busy? We just received word that a fresh rhino carcass was found and we’re heading there now,” he said.

It is extremely rare, he went on to say, that a fresh carcass is discovered. Usually the carcasses are found after several days in the sun. And after they’ve been scavenged.

Shortly after we arrive on the scene, the circumstances of the Rhino’s death emerge. A poacher shot and wounded the Rhino and officials had no choice but to put it down. Its horn is still intact — a fact that punctuates the senselessness of the killing. No one gains. Everyone loses.

SANParks veterinarian services performs an autopsy on the dead Rhino.
SANParks veterinarian services collects evidence to be used in the criminal investigation.

SANParks veterinarians are left with the grim task of cutting away its skin, muscle, fat, and bone. Forensic evidence, which includes the bullet lodged in its shoulder, needs to be located and retrieved to support a criminal case against the poachers—if ever they are found.

Metal detectors are used to locate the slug.
Metal detectors are used to locate the slug.

As the autopsy progresses, gas-filled pockets in its exposed bowels are pierced, releasing a foul, putrid stench. We are in the open air, and yet the smell hangs, highly concentrated, for a long while. It is nauseating enough that it makes me retch. I’m glad it did. Up until now it was just meat and bone. It reminded me it roamed and ate grass and processed it into waste. It had lived.

The carcass lay perpendicular to the flatbed trailer they brought it in on. The configuration makes it difficult to see its face straight on so I make my way to the other side of the truck and squat down to peer underneath and through to the other side. Once there, the trailer bed frames the view. The thought that hits me now is poignant. The Rhino is a patient on a gurney. The doctors are busy operating. The knowledge that this patient is never going to wake up suddenly makes its mortality real.

Simply reporting rhino kills as a number trivializes the reality. That’s why this post had to happen. Now when I report that 524 rhino were killed this year. It means something. This is what the 80 teams—through their creativity and technical ability—have pledged to stop.


4 thoughts on “Witness to a Rhino Autopsy

  1. CL says:

    FYI, it’s necropsy, not autopsy. Necropsy is the term for examining a dead animal to determine the cause of death. Autopsy is the term used to describe the practice on humans.

    1. Justin Leto says:

      Thank you for the correction. After thinking about it, my (unintended) mistake might make it more relateable to a general audience. The correction is noted in the comments!

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Justin is the Founder and first CFO of Nova Labs, a nonprofit makerspace and community innovation lab located in Reston, VA. He can be reached at leto.justin [at] gmail [dot] com and on twitter @letojj.

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