Geza – The Final Hours
by Dr William Fowlds
This is the story of a white rhino callously mutilated by poachers and left alive with his horns
and part of his face hacked off with pangas
On the 11th February 2011 I found myself forced into a personal experience of
the most horrific, man-inflicted animal suffering. An experience that has
affected me beyond what I thought was possible. More than five months on and
I still struggle to contain and express the emotions burned within me, that
churn to the surface every time I talk about that day.
I don’t expect to make sense of it, or the similar rhino deaths that take place
daily in my country. I do intend to ensure that the account of this one rhino’s
tragic end, will reach into the conscience and hearts of all men and woman, and
compel each of us to do something towards stopping the suffering of this
magnificent species and others like it.
I count myself truly blessed to be able to live my dream as a wildlife vet in a
part of Africa that satisfies my senses and fills my soul. One of my many
privileges is that I get to work with rhino in the wild. These living dinosaurs are
truly iconic symbols of our successes and failures as custodians of this planet.
The current rhino situation is a dying testimony of our conservation efforts. If
we are not able to save the rhino from extinction, this flagship species that’s
larger than life, what hope do we have of saving the rest?
On that fateful morning in February, I was called by Mike Fuller of Kariega
Game Reserve, in the Eastern Cape, who informed me that one of their rhino
had been poached. My heart sank, as I relived that dreadful feeling, a few
months before, which had hit me when news of a rhino poaching on my own
game reserve came through. Knowing how slow the initial crime scene
proceedings can take, I expressed my heart-felt remorse and said I would get
there later in the morning. There was a silent pause before the sledge-hammer
….. ”William, he is still alive!”
Images of the hacked bone and bloodied tissues I had seen previously came
flooding back, doubting the truth of this outrageous claim. As I fumbled for
questions to check my own doubts, the description of this poor animal began to
take shape. “The horns are gone, it’s a bloody mess”, added Mike. I had seen one
picture of a rhino who had suffered the same fate and the anger when I saw it
the first time, crowded my thoughts as I tried to listen to directions and get my
planned day out of the way.
As I drove rapidly for 30 minutes following the directions; the location, the
description and the circumstances around this animal started to sound familiar.
I remembered that two rhino from my own reserve, Amakhala, had been moved
to Kariega three years before and had been joined by another two animals from a
different reserve, making a sub-adult group of four rhino. At least one of these
four, was now in an unthinkable situation and I prayed it wasn’t one I knew.
On approaching the location where the rhino had last been seen, I was struck by
the tranquil beauty of the place. A small, open area alongside a meandering
river with broken vegetation joining up into thickets of valley bushveld on the
hill slopes. A picture-book setting which could have been used to depict a piece
of heaven. It just didn’t seem possible that somewhere here, there was an
animal that was going through a living hell.
Mike could not bring himself to accompany me, having been to hell and back
already that morning. I grabbed my small camera and began working my way
into the wind to where I was told he was last seen.
The horror of that first encounter will remain branded in my memory forever. In
a small clearing enclosed by bush, stood an animal, hardly recognisable as a
rhino. His profile completely changed by the absence of those iconic horns
attributed to no other species. More nauseating than that, the skull and soft
tissue trauma extended down into the remnants of his face, through the outer
layer of bones, to expose the underlying nasal passages.
Initially he stood on three legs with his mouth on the ground. Then he became
more aware of my presence and lifted his head up revealing pieces of loose flesh
which hung semi-detached from his deformed and bloodied face. He struggled
forward and turned in my direction, his left front leg provided no support and
could only be dragged behind him. To compensate for this, he used his mutilated
muzzle and nose as a crutch and staggered forward toward me. His one eye was
injured and clouded over, adding to his horrific appearance.
At first I stood shocked in front of the sight before me, then I struggled to
comprehend the extent and implications of the jagged edges and plunging
cavities extending into his skull. As he shuffled closer in my direction, now
scarcely 15 meters away, the realisation of his pain overwhelmed me. I had been
so stunned by the inconceivable, I had neglected to consider the pain. What
possible way could I have any reference of understanding the agony he was in?
How long had he been like this? Were his efforts to approach me a weakened
attempt of aggression towards the source of his suffering or was there a
desperate comprehension of finality, a broken spirit crying out to die.
I crouched down trying to steady my shaking hand which held the camera, as I
realised that this was possibly Geza, the young rhino I had sent to this
sanctuary three years ago. Thoughts and emotions raged through my head. How
low had we fallen to inflict so much suffering on such a magnificent creature
whose care had been entrusted to us? Could any reason justify this happening?
Without thinking I apologised under my breath, “I am sorry boy, I am so, so
sorry.” His breathing quickened in response to the sound. Was he trying to smell
me, was this their characteristic huffing which is part of natural investigatory
behaviour or was this a pathetic version of rhino aggression in response to a
source of threat. I was close enough to see the blood bubbling inside his skull
cavities and wondered how every breath must add to the agony, the cold air
flowing over inflamed tissues and exposed nerves.
I expected at any moment for his suffering to snap into a full blown rage, but it
never came. I backed away slowly and he kept staggering in my direction, not
showing any aggression, just one agonising effort after another. For a moment
the thought even crossed my mind that this animal, in an incomprehensible
amount of pain, acting completely out of character, could be desperately seeking
something, anything, to take away the pain.
I didn’t trust my own eyes to recall the detail of these injuries and so I recorded
some images, and backed away from this vortex of emotions and pain. On the
walk back to the vehicle where Mike now waited, the weight of responsibility
began to descend on my shoulders. This poor animal, suffering at the hands of
my own species, through at least one night of absolute agony, now relied on me
for relief from this torture. My gut instincts told me he had little chance of
healing even though I had experienced rhino making some spectacular recoveries
from severe injuries. I recalled having heard of a few other cases of rhino having
survived and scrambled for the details somewhere in my swirling mind.
Thinking I should be fairly hardened to trauma and the sight of poached rhino
and mutilated bodies, I had to re-assess my own reaction to what I had just
seen. This took things to a new level. This stirred up anger and despair and
regret and shame more than anything I had ever experienced. This brought the
suffering of this and many other rhino right into the living room of my soul.
Surely, I would never be able to think of a rhino poaching in the same way ever
again. If we are shaped by our experiences, then this experience was a
watershed moment in my life. Part of that watershed was out of my control, but
the other part involved decisions which were optional and would take me across
an ethical line which had been formed by a lifetime of nurturing and training.
Knowing that this reserve relied on my professional opinion on what to do next,
I buried my personal emotions and approached Mike with three
recommendations. Firstly, I confirmed their fears that, in my opinion, there was
no chance of saving this life and the most humane thing to do would be to end
this tragedy by euthanasia for this animal. Secondly, I asked for time to consult
with some of the other vets who had experienced similar survivors just in case
there might be some hope for this animal.
Thirdly, with considerable trepidation, I asked if they would consider allowing
the world to see the horrendous suffering that was taking place a short distance
from where we stood. The practicalities, though, would involve getting a camera
on site to take broadcast quality footage, something that would take a few
hours to happen in this remote part of the reserve.
Could a vet, who is supposed to care deeply for animals; who is trained to be the
mouthpiece for those that can’t speak for themselves; who more than most
should understand the extent of suffering that this animal had gone through
and was still enduring, be at ethical liberty to extend the suffering of this
animal a little longer. Would those who do care, and even those who purport
not to care, be shocked out of their complacency at the sight of such
The request sounded irrational to my own ears, and I wrestled with the thought
of it. For the previous three years our association of private game reserves had
built up measures to combat the looming threat of rhino poaching. I had seen the
mortality figures escalate in 2009 and double again in 2010 despite a series of
attempts to curb the carnage. Seven animals had been poached during this
escalation within 60km’s of me, and there was still no sign of the public or the
law enforcement agencies finding the will to stop it.
Many of the animals poached were being immobilised with veterinary drugs
before having their horns and underlying skull bones hacked off with pangas
and axes. The assumption is that these animals are under anaesthetic and so
don’t feel anything. I assure you, they feel; as, in many instances, the amount of
drug used does not kill the rhino. If they don’t bleed to death, they wake up
under circumstances which I am finding difficult to describe.
I had always wondered why the poachers made such a mess of the rhino’s faces
when their modus operandi suggested that these were well organised criminals.
The sight of Geza that terrible day brought the realisation that many of these
animals were probably still alive and responsive to the mutilation that they
were being subjected to; hence the panga marks chaotically arranged around the
My mind was telling me that to keep this animal alive was wrong, but
somewhere inside I felt certain that the story of this despicable suffering could
get to even the most hardened minds. The people driving the demand for this
bizarre product, who say they take rhino horn to feel good – surely, they couldn’t
feel good knowing that animals are suffering to this degree at their hands. If
they could, in some way, be made to feel part of the massacre, then perhaps this
cruel and senseless killing might stop.
It was agreed to call in a camera to get the footage while I phoned colleagues
for second opinions. For the next three hours I went back several times and
agonised over my decisions while watching his condition deteriorate. During
those hours I learned that this rhino was indeed “Geza” – the Naughty One – a
male born on Amakhala, the reserve on which I live. He was born in January
2006 as the second calf of “Nomabongo” – the Proud Lady. His mother was the
first rhino to come to our reserve, which like many in our area, was a reserve
which had transformed previous farm land into protected areas.
I vividly recall the day Nomabongo arrived in 2003. Her presence, just one
rhino, immediately transformed the whole atmosphere of that landscape from
farmland into wild land. I also remembered the first week of Geza’s life. Unlike
Nomabongo’s first calf, which she hid from us for 6 weeks, the “Proud Lady”
showed off her boy calf within a few days of giving birth to him and a
photographer friend captured these moments in some breathtaking photos.
Geza’s name came about because from a very early age he would challenge older
rhino in a mischievous manner and then bundle back to the safety of his ever
protective mother. In social gatherings with other mothers and calves, Geza was
always the instigator in the interactions, always playful to a point of seeming
Typical of normal rhino social structures, when Geza was two and a half years
old his mother pushed him away as she prepared to give birth to her next calf.
During this time Geza joined up with another rhino cow and her female calf
named Landiwe, who was born in May 2006.
Geza stayed with Landiwe and her mother. The mother provided the protection
from mature bulls that Geza now needed as he was still not old or big enough to
protect himself. This grouping remained until it was decided to remove some
rhino off our reserve and Geza and Landiwe were relocated in August 2008 as a
pair. They adapted well, as they knew each other and, as young rhino in a new
environment, this helped ensure a successful relocation.
The group of four young rhino, were the first to be introduced into this section
of this sanctuary and their presence there had the same effect of transforming
the reserve back to wild land. Now two and half years on, Geza was critically
injured and the other rhino had disappeared into the thicket vegetation. Even if
they were still alive, this event would ensure their removal from this area and
with them a part of the soul of the land would die too.
As the hours passed slowly by, the location of the actual poaching was
discovered and a crime scene investigation commenced, piecing together the train
of events which had taken place there. A large pool of blood marked Geza’s
initial fall and where the hacking took place. Pieces of flesh and bone lay in the
blood stained grass nearby. He had stood up at some stage and staggered about
ten paces before falling on a small tree, where, judging by the signs of his
struggling, he had lain for some time. Again, a large area of blood stained earth
bore testimony to his solitary ordeal. Every dozen or so paces another pool of
blood marked where he had stood a while. I imagined his body going through
the phases of drug recovery which, without an antidote, would have taken him
through cycles of semi-consciousness before he was plunged back into the reality
of his painful wounds. It could not be accurately ascertained how long he had
been left in this state. Could this have possibly happened two nights ago? We
were not sure. The possibility of this was too much to comprehend so, for now, I
kept it out of my mind.
His front left leg had been cut off from circulation while he struggled on his side
and this accounted for his eye injuries too. When cells get starved of oxygen
they die off and release inflammatory chemicals inducing a cycle of swelling,
pressure and pain ending in necrosis. By the time Geza was found, he had lost
all use of his left front leg. Through blood loss, shock, dehydration and pain this
animal was paying dearly for man’s senseless greed.
The wait for what seemed like ages eventually passed. The camera-crew arrived
and I was finally able to bring this nightmare to an end. The most humane way
to end it all was to administer an overdose of opioid anaesthetic. The method
would have to be the same way the poachers did it, with a dart. A heavy calibre
bullet to the brain would ensure finality – no return to hell.
As the dart penetrated his skin I wondered if this rhino had any mental
association of being darted all those long hours before and the agony that
ensued. Would he recognise that dart impact and the ordeal that followed
shortly after? Would any feelings of helplessness suddenly be overcome by one
final fit of rage as I would expect it to be? His response was to take only a few
paces in our direction as the dart penetrated, before his injuries stopped his
Within a few minutes the drugs were taking effect and even though his final
conscious moments could have been extremely painful, I knew that the pain
would be subsiding as he began to slip away. One final close up inspection of his
wounds confirmed there was no going back and I injected more anaesthetic
directly into his bloodstream. A sense of relief mingled with sadness, disgust and
shame descended over that small piece of Africa, which for long hours had been
gripped in tension and violation. The heavy bullet slammed though his skull,
with the noise and shock wave blasting out across the landscape, heralding the
end to a tortured and agonising struggle.
Geza, the Naughty One, who had touched my heart as a playful calf, died while
I held my hand over his intact eye, his shaking body growing still and peaceful.
Geza, who had his horns and part of his face hacked off while he was still alive
by poachers feeding a chain of careless greed and ignorant demand. Will this
rhino, whose suffering I prolonged, so that the world could get a visual glimpse
of this tragedy, end up as just another statistic in a war that rages on? Or, will
this rhino’s ordeal touch us in a way that compels us to do something about it?
What I have witnessed ensures that I will never find peace until the killing
As I write this, news reaches me of seven more rhino killed yesterday. Please
help all of us on the frontline of this war against rhino poaching. If we can’t
save the rhino, what hope do we have of saving the rest?
Thank you for taking the time to read this.
Dr William Fowlds.
Help us spread the word on what is happening to the species by getting this
message out to those who believe that the rhino horn is a valuable product that can
enhance their well-being. Rhino horn has absolutely no medicinal value nor does it
offer the most suitable material for ceremonial daggers. The visual images of this
story are being used in awareness campaigns run by numerous conservation
NGO’s. Some of these images can be accessed by following the Wilderness
Foundation web-link below.
You can do something about rhino poaching NOW!
Watch the video, sign a petition and send a letter.