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Sunday, March 18,2012

OU prof aids effort to save rhino poaching victims

Cat-scans rhino head in his own specimen collection

By Stephanie Stark
Photo Credits: Stephanie Stark
Photo Caption: The frozen head of a rhino with its horn cut off is horns cut off is run through a CT scanner at O'Bleness Memorial Hospital on Thursday.

When South African veterinarian Dr. William Fowlds discovered four rhinoceroses stripped of their horns and on the verge of death, he called Ohio University professor of anatomy Larry Witmer for help. Witmer, with a history of studying sinuses in prehistoric animals, is now studying the anatomy of rhino heads and faces in an attempt to save these one-ton victims of poaching half a world away.

In collaboration with O'Bleness Memorial Hospital's Chief CT Tech Heather Rockhold, Witmer performed a CT scan (commonly called a "CAT scan") on a 256-pound head of a white rhino named Kehtla on Thursday. Witmer had Kehtla's head stored in a freezer with other research specimens.

Rhinos, which are critically endangered, are frequent victims of poaching in Asia and Africa, Rockhold said.

"What the poachers want is that tusk. It would be bad enough if they just poached them and cut it off, but they're not even doing that in a humane way. It's not a clean cut. It's like literally ripping, and the bone is connected onto the skull," Rockhold said.

After poachers had done their work, Fowlds found the rhinos with their horns ripped from their faces, some parts infested with maggots and decaying. From the Kariega Game Reserve in South Africa, Fowlds contacted Witmer, seeking help with information on the structure of rhino noses after finding Witmer's research on rhino nasal cavities.

A rhino's horn is the same substance as human hair and fingernails, so this kind of poaching is "like ripping off the front of our face," Witmer said.

"The imagery is just completely graphic," Rockhold added. "Any compassionate person, let alone animal lover if you don't shed a tear looking or thinking about it it just absolutely rips your heartstrings."

In some Far Eastern cultures, the horn is reputed to be an aphrodisiac, a misconception completely based on folklore, according to Witmer.

Witmer, who does teacher and research in OU's Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, said the rhinos' rate of decline in the wilds of South Africa has skyrocketed in the past 10 years because of a misconception that the horns have a power to prevent cancer. Because of this rapid escalation in poaching activity, veterinarians in South Africa have been cutting off rhinos' horns humanely to stop poachers from ripping them off. The vets cut the horn close to its base to ensure no poacher has a need to injure the animal.

Kehtla was a white rhino that died at the municipal zoo in Phoenix, Ariz., in 2003 that has since been stored in Witmer's locker of frozen animals heads and bodies ranging from crocodiles to manatees. Witmer performed a CT scan in order to collect 3D imagery of the rhino's nasal cavity, then altered the images to simulate the injured rhinos noses.

"What's interesting is that Kehtla continues to teach, continues to educate. It's helping members of its own species half a world away," Witmer said.

Thandi and Themba are the 4-year-old rhinos who survived the poaching incident in South Africa, while a third one died.

"It's a tragic story; we're happy to be playing some tiny, tiny part, and the one part that we can plan partly because of our collaboration with O'Bleness and Heather is that we can do some imagery of this that can be informative," Witmer said.


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