I've seen a rhino cry
YOU South Africa|13 January 2022
He became a wildlife vet by chance – now Johan is an expert in treating rhinos and it’s become his passion to save endangered species
By Jacques Myburgh, Photography by Papi Morake

HE’LL never get used to the sight, no matter how many times he sees it. The bloodied face of a rhino whose horn has been removed in such a brutal way, made all the more tragic when the majestic beast is still alive and fighting to survive, will always tear at his heartstrings.

“People often ask me if it gets easier seeing a rhino’s face hacked away,” says Dr Johan Marais. “To me, it just gets harder. I’ll never get used to it.”

The 53-year-old has become an expert in treating rhinos. As the founder of the NGO Saving the Survivors, he regularly operates on and treats these disfigured animals until they can eventually be released back into the wild.

Some of the scenes of suffering he’s witnessed will stay with him for the rest of his life.

“I’ve seen a rhino cry,” he says. “I looked at the rhino and didn’t know where the tears were coming from. Is it pain? I didn’t know. It was deeply upsetting.”

And there just seems to be no end to the carnage.

“I’m deeply concerned about our rhino population, especially in our parks. In the first two weeks of December alone 25 rhinos were poached,” he says. “Things are completely out of hand.”

Johan takes out his phone and shows us graphic images of a rhino whose horn was poached.

It’s hard to believe that this animal, with a 50cm gaping wound, stands a chance of surviving. But then he shows us another picture of the same rhino after treatment: where there was once a bloody hole, there’s now just a scar.

“It’s really a wonderful feeling to see that animal recover and his horn grow back. It’s the strangest thing because you don’t imagine the horn will grow back– the growth plate from which the horn grew was removed. But in nine out of 10 cases, the horn grows back.”

He’s chatting to us at the North Rand Animal Clinic in Midrand, Gauteng, where he works every second week and also performs surgeries on horses.

Johan says having spent about 20 years working at the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute’s horse clinic, he became a rhino vet and surgeon half by chance.

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