The sight of a one-tonne rhino belly-up on an oversized gurney in front of a CT scanner surrounded by at least a dozen veterinary staff and technicians is hardly commonplace. In fact, it’s only ever happened once in South Africa: two Tuesdays ago at Pretoria's Faculty of Veterinary Science in Onderstepoort.

Orphaned rhino "Oz" is prepped for a CT scan. Image © Care For Wild

The patient at the centre of this almost-otherworldly image is a rhino named Oz who was brought to the facility after animal monitors looking after him at the Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary reported an unusual swelling on his face. After consultations with wildlife veterinarians, a decision was made to carry out a groundbreaking procedure to assess the issue.

While CT scans are a common, noninvasive way for healthcare workers to diagnose a variety of conditions in humans, the challenges of performing the examination on an animal as large as a rhino are substantial. “The logistics about [sic] moving a one-tonne animal in and out of the CT scanner are quite significant,” Professor Gerhard Steenkamp, veterinary dentistry specialist and maxillofacial surgeon at the Faculty of Veterinary Science told a local news outlet, perhaps downplaying just how tricky the task was.

Although CT scans have been used in the past to examine baby rhinos, this was the first time an adult rhino had undergone the procedure in South Africa making it a milestone in veterinary healthcare and diagnostic imaging.

After sedating Oz and hoisting him onto a massive gurney, he was moved into the CT scan room where 3D images of his jaw were generated revealing a tooth root abscess. Accurate diagnosis is critical in cases like this as tooth removals can lead to further complications, Steenkamp explained. Teeth on either side of the extracted tooth can shift and this can lead to food impaction and other problems that may require further veterinary procedures, so it's important that teeth are not removed unnecessarily.

In Oz's case, extraction was the only option and appropriate treatment was carried out. 

Oz gets guided towards Pretoria's Faculty of Veterinary Science. Image © Care For Wild
Staff prepare the rhino for the CT scan. Image © Care For Wild
Wildlife veterinarians and technicians examine the results of the scan. Image © Care For Wild
Carrying out a CT scan on a rhino requires a considerable team of dedicated experts. Image © Care For Wild

"The collaboration catalysed a landmark moment in veterinary healthcare as well as rhino care and rehabilitation with the first ever CT scan on a live rhino in South Africa," Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary wrote on Facebook. "The logistical experience, information and knowledge gained from this is phenomenal progress in the fight to save a keystone species from extinction."

"We cannot save a species alone but together we can achieve remarkable things. In acknowledgement of the team of specialists who came together, we thank them for their passion, dedication and immense commitment," added Petronel Nieuwoudt, the Care for Wild founder and CEO.

Oz was orphaned in 2015 following a poaching incident and is one of many rhinos that are looked after at the sanctuary which focuses on the rescue, rehabilitation and ultimate release of these animals back into the wild. Although the latest statistics indicate that rhino deaths due to poaching are decreasing, conservationists are concerned that this may be the result of the overall decline of rhino populations which has left fewer of the animals in the wild for poachers to target. 

Thankfully for Oz, he is recovering well after the procedure and is happily grazing with the rest of his crash at the sanctuary:


Top header image: Matthew Rogers, Flickr