Tale of a Field Vet

Updated: Mar 27, 2018

By Cheyenne Johnson, Managing Editor

The wild is a dangerous place for animals. Extreme weather, aggressive animals, disease, and countless other threats linger in the background of their lives as they navigate the environment.

For the rhinos, elephants, and other large animals of Africa however there exists another threat: poachers. Since 2013, over a 1000 rhinos have been attacked and mutilated for their horns, and it’s a threat that’s only grown with demand.

These poaching attacks often leave the animals bleeding and weak, with gaping wounds that require long and extensive treatment. Luckily for them, Dr. Johan Marais is ready to help.

As the founder of Saving the Survivors, an organization that works to help all endangered animals in need, Dr. Marais employs the care and expertise these animals need to survive poaching attacks.

Since its beginnings in 2012, Saving the Survivors has operated on location to provide thorough and progressive medical care to the endangered animals of Africa, but these aren’t your normal veterinarians. 

“Wildlife are just completely different than our domesticated animals,” says Dr. Marais. “I can’t put them in the stable where I can change this bandage everyday so I have to improvise a lot.”

Keeping the animals contained isn’t the only issue. While many of the animals live on reservations or are brought to them after being injured, they are still wild animals and that’s the ideal.

“You keep them wild,” says Dr. Marais. “You don’t want to tame them. And in the long run, I see that as the future of our rhino.”

But wild animals aren’t known for their calm personalities. Bandages fall off as they move. Stitches snap. As a wildlife surgeon inside of Africa these past 10-12 years, Dr. Marais has learned through trial, error, and improvisation what will and won’t work with his animals.

“The difficulty of operating on large animal wildlife,” says Dr. Marais, “nobody understands that until you do it yourself.”

Luckily for Dr. Marais however, he’s not alone. With the help of fellow doctors Zoe Glyphis and Andy Fraser, the team at Saving the Survivors continue to shine through the ups and downs of their work, from successfully treating the white rhino Amy this year to the untimely death of their beloved white rhino cow Hope in 2016.

Though he is always striving to do better and do more, Marais prefers to keep the spotlight off himself and direct instead to the work and the animals.

“I’m just passionate about what I do,” says Marais, “I love these animals and I think we all need to pull together otherwise we’re not going to win this war.”

For Marais and his team, the fight to protect endangered animals is a war spanning multiple countries with many players and motivations. As Saving the Survivors aims to protect these animals, poachers hunt them down for profit and for the money to provide for their families, a reality Marais is not ignorant to. Despite their conflicting actions, Marais bears an open invitation to poachers in the area.

“Come and work with us,” he says. “See where we can find common ground so that we can actually help you guys out and find a solution together moving forward to also support you…so in 20 years we still have these animals for all our children to enjoy.”

The long term survivability and growth of these animals is a challenge that, as Marais puts it, “has no silver bullet.” The solutions will be multi-faceted, complicated, and long coming. It will require communities coming together and finding common ground where they believed there was none, but for Marais, there’s no question that it’s worth the effort.

“I’m 50 next year,” says Marais. “In 20 years time, when my daughter is in her 50s, when she says ‘what have you done to actually prevent the extinction of rhinos and elephants,’ I can turn to her and say this is what I’ve done. And that fuels me everyday.”

With over 200 animals saved in the organizations care, the future of these animals already looks brighter.  


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