Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Albuquerque veterinarian Diana DeBlanc is stuck on rhinos.
She can’t really explain where her fascination for the mammoth, horned beasts started. She remembers drawing pictures of them when she was a young child.
But she knows when she got hooked for good. She was a veterinary student at Colorado State University in Fort Collins when a baby rhinoceros was brought in from the Denver Zoo. The young animal had a fatal disease and could not be saved.
“But it gave me my first hands-on opportunity to work with rhino,” she said. And that was that.
Soon, DeBlanc will embark on her third trip since 2017 to South Africa, where 90% of the world’s rhinos live. On this trip, as in the previous two, she will strive to care for and preserve a rhinoceros population about to be poached into extinction.
Rhinos are being killed in unprecedented numbers so that their horns, believed by some cultures to possess potent medicinal properties, can be sold for huge sums on the black market. Also endangered are young rhinos left orphans by the poachers’ guns.
“In 2017, there were 18,000 white rhino and 2,500 black rhino at Kruger (National Park in South Africa),” DeBlanc said. “This year, there are 3,500 white rhino at Kruger and 250 black rhino. If we don’t stand to action, we are facing the extinction of rhinos in five years.”
DeBlanc was born in Gallup and grew up there among pets that included rabbits, hamsters, a lot of dogs, cats, a horse and reptiles, but no rhinos.
When she was 6, she told her father, a physician, that she wanted to have a pet shop when she grew up.
“The next day, he found a reason to take one of our animals to the veterinarian, and he had the vet talk to me,” DeBlanc said.
Change of plan. DeBlanc started visiting that vet to watch animal doctors in action. When she was 14 or 15, she went to work there.
She earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Colorado State in 1995 and worked in mixed-animal practices until 2003, when she opened Performance Equine Veterinary Services, which focuses on horses and mules.
Her African adventure started in 2017 when she revealed to members of her book club that she wanted to work with rhinos. One of the club’s members found a volunteer opportunity for DeBlanc at the Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary in South Africa. She was there for a couple weeks in 2017.
“Mostly, I was shoveling rhino poo and feeding young rhinos,” she said in an interview at her North Valley home. “But they knew I was a vet, so whenever a horse or a dog (used in anti-poaching patrols) needed looking at, they’d ask me.”
And she had a bit of an adventure on that first excursion into South Africa.
“They would turn these 21 older rhinos out into the protection zone during the day and ask who wanted to walk the 21 in later,” DeBlanc said. “Who wouldn’t want to go for a walk with rhinos? On the way out, they showed us these mambas (highly venomous snakes) climbing into trees.”
Rhinos can be extremely dangerous and unpredictable, so DeBlanc was warned that if during the walk in with the 21, she was told to run, she should do that as fast as she could and climb the nearest tree.
“But they had just said there were mambas in the trees,” DeBlanc said. “On the way in, a female rhino turned around and started pawing like a bull. They yelled ‘Run!’ and I did. I could feel the ground trembling under this 6,000-pound animal.”
She got to and up a tree. If there were any mambas in residence, they kept to themselves.
‘The hardest work’
In 2018, Care for the Wild reached out to DeBlanc and offered her a job as the sanctuary’s veterinarian for several months. She would be responsible not just for the rhinos but for the dogs, horses and any other animals in the sanctuary’s care. She accepted and was there from late May through August 2019.
“It was some of the hardest work I have ever done,” she said. “I took care of all of the animals, but the rhinos were my primary concern, their feeding and medicines. You work 12 days in a row, 10 to 12 hours a day, before getting a day off. You get tired. I figured I worked 82 of the 89 days I was there.”
May through August is South Africa’s winter.
“It gets dark at 6 p.m., and it gets cold, cold. Even freezing,” she said. “But by 10 a.m., it’s not bad, getting into the 70s. It’s high-desert terrain, very similar to New Mexico, except it gets a lot more rain. I love it.”
Both white and black rhinos are at the Care for Wild sanctuary. Despite their names, both species are gray or brownish. The primary distinction is the shape of the animals’ lips. The white rhino has a flat broad mouth used for grazing, and the black rhino has a pointed mouth useful for pulling leaves and twigs from trees and plants. Both species have two horns, but the South African black rhino’s two horns often grow to the same length, making it an especially desirable target for poaching.
In addition to rhinos, the Care for Wild sanctuary is home to zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, warthogs, two lions and two hippos.
“Hippos are more dangerous than rhinos,” DeBlanc said. “They are huge and surprisingly fast, and they have better eyesight than rhinos. I would go hiking and see there were baboons all around and how big they were.”
Many of Africa’s creatures are dangerous, but perhaps there are none more deadly in South Africa today than poachers.
Vietnam and China are the chief markets for rhino horns, DeBlanc said. The horns, ground into a powder, are sold as cures for everything from gout to sexual dysfunction. She said rhino horn powder is sometimes mixed with cocaine to kick up the value of the drug.
Ounce for ounce, rhino horn is as valuable as gold on the black market. DeBlanc said a large horn could sell for as much as $1 million.
But that’s what the people at the top of pile pull in. DeBlanc said the South African poachers, usually a team of three, get about $25,000 for a team or $8,000-plus each for their grisly work. Still, that’s a fortune in a country with the highest unemployment rate in the world.
One of the primary methods used by people working to save rhinos from poaching is cutting off the rhinos’ horns so that poachers might not consider them worth killing.
Next month in South Africa, DeBlanc will travel from Kragga Gamma Game Park to Care for the Wild Rhino Sanctuary. But as much as she cherishes being in the field and taking a hands-on role in caring for rhinos, DeBlanc understands the need to raise money. She donated all her pay for her three months of work at Care for the Wild in 2019 to the sanctuary.
In 2020, she started doing public speaking to raise money for the Council of Contributors, an organization dedicated to funding efforts to protect and preserve rhinos.
“I’m always fundraising,” she said.
As important as that is, she believes that bringing attention to the rhinos’ plight is just as vital.
“Three rhinos are killed at Kruger National Park every day,” she said. “If we can bring awareness to these endangered animals, all the better.”