South Africa: Tributes for wildlife vet who helped save white rhinos

by Apr 25, 2012Rhinos, Wildlife News

Dr Toni Harthoorn, a pioneering wildlife veterinarian who helped to develop a “miracle drug” to immobilise and ultimately rescue Africa’s white rhinos from extinction, died in Pretoria in April. He was 89.

Harthoorn and his wife Sue (nee Hart) also ran an animal orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya, which served as the inspiration for the television documentary Daktari and the film Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion.

During Operation Noah in the late 1950s, he helped to save thousands of wild animals from drowning in the rising waters of the new Kariba Dam in Southern Rhodesia.

In SA, Harthoorn played a central role in Operation Rhino in the early 1960s by helping to capture hundreds of rhinos in Imfolozi game reserve to repopulate other wildlife areas in SA, Africa and to stock zoos worldwide.

He worked closely with Ian Player and other members of the Natal Parks Board to develop a safe method of capturing rhino at a time when animals were caught manually rather than with the use of immobilising drugs.

“Toni was without any doubt a great hero in the struggle to protect the rhino. It was his genius in developing the immobilising drugs that made it possible for Operation Rhino to be the success that it proved to be,” Player said in a tribute last night.

“In 1961 he worked tirelessly with the Operation Rhino team, and his visionary skills saved the lives of many rhino during the experiential use of the first drug Gallamine triethiodide.”

Harthoorn then used morphine which was successful in the capture of the first rhinos, and later morphine was synthesised into M99 (etorphine hydrochloride) which became the “miracle drug” that enabled translocation of rhino.

“He was a scientist, who befriended the rangers, and helped them to understand how to care for the rhino after they had been captured. Without him, Operation Rhino and subsequent game capture operations with big game, in other parts of South Africa, could never have succeeded,” Player said.

Harthoorn was born in The Netherlands in 1922 and grew up in England. He studied veterinary science in London and during World War II he trained as an officer at Sandhurst and Aldershot.