Poachers recently shot the 12-year-old rhino, called Hope, at a wildlife park in KwaZulu-Natal province
After the bullet took her down, the poachers hacked Hope's face to pull out her horns, but only managed to get away with one, said Dr. Johan Marais, a wildlife surgeon at the University of Pretoria.
"The front horn was hacked off, and they started with the back horn as well, but then either got disturbed or the rhino got up," he said.
Marais is part of Saving the Survivors, which focuses on helping wounded
rhinos and is providing Hope with care.
Why elephant skin?
Veterinarians opted to use elephant skin because the poachers removed most of the rhino's underlying bones, leaving only soft tissue, Marais said.
In such instances, natural materials work better than the hard synthetic shields normally used, he said.
"I decided with this rhino to make use of elephant skin, as it is quite tough, and hope it will withstand the rubbing efforts of the rhino and the stainless steel sutures we used to fasten the skin on to the rhino's face," he said.
As clients pay top dollar for rhino horns, poachers have become more brutal and sophisticated, forcing veterinarians to come up with innovative ways of treatment. A record number of rhinos have been killed in recent years due to a growing belief in Southeast Asia that their horns can cure cancer.
'There is no post-operative care'
When it comes to animals in the wild, veterinarians need to ensure they get it right the first time.
"Because they are wild animals ... and there is no post-operative care like you would have in normal medicine, these treatments are therefore quite challenging," Marais said.
So far, Hope appears to be healing well.
The elephant skin came from a taxidermist, who obtained it from an elephant that had died of natural causes, Marais said.
Hope's 5-year-old calf did not survive the attack.