TCU basketball player talks about saving a rhino’s life

Saving a Rhino’s Life Changed Mine 

Bittersweet.

I never would have imagined that the best day of my life would contain one of the worst moments of my life as well. But that’s exactly what dehorning a rhino was like for me.

Brandon Parrish comforts a rhino during the dehorning process in South Africa. (2016)

Finally getting a chance to be face to face with such a majestic creature was nothing like I imagined it to be. It all started on a game vehicle on a reserve on South Africa’s eastern Cape, awaiting a call on the radio to see where they’ve darted the animal. When the call came in, the suspense and adrenaline kicked in immediately.  It was our first procedure on a rhino and we were told they’d darted both a mother and her calf. They gave us the “go” to move in so we could start the process of dehorning, but as I walked towards the rhino my excitement was slowly replaced with a feeling of guilt: guilt that my species is solely responsible for the demise of this one.

The mother rhino before me was one of fewer than 24,000 rhinos remaining in southern Africa, which is home to 83 percent of Africa’s rhinos and 73 percent of all wild rhinos worldwide.  Poached at a rate of almost three a day, these incredible animals are being slaughtered by the thousands each year and – at this rate – face extinction all too soon.

I had made the 9,000-mile journey to South Africa from my college, Texas Christian University, with nearly a dozen other students along with Professors Victoria Bennett and Mike Slattery, a South Africa native, as part of TCU’s Rhino Initiative to help ensure these animals’ long-term survival. For three weeks, we aided in conservational efforts, including relocating wildebeest and giving medical aid to a cheetah, as well as studying in Johannesburg and Cape Town to better understand the connection between the conditions of humans and animals in Africa.

Dehorning a rhino in South Africa (2016)

Back in the field, things moved quickly. As the sedative kicked in, the rhino had rushed through a patch of cacti, so we grabbed tweezers and pulled the cactus spines out of the rhino’s thick skin. We administered vitamins and checked the animal’s vital signs. The medical team measured the rhino’s horn, outlining where to make the cut. The chainsaw revved, evoking the feeling of watching a horror movie.

I placed my hand on the rhino. Rhinos have a tough hide – it felt almost like patting on hard clay —  and you can feel their brute strength. But they have soft spots, too, like the skin just behind their ears.  I held up the rhino’s head while the surgeons sawed off the horn. Clippings from the horn flew through the air and my lungs filled with smoke and a sour smell. There was a slight ‘pop’ when the horn fell off and then they slowly grinded the remaining stump smooth to help healthy regrowth.

Overwhelmed, I could imagine all the distress that she and other rhinos have to endure due to the prevalence of poaching. Holding the horn in my hands, so many thoughts rushed through my head. Above all I was haunted by one question: Why? Why do these amazing animals have to endure this? Why have they been pushed to the brink of extinction for their horn, their defense, their identity?

It’s hard not to feel like the bad guy when you’re the one dehorning a rhino. But I knew what we were doing would help save this animal’s life. Rhino horns can fetch $60,000 per pound on global black markets, making it more valuable than gold, diamonds or cocaine. Once we removed the horn this remarkable being wouldn’t have to go through the trauma of being poached, but could live her life in peace and safety.

With these thoughts, as we treated the rhino’s transformed face with disinfectant and watched her slowly wake from anesthesia, I experienced a happiness that was like none other. Never before had I felt so accomplished, or felt my life was so important.

I left the game reserve with something more than just an understanding of the global rhino crisis, but an understanding of my calling. Helping save these animals that can’t save themselves brought me total satisfaction that day, and I’ve never felt so obligated to do something so far greater than myself. Saving this rhino’s life changed mine. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of a future saving rhinos and other species.

Brandon Parrish of Arlington, Texas, is a senior majoring in environmental science at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, where he is also a member of the men’s basketball team. You can catch Brandon in action on the court at Madison Square Garden in New York City Thursday, March 30, at 7 p.m. (CT).