Meet the Tuks vets who removed elephant’s infected tusk

Posted on November 29, 2018

UP’s Prof Gerhard Steenkamp and Dr Adrian Tordiffe made headlines recently when they removed the infected tusk of an elephant called Grand at the Tbilisi Zoo in Georgia, Eastern Europe. Tukkievaria spoke to them.

Prof. Steenkamp (right) removing an elephant tusk


Why did you become a vet and what are your favourite animals?

I first did Zoology with the aim of studying Wildlife Management. During my studies, I had the privilege to spend nine months on Marion Island [southeast of Cape Town] and had quite a bit to do with the animals there. It was only in my final year of Zoology that I started contemplating a career as a veterinarian. I did not have very good school marks and was an average student. I therefore firmly believe that God wanted me to be a veterinarian, that is why I was successful the first time I applied.

My favourite animals are elephants. They are majestic and probably some of the cleverest animals on earth. Apart from elephants, I also enjoy marine mammals as well as rhinos and big cats.

What animals have you conducted surgery on, and which was the most difficult?

I am privileged to have worked on a vast array of animals. They range from a small bat to a six-tonne elephant. The most physically demanding surgery is definitely the elephant tusk extraction, and the scariest is working on a hippopotamus. In the case of the latter, we are still finding our way in terms of good anaesthesia and therefore it is possible to get sudden arousals in this species. Since I exclusively work at the sharp end of animals, it is particularly unpleasant when they wake up.  I therefore choose my anaesthetists carefully.

Are there unusual animals that you have worked on?

A client once brought me a small fruit bat that was hanging from her shoulder, just as a parrot would have sat on it. It was very strange to see.

What animals do you have and what are your research areas?

Being a father of two kids, we have a bit of everything at home, two dogs, a cockatiel, a hamster and some koi fish.  My current research focus is on surgically removing horns from young rhinos in order to create a safe herd of rhinos for the future.

How have you have adapted your tools to remove elephant tusks?

Instruments to operate elephant tusks did not exist and hence I had to create my own equipment. I was fortunate to have worked with a few very skilled people to accomplish this. Initially I started with Dr Danie Burger when he was still at the Engineering Faculty, and lately I have a private person who makes whatever I dream up. Without these people I would have been stranded. It has been a work in progress over the past 20 years and I expect it to continue. Recently, a colleague in Hungary commented that the procedure I performed looked so simple. It is true, however it took nearly 20 years to get to simple.

Anything else that readers might find interesting?

I am married to Sonja, an oral pathologist, and we have two lovely kids, Natanya (11) and Marinus (9). Furthermore, I am the only South African—indeed African—to have a Certificate in Zoo and Wildlife Dentistry qualification, awarded under the auspices of the American Veterinary Dental College. There are only 15 certificate holders in the world, of which 11 are in North America, two in Australia, one in Brazil and me.

Dr Tordiffe with a cheetah


When did you realise you wanted to become a vet?

I wanted to be a vet since the age of 10. I grew up on a small farm near Bloemfontein and have always had a deep connection with animals. I had dogs, cats, horses and sheep, but was also interested in the behaviour of wild jackals and meerkats on the farm. I read most of the books by James Herriott [a British veterinary surgeon and writer, who wrote books on animals and their owners]. From the time I was a student I was interested in bird watching. My wife Ashleigh [also a vet] and I often go bird watching.

Tell us about your background and qualifications.

I graduated with a veterinary degree from the University of Pretoria in 1997 and then spent the next eight years in small animal private practice in the United Kingdom. In 2005 I returned to South Africa and completed an MSc degree in African Mammalogy at the Mammal Research Institute of the University of Pretoria. I then worked at the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa from 2007 to 2015, initially as a clinical veterinarian, but later I was involved in full-time wildlife research, primarily focusing on wild carnivores.

I was awarded a PhD in Biochemistry at the University of North West in Potchefstroom in 2017 and I currently teach Veterinary Pharmacology to UP’s veterinary students at Onderstepoort. I have not formally specialised in Veterinary Anaesthesiology but over the years I have built up broad experience in this field. My primary research focuses on the nutritional physiology and metabolism of both captive and free-ranging wild felids and primates. I am particularly interested in the use of metabolomic profiling in these species to better understand the pathogenesis of the non-communicable diseases they suffer in captivity. I also have an interest in the anaesthesia and physiology of large terrestrial and semi-aquatic mammals. Cheetahs, however, take up much of my time. I’ve anaesthetized hundreds of cheetahs for health checks, taking blood and urine samples or scoping them to collect stomach biopsies. I have had the privilege of working with these animals both in South Africa and Namibia.

Tell us about briefly about your role in Grand the elephant’s surgery and generally how you administer anaesthetics.

With Grand, my role was to administer the anaesthetic drugs and get him safely into position for the surgery. I was also responsible for his pain control. The drug that we normally use for the anaesthesia of elephants is illegal in Georgia, so I had to use a combination of drugs in a dart to sedate him sufficiently to get him to lie down. Fortunately, this went exactly as I had hoped. Once he was lying down comfortably on his left side, I could then give additional anaesthetic drugs into his ear vein to keep him asleep for the duration of the procedure. His recovery also went according to plan and he was standing 30 minutes after we administered the antidotes to the anaesthetic drugs. I was also very pleased with the level of pain control after the surgery. He looked very comfortable, ate well and paid little attention to the surgical site.

How do you prepare for an animal waking up too soon from an anaesthetic?

While an animal is anaesthetised, we closely monitor several different things like their heart rate, blood pressure and responses to stimulation to determine how deep they are sleeping. With elephants, I often check the muscle tone in the trunk. If the trunk is not moving and relaxed, it means they are sleeping deeply. If the trunk is stiff or starting to curl up, it means they are too light. If their ears start to move, it means they are very light and about to stand up. I always have a catheter placed in one of the ear veins through which I can rapidly administer additional anaesthetic drugs. This allows me to have effective control over the level of anaesthesia and rapidly respond to any signs of the patient beginning to awake

Have you been injured by the animals you are researching or treating?

As a vet, I have treated large mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and even sharks. I’ve been bitten once or twice on the hand and even had a bite to the face by a dog, but I have rarely been injured by wild animals. Once at the zoo, I darted an antelope that became disorientated and started running rapidly towards a wall. To prevent it from killing itself, I jumped in front of it, trying to grab it by its horns. Unfortunately, its one horn went straight through my hand and I had to have several stitches. As a rule though, I try not to take unnecessary risks with wild animals.

What is it like working with Prof. Gerhard Steenkamp and in which countries have you worked with him?

I have worked with Gerhard on countless wildlife cases over the past ten years. We could write a book about the adventures we have had—maybe someday we will. He is an absolute professional and I think it will be hard to find anyone who won’t agree with that. We really respect and trust each other and over the years we have become good friends. Besides our work in South Africa, we have travelled to China, Poland, Australia, Egypt and Namibia together to treat elephants and other animals. 

- Author Primarashni Gower

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