The healing journey of a Rüppell’s vulture
In the scorching Naivasha sun, as the ashy dust settles, a dramatic spread of wings about my whole height makes a majestic flap. I am taken aback, whooaa what a sight! Exposed is a long bare neck with a tiny head and conspicuous yellow beak. I stood in amazement taking it all in, I couldn't get over the tiny head size. Funny, I thought, but the humour turned into chills once the creature before me let out a very powerful hiss. I was in awe standing at such close proximity to the Rüppell's vulture. I was intimidated and only when Jonathan gave me a nod of reassurance did I master the courage to walk in the vulture enclosure.
This was the only image I had had of vultures, a cocktail of majesty, pride and fiery. So receiving a sick vulture at Soysambu Raptor Centre gave me an awful sinking feeling. The once enormous vulture had curled up, drawn into itself, and face drooling with little to no fight left.
The right wing had been secured in a perfect figure-8 bandage by Shiv Kapila at Naivasha Raptor Centre who had offered first aid before referring the case to Simon Thomsett. I stood there with my hands sinking in the maxi sized white gloves but confident after having received a month long training from the man who had just received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Raptor Research Foundation in partnership with The Peregrine Fund. I hold the approximately 8 kgs heavy raptor in my arms with a finger in-between its legs to prevent self-inflicted injuries while Simon gently hoods the vulture.
Treating a critically endangered species is already quite a challenge for a starting wildlife vet, but the presence of a camera in front of me and questions from the concerned Wildlife Direct film crew did not make it any easier. Simon and I first carried out a full examination to exhaust any injuries on the body . The immobilised wing had a sharp pointed protrusion of bone. Using a thermal camera we noticed the toe has a flaring infection and later noticed a portion of the phalanges (toe bone) exposed. We prepared a lightweight "shoe-form" cast to offer padding and equal distribution of weight on foot.
My interest was in the massive circumscribed wound on the thigh. It had turned sceptic and I could see maggots manoeuvring on the margins of the wound. The first aid offered by Shiv had reduced the amount of maggots significantly and this reduced the risk of myiasis (maggots feeding on its tissue). Before closing the wound, the goal is to ensure all the maggots are gone and a locally available healing oil has shown great results. We carry out a surgical scrub using warm saline water and flushing with hydrogen peroxide.
Removing the maggots (left) and flushing the wound (right)
Cases presented with deep circumscribed wounds on the legs and metacarpal have poor prognosis due to the disruption of vascularity. Things were not looking too good for the patient but we remained hopeful that with a vigorous program of supportive nursing care to counter any secondary infections we could achieve proper healing in the long run.
The first step was to manage as an open wound as any efforts to suture would result in dehiscence (reopening of the wound) from the inflammation on the margins. So at first the wound was allowed to heal as an open wound with only loose vet wrap covering it to prevent further trauma.
Inspecting the wound a week later we were impressed with the progress. This was the go ahead we needed and ,under anaesthesia ,we first gave a surgical scrub of the wound using warm betadine and then carefully removed debris near the wound margins.
The wound on arrival (left), after debridement (middle) and after suturing with drain (right)
After debridement we closed the wound with modified horizontal mattress sutures and antibiotic cover. Barely a week later, we reviewed the patient and the healing is magnificent, it's nothing like I've ever seen before. The vulture is fully mobile, active and with great appetite. It helps that he is now in captivity with another buddy of his who has an ongoing case.
The treated Rüppell's vulture (right) with his buddy, another Rüppell's vulture in rehab at Soysambu Raptor Centre
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Kenya Bird of Prey Trust
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