Coil me lucky: wildlife vets save Hlengiwe the python from cancer

Coil me lucky: wildlife vets save Hlengiwe the python from cancer

A female Southern African python has been given a new lease on life after surviving surgery to remove her cancer - and the tip of her tail.

The Johannesburg Wildlife Vet, a non-profit company which treats indigenous animals free of charge with donations, said she won’t miss her tail when she is released back into the wild.

The python named Hlengiwe, meaning “rescued” or “helped”, was rescued by snake handler Arthur Roden in August near Marble Hall in southern Limpopo after he received a call from Inzimpala Game Lodge about an injured snake.

When Roden arrived, Hlengiwe had slithered into a trench drain on the property. She was dehydrated and very weak and the mass on her tail had created a noticeable deformation.

Roden handed Hlengiwe over to veterinarian Dr Caroline Brits who gave her fluids and pain medication before sending her to the Johannesburg Wildlife Vet.

At the specialised facility, Hlengiwe was stabilised and after a few days was able to get a CT to see if the growth was invasive and if it had metastasised.

“Thankfully the scan was clear and the growth well demarcated. In a lengthy surgery we removed the growth with the tip of her tail. A sample was sent for histopathology (a microscopic examination of tissue used to study the manifestations of disease) and the results indicated it was a soft tissue sarcoma, most likely a [fibrosarcoma],” the Wildlife Vet said in a statement on Wednesday. 

Sarcoma is a cancer of the bones and connective tissue found in animals and humans. It can be brought on by family history or an exposure to chemicals. According to the Cancer Association of South Africa (Cansa), fibrosarcoma is a malignant fibrous histiocytoma (an unsightly benign skin tumour).

The Wildlife Vet said without treatment, fibrosarcomas will continue to grow and will often become ulcerated and thus prone to infection.

“A small percentage metastasise to other parts of the body, most notably the lungs, but we are confident that this is not so in her case, as we were able to resect the whole growth and we are optimistic that it will not recur.”

The organisation said the loss of Hlengiwe’s tale would not affect her because the dissection occurred below her cloaca, her digestive, reproductive and urinary tract.

“Many of these large pythons lose the tips of their tails throughout their lifetimes.”

Now unhindered by her cancer, Hlengiwe has gained weight and “become very feisty”, which the Wildlife Vet said was normal for a healthy python.

Once her tail has completely healed, Hlengiwe will be released into a safe and natural environment. 

The Johannesburg Wildlife Vet takes in all kinds of animals, from lizards and chameleons to jackals and buck. They are also involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of pangolins. Working closely with law enforcement and pangolin groups, they are tasked with trying to keep the highly endangered animals alive. The vets do so at great risk and the pangolins are kept in a secret location to protect them from being poached again.