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Wildlife Volunteer work

What do students do after a Wildlfife course?  

The following text is an extract from a newsletter written by:

Frances Bell
Wildlife Student
ACS Distance Education

Please note any opinions expressed in the document are solely those of the author and are therefore independent from ACS Distance Education, its employees or affiliates.

"May 2014

So before we get to the further adventures of Franny at CROW, let’s take a detour to the month spent in Limpopo in March this year. 

To say it was a disaster might be overstating the case, but it certainly wasn’t what I was sold.  I have not taken that laying down, and have sought some kind of compensation through the organisation with whom I booked.


It started with yet another of those “what was I thinking” flights, very early rise and shine to get to Durban airport for the first flight of the day out to Jo’burg, then a connection to Polokwane International Airport …


Started off the month with a nice case of foot in mouth…. I took the people who came to pick me up as the reserve manager and his PA.  Oh dear.  When I asked them what they did on the reserve I got told, after a short and somewhat astonished pause, that they were the owners and married couple to boot.  Well you know me – I only open my mouth to change feet!


Irritation awaited me when we finally got back to the reserve - a good three hour drive from Polokwane and an hour from the nearest dinky little town of Alldays.   I was enthusiastically greeted by a massive boerbul cross named Monty – gorgeous dog who looked more like a Rottweiler with a real tail than anything else – and two Jack Russells.  I then got introduced to a houseful of loud and rowdy volunteer co-ordinators …  Add to that, that the vet I thought I would be working with was not yet officially employed; and that the water out of the hot tap in my tent was FREEZING, and I think it’s fair to say that the start of this placement was hardly auspicious.  The one “plus” was that wi-fi had recently been installed and was working – so long as I accessed email etc from the lodge - so I was able to contact the outside world.


The tented accommodation was actually quite nice and I felt comfortable in there - apart from the broken geyser, which meant I had cold showers for a month; the electricity which tripped out at very inconvenient times; and the native mouse nests we kept finding in various folds of the canvas.  I didn’t mind the mice or their nests, truth be told – but the other volunteers, once they arrived, for some unaccountable reason objected to having furry critters dash across their pillows in the dead of night.  The food was adequate but was a set menu with very few veggies.  When it got to the point of specifying how many slices of bread we could have each and dictating what drinks we could have with our meals; and then when our food started to go missing from the pantry, it all got a bit too much and I started to feel that having paid a handsome sum to be there, we were little more than a nuisance.  To be fair Anthony, the reserve owner, did as much as he could to make us comfortable…  It didn’t help that during a particularly wet spell we were shunted out to Kuduland, the reserve where the horse rescue project is based; we were then shunted off to Tshipise, another associated reserve that is the location for a rhino and elephant monitoring project, for a couple of nights; then for my very last night at the project we were shunted to another house on the reserve which had been unoccupied for who knows how long, with – horror of horrors – no kettle to make a cup of tea!  Not only that, but no bedding either to which Emma’s reply was that we could use sleeping bags… all very well if your travel agent tells you that you need to bring one but not particularly helpful if he doesn’t!


My dreams of trotting round after a true wildlife vet for a whole month and getting some “in the field” emergency medical experience with big game, and some clinical experience with smaller animals, were still intact despite this …  Then I get told that the so-called wildlife vet was not only brand new to the job, but brand new out of Onderstepoort, the only vet school in South Africa.  And he wasn’t arriving till the Sunday.  The clinic …  I was supposed to be spending most of my time in, didn’t exist…. and there was nothing to rehab either.   And the only game in town - the bulk of the work - would be game capture.


And then it rained.


For days.


Roads were washed out left, right, and centre.  The trip we were supposed to take to a local village to talk to the chief about setting up a free clinic couldn’t happen because the roads were cut – and it still hadn’t happened when I left a month later, despite the roads drying up.  Game capture work was at a standstill until it stopped raining and the helicopters could fly, and trucks could get in and out of remote game farms along dirt roads. 


The vet, an African named Lufuno, and I, spent our first working day – the Monday – in Delicious, the one and only café in Alldays, doing precisely nothing, while it bucketed down outside.  I hadn’t planned on being dumped there all day and nor had Lufuno.  Little did we know at the time that we were to waste many hours at Delicious, which served as the local meeting place for the farmers and game capture companies in the area, and seemed to be the venue for a lot of business meetings.   With the owners going off to meetings and the pilot swanning off somewhere else, Lufuno and I had no transport and no hope of going anywhere or doing anything constructive, so I made friends with the African Grey parrot, Marai, who spends her days in a cage in the café.  It took me about a minute to see the state of her feet… her nails were so long that they were curling round on themselves and one looked perilously close to growing into the flesh of her toe.  As a result of overgrown nails she couldn’t perch properly, her posture was very bad and I immediately started to worry about hip, knee and spinal problems.  A couple of days later I was able to talk to the owner and just point out the state of Marai’s feet to her and ask that she get someone to clip them.  Had I known that it still wouldn’t be done by the time I left the placement, I’d have offered to do it there and then.  Lufuno, though he was a really nice guy and was as helpful as he could be, knew less about birds than I do – oh dear.  That would have meant me teaching him how to handle a parrot while I clipped her nails!

The next day our one and only veterinary case cropped up.  After spending yet more hours at Delicious, we went out to Kuduland, which is an associated reserve where a horse rescue project is in place.   Gunston, one of the horses, had badly lacerated himself going through a fence.   I went with Lufuno to assess the situation but we had nothing to do any treatments with – the best Lufuno could advise in the circumstances was to wash the wound and spray it with iodine.  No stitching required, which is just as well since we had nothing to stitch it with.  It took a week for antibiotics, tetanus medication, bandaging material and wound cleaning products to make an appearance so that we could properly treat this wound, which was a very bad laceration on his right front leg, just above the hoof.  This all arrived one night around 8pm, by which time it was pitch dark and freezing cold, so off we went in the back of the bakkie (oh what joy!) to work by torchlight to get the wound properly cleaned and dressed, and give Gunston antibiotics and a tetanus jab.  Lufuno left instructions with the volunteer coordinators on wound care from then on.  We were out several more times during the course of the month to check Gunston not only for that wound, but for others incurred during subsequent escape bids.


I found out that the reserve also had some rescued warthogs with piglets who were resident on the reserve, and had taken in a blind black-backed jackal.  I didn’t like the conditions in which she was kept – she had a very small enclosure, a little pool of water which, when I looked at it, was green and slimy, and she spent her days turning in half demented circles, seeming to be on high alert the whole time.  The only time she stopped pacing and began to relax was when I went into her enclosure to scrub and change her water containers, and spent some time sitting with and stroking her.  I understand how hard it is to make the decision to euthanase an animal but I wondered if it would have been kinder for her.  Either that or find a companion for her who could also not be released.


In the meantime I had what I thought would be a rehab case – a baby grebe who had somehow lost his family and become orphaned.  I had him in my tent in a nice little basket and one of the workers was catching fish for him, which I duly filleted and hand fed to him.  Unfortunately I came back from sorting out Gunston to find that my little grebe had disappeared.  I’ve no idea what happened – there was no clue to whether he’d been taken by one of the pet cats, terrorized by one of the Jack Russells or just plain escaped.


The rain finally stopped and the roads dried up so the next day we went off for game capture.  One thing about game capture…. Lots and lots of driving to get anywhere, and lots and lots of hanging around.  The motto among game capture guys is “Hurry up and wait”.  I got heartily sick of bouncing around in the back of a bakkie, and took any opportunity to indulge in the luxury of a padded inside seat.  The most Lufuno and I could do was observe as we were both brand new to game capture.  I learned about game capture in a wildlife management course I did and from that point of view it was interesting to see what I’d read about being put into practice.  However over the course of the month I saw far too much of it and found most of it upsetting for one reason or another.


Our first game capture was of gemsbok, or oryx as they are also known.  We were supposed to capture 15 but in the end got only 4.  The chopper pilot was up in the air for 5 or 6 hours, trying to run the antelope into a boma, which is a funnel type structure that narrows into the loading chute of the waiting trucks.  He ran them ragged trying to get them in and it took a long time for their breathing to get back to normal.  In fact one male still hadn’t recovered when the truck went off late in the afternoon.  He was dribbling blood from nose and mouth by the time he got onto the truck due to being pushed for too long in warm weather, and from the stress of being chased for hours on end.  To add insult to injury he then had to endure being yelled at and charged by a bunch of guys with branches to shoo him to the back of the trailer.  I found it very distressing to watch these magnificent animals being treated this way.


I also found out that far from these animals always being rounded up so that they could be shipped to other reserves to be “new blood” for the herd, as we were originally told, most often the animals are captured to go off to auction and ultimately end up being hunted.  No prizes for guessing how upsetting I find that.  The other thing I found difficult to come to grips with is the prevailing attitude from reserve managers, game farm owners and game capture companies that hunting animals is the only way to assign any value to them and give them any chance of survival as a species.  I found it unutterably sad that these glorious animals of all shapes and sizes are only considered of any value when they become nothing more than a commodity.  The company we mostly worked with prided themselves on having a 1% loss rate – which is considered outstanding in the game capture industry.  Industry standard is 5%.  Call it unrealistic if you like but for me, the loss of even one animal is unacceptable.


Game capture on the following day as well – sedation by being darted from the air this time.  We had to be up at ridiculously early times – one morning it was 3.30 – to drive to farms in order to meet the game capture team.  For my second capture I got my first chopper ride!  It wasn't a long flight and I had perhaps one moment where I felt a bit apprehensive - mostly because my little Yaris has more inside space than the R-44 that I went up in.  That was as we were taking off and I realised just how tiny that cockpit is and how thin the skin of the whole aircraft is - not much either keeping us up in the air or separating us from the elements.  However, once up in the air everything was fine and it was pretty cool being able to see the farms spread out and yet not be so high that I couldn't see the animals.  Saw mostly cattle but I did see one nyala darting through the bush just as we approached the farm.  In South Africa it’s law that a vet is either on hand to supervise, or must carry out the darting … so on this occasion one of the top game capture vets in the country was on hand to dart a herd of nyala.  My role that day was to be part of the ground teams who went in to pick up the nyala once they went “down” and get them back to the truck for the necessary reversal drugs as they were loaded.   Time is of the essence when retrieving an animal that’s been sedated so after getting as close as we could to where the chopper was hovering, it was a bit of a scramble through thick bush consisting of mostly thorny acacias, and then a mad dash back, with 6 of us carrying an antelope on a canvas stretcher.  To say the ride back to the truck in the bakkie was hairy is no understatement.  I’m sure our driver took great delight in hurtling through mud puddles and getting us all thoroughly drenched, and we had some ducking and diving to do to avoid overhanging acacias!  We called it quits around lunchtime as the day was getting too hot to have the animals run and then be down for even a matter of minutes.  In all I guess the game capture guys would have said it was a good days work with 2 nyala buck and 22 does being captured.  I still don’t like the stress the animals were under while being located and I still don’t like the reason why the capture was done.  ...  Overall though, I felt this was kinder than the “mass capture” method used the previous day with the gemsbok.  Nyala are such docile looking creatures though I know they could cause quite a bit of damage with just one kick.  But you take one look at those big gentle eyes just staring in complete confusion, lack of understanding, and fear, and you wonder how anyone could begin to think of hurting them or treating them as just commodities.  The females are gorgeous and the males are stunningly magnificent and it was hard not to lose the plot and make a silent apology to every one of them when I looked into their eyes.  One of the does had a length of nylon embedded in one of her hoofs – part of a snare – which was removed and then treated with the ubiquitous purple wound spray and a shot of antibiotics.  As the animal was going to auction nothing further was done for her.


Lufuno took the chopper back to the farm so I rode back with Anthony.  We had a bit of a scare with a random helicopter landing illegally on Kuduland on the way, so we high-tailed it out there to make sure nothing had happened to his rhino.  We managed to get a signal from both the transmitter on the rhino's foot and the one in the horn so it was left to Brooke to get a visual on him and just make sure he was in one piece.  Poaching is a huge issue in SA in general and, I've been told, in Limpopo in particular.  Apparently lots of bad guys live there!  One bonus of spending time with Anthony was that I got to have lots of discussions with him about wildlife, canned hunting, poaching and how I felt about game capture methods that I observed while at the placement.  While overall I got nothing out of the “internship” to put on a CV, I did meet some of the top guys in the game capture field, and I came to respect Anthony for his views on improving game capture methods so as to cause less stress for the animals, his disgust for canned hunting, his ideas for improving the odds of catching poachers and protecting those species most at risk, and for doing his best to give all us volunteers something for our money ...


With nothing happening on the weekends I took the opportunity to complete my IUCN redlist assessors course and catch up on a few other little things on my “to do” list.   …  We had a few “outings” inasmuch as we went for a drive around the reserve one day – spent about 15 minutes at a waterhole then went to a pile of boulders which constitutes the highest point on the reserve and gives a great lookout.  …  A couple of weeks later we spent the Sunday retrieving a dead helicopter – Anthony’s helicopter had caught fire and crashed in thick scrub about 6 weeks previously, so had to be picked up and dumped back on the reserve.  Bit of a mission cutting it up to get it on the trailer but we managed in the end …


As I mentioned, we were shunted out to Kuduland during a very wet spell early the next week.  The day we got out there we went off with Brooke and Caroline to track the collared rhino and cheetah present on the reserve – one of each.  This is usually done twice a day so that any would-be poachers know that there’s a presence on the farm and that the reserve owner does know where his animals are.  During the full moon the coordinators also go out close to midnight to track the rhino, since poachers can and do operate well when there’s so much light.  But to get back to my experience with tracking the rhino that first day….  Did I happen to mention that it had been raining??  Off we went in the Landrover which had been converted to an open topped game viewing vehicle.  The tracks were muddy but passable and it wasn’t raining to start with…. But while following the radio signal and trying to find the rhino, it began to drizzle and then Brooke got us mired in mud.  She managed to get the Landrover embedded up to the running boards attempting to get out of a particularly boggy patch – most of us being without rain gear (we hadn’t expected to be out for long) we tried fruitlessly for about 15 minutes to help push the thing out but when that failed, went for cover under a thorny acacia tree and waited while Brooke called up the cavalry on the two-way to get us out.  The cavalry appeared in the shape of a Landcruiser which hooked up to us and proceeded to get bogged itself… so then we had to wait for someone else to respond to Brooke’s, by now, desperate radio messages.  At about this point I started fantasising about being cosied up in a warm room after a hot shower and stuffing myself full of vegan chocolate while reading a good book.  In the meantime, in place of the tractor we requested, yet another Landcruiser appeared.  Oh here’s disaster, I thought – but the driver managed to get the first Landcruiser out of the bog, had no luck with the Landrover though so we had to leave that there while we made our dripping way back to camp to attempt to get warm and dry.  We left the camp a couple of days later with the Landrover still firmly entrenched in the mud – I heard it finally got pulled free another two or three days after that when things had started to dry out a bit, but that the tractor that freed it ended up damaged. 


Did you know that congealing mud puddles look exactly like molten chocolate?


The sable darting that was the excuse for us going out to Kuduland on the Monday didn’t happen till much later in the week.  In the meantime, once it stopped raining we tracked the cheetah, the rhino and spent the rest of our time gardening.  I kid you not – gardening.  That consisted of filling holes under fencelines and cutting back trees and bushes that were growing over the boundary tracks.  …  The one bonus to being out gardening was that we coincidentally tracked the rhino and got a great sighting of him from about 30 metres away.  He was so used to seeing people that after spending perhaps 10 minutes peering at us he got bored and went to sleep under a tree.  The main worry was that he was so close to the fenceline – and in a perfect position to be taken by any would-be poachers.


Lufuno, myself and a new volunteer called Sam were much relieved on the Wednesday to find that the roads had dried out enough for us to go out and observe giraffe capture.  Captures generally happen either early in the morning or later in the afternoon, so that the animals aren’t so prone to heat stress.  Giraffe capture was a late afternoon affair so we drove for 2 hours to get to the farm where a boma had been set up and the trucks were all in place.  At 4.30 the chopper pilot arrived and everything got under way.  In contrast to the gemsbok capture, this one was really quick and only took 10 minutes.  6 giraffe, including one young animal, were rounded up and herded onto the truck and this time we were allowed to hide along the edge of the boma and see the giraffe passing us at a distance of about 15 metres.  Giraffe are very curious by nature and would run into the boma then once a “curtain” had been closed behind them, would stop to have a look round.  One of the males was not at all interested in getting into the truck and turned to fight, with the result that the whole hoo-ha with the branches and a lot of yelling ensued to frighten him into turning round and getting into the truck.  When it was over and we came out of the boma, I stood looking at the giraffe in the trailer.  By that stage the truck was shunting backwards and forwards trying to get out of the mud, and that was still going on when we left .  I felt for those poor animals then even more than I did when they were being chased by the helicopter – shunted back and forth with no clue as to what direction they were going next, battling to keep their balance and not even able to extend their necks fully.  When I looked up into their eyes, especially the baby, I again saw the confusion and stress, and felt like crying because there is nothing I can do to change what happens – at least not on the spot and on a local level like this.   As there were more giraffe to be rounded up we went back to the lodge for the night, then left the reserve at 5am the next morning to get back to the farm and wait for the capture team – which never showed as unbeknown to us, it had rained overnight and the roads were too soggy to get trucks in and out. The team had managed to get the giraffe out the night before, but other trucks were mired in the mud and turns out they weren’t removed until the weekend.


As for us - we ended up back at Delicious for hours on end.  Lufuno, Sam and I decided to make lemonade out of lemons and Lufuno started giving us mini lectures on subjects relevant to what we were doing, and since we were doing game capture the topic was game capture drugs.  Work of any variety was out for the remainder of the week since – guess what? – it rained!  And then it was the weekend so I completed my IUCN course.  We kept getting told that once everything cleared up we’d be very busy with plans for installing tracking devices on rhino and darting animals on other reserves and farms – but in the end most of that didn’t eventuate due to delays with one thing and another, as well as the weather.


The next week began with darting sable on a game farm.   Sable are very valuable animals – some prime breeding males are sold for literally millions of rand – and rather than being run into a boma they are always sedated.  On this occasion we were privileged to work with Piet Lombard, the top chemical capture man in the country, and one who has run chemical capture courses for vets.    Despite his awe-inspiring reputation he was a pleasure to work with and was very eager to teach anyone who showed any curiosity.  I also had great respect for him for his attitude toward the animals, which was that if the animal was at any risk, capture would immediately be stopped and the animal would be properly attended to.  As he himself said, if he's not happy with how things are going for the animal he'll shut things down - rather do two animals a day and get it right, than try to capture 20 or 30 and lose some.    For this capture the sable were herded by vehicle then darted.  One of the males captured had a horrible abscess in his right rump which was treated while he was under the influence of sedation.  This animal, in contrast to treatment for the nyala the week before, was then put into a boma where he could be observed and further treatment given if necessary.  While I still despised the main reason why these animals were captured, I felt that this was possibly the kindest method yet that I had seen.  Having said that, that the males were ultimately going to be hunting trophies was confirmed by farm owners taking measurements of the horns – length, circumference and the number of growth rings were all noted, as these are the things that determine whether the animal will be a “good” trophy.


Rise and shine at 3.30am the next day to make it to Kuduland for a 6am start!  “Shining” is hardly the word I would have used to describe myself at that time of the morning and I think we all felt the same.  For this capture we were darting sable males for the multi-millionaire who owns the reserve, once again working with Piet though on this occasion the sable were located and darted from the chopper. The owner flew the chopper and kindly agreed to take us vollies for a “flip” after the capture was done – awesome flight as he threw in some tight turns and on a chopper that has doors removed for the convenience of whoever’s darting, that’s quite some experience!    I’ve decided – as you do – that if I ever win Lotto I need to get my chopper pilot’s license……  The bonus to having such an early start was that as we were waiting for the main gate to the reserve to be unlocked, we were treated to the sight of a lone rhino on the neighbouring farm taking his morning constitutional along the fenceline – he ambled towards us, looked at us and the vehicle with complete disinterest, and then just went off into the bush.  By 9am we were done and dusted so we then went off with Brooke to track the cheetah and rhino, and we managed to get a good sighting of the cheetah – also managed to get very close on foot, we were standing within perhaps 5 metres of him.   …


Our next game capture was at a farm about 3 hours drive away.  As always we had to wait to hear from the game capture outfit to find out if roads were passable – however by 10am we were on our way.  By this time we were all fed up with having to ride in the back of a bakkie – particularly on long journeys and when we had to drive at night to get back to the lodge – so we mutinied and rather than take the bakkie, we held out for the Toyota Prado where we could all sit in comfort.  Somewhat of a false start though, after many wrong turnings we ended up on the farm only to find that the wind was in the wrong direction and that the animals could smell both us and the boma, thus making capture impossible.   Since the distance from the lodge made it impractical to make our way back there, we spent the night at Tshipise which was “only” an hour from the farm.  This was a “mixed” capture so during the course of the next day we captured 109 impala, mostly female; 7 adult zebra including a pregnant mare, and a 2 week old foal; 3 waterbuck; and 4 eland.  This was yet another roundup from the air into a boma and then onto the trucks and I didn’t like it any better than the first time I ever saw it.  …


The issue of staying at Kuduland for the entire weekend raised it’s ugly head again when we were told to be prepared to stay out there once we’d looked at Gunston, who had made yet another escape bid and injured himself.  We ducked that one by going to assess and treat him, his wounds were superficial and didn’t require us to stay onsite, so we got our way and went back to the lodge.


No work on the Monday – since the rain had dried up, those with choppers and pilots for hire were inundated and had taken to laughing at anyone who asked if they could hire one for game capture work.  On the Tuesday we worked with Piet again, catching nyala bulls.  10 were ear-marked for capture but we ended up with 2 – one of whom went to Piet’s farm as new blood for his small breeding herd.  One of the highlights of the day was seeing a breeding pair of African black eagles soaring high up in the sky – a rare sighting according to Piet and I felt myself very privileged.  That night I actually took some time to sit and look at the African night sky from my verandah.  There are no lights other than those of the lodge and the sight is stunning.  I haven’t seen the sky like that since my travels long ago in the middle of Australia.


No work on the Wednesday but on Thursday we had darting again – two sable males in the morning, and checking on the male who’d been darted and treated for an abscess a couple of weeks earlier.  As usual when working with Piet it was done quietly, calmly and with a minimum of fuss.  Then in the afternoon we finally got a rhino darting job.   We worked with yet another vet who did the job calmly, quietly and as quickly as possible.  Rhino can’t be down for long and need to have their temperature constantly monitored – as the afternoon was on the warm side she was kept cool by pouring buckets of cool water over her, and the vet had a needle in her ear ready to give the reversal drug as soon as she was properly sedated.   Again it was a case of find and dart her from the air, then go in on foot to roll her on her side and then do what needed to be done, which in this case was to attach a radio transmitter to her leg.   Oh – and by the way, look over your shoulder for her calf which we didn’t end up seeing, but which wasn’t too far away!


And the day after that I was off to Polokwane airport.  …


Do I wish I’d gone somewhere else?  In terms of what I learned that I can put on a CV to help me get into vet nursing school – which was the main reason why I chose that placement – absolutely.  Though it sounds busy, in total I had about 9 days work of the 28 days I was there.   …   But there were positives.  One was meeting and talking to Anthony about his ideas for anti-poaching systems and shutting down the canned hunting and cub petting industry.  Another was meeting the top game capture guys in the country and learning so much from them.  Yet another was the variety of birdlife and other wildlife I saw whilst travelling and sitting around waiting for work to come through.  I saw loads of spotted eagle owls, lilac breasted rollers, swallows, carmine fronted bee-eaters, and southern red-billed hornbills.  I also saw a Kori bustard, a secretary bird, one or two cape vultures, yellow billed kites, a small spotted mongoose, a bateleur eagle, mousebirds, guinea fowl, korhaan, pin-tailed whydahs, long-tailed paradise whydahs, crowned eagle, crimson breasted cuckoo shrikes, a gymnogene, firefinches, stunning butterflies, and loads of mopane worms.  On top of that there were all the species that were captured during my stay as well as springbok, kudu, bushbuck and my one sighting of the rare roan antelope – the back end of a roan as it disappeared into thick bush on one of our drives home to the reserve.  And I had a couple of helicopter rides.  …


Overall I left the reserve feeling as though I’d been freed – not nice to spend the whole month waiting for it to just end so I could get back to doing actual hands-on with animals, and making a difference to their lives.  My next port of call was Dullstroom Bird of Prey Centre in Mpumulanga province, and I couldn’t wait to start."

[26/01/2022 21:28:37]

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