A week in the life of a big game vet
Dangerous animals, deadly drugs and high-speed helicopter chases – it’s all in a day’s work for South Africa’s wildlife vets. So, if you’re prepared to get your hands dirty, you can get closer to big game than you ever dared dream.
I was at a farm in Bothaville with Peter to test their 32-strong herd of young buffalos for diseases. In South Africa, wild buffalo are responsible for the spread of foot and mouth and corridor disease to livestock. They also carry brucellosis and bovine tuberculosis (which they probably contracted from infected cattle introduced to the Kruger National Park area in colonial times).
Farmers are understandably keen to keep their cattle free of disease and don’t want them coming into contact with wild, infected buffalos, so to repopulate game reserves buffalos have to be bred in captivity (calves are hand-raised or adopted by Jersey cows to prevent them from contracting the diseases in their mothers’ milk).
Their movements are also strictly controlled: you can only sell your animals if they have passed a thorough check-up. Buffalos with a clean bill of health are valuable – a disease-free heifer can sell for 150,000 rand (about £10,000).
As we entered the pen, the youngsters eyed us warily, showing none of the species’ famed aggression. Pete raised his gun and ‘Pffft’ – the first pink-feathered dart found its target. Surprised, the buffalo leapt into the air, then cantered in a circle, hind hoof kicking up at his haunch where the missile had struck. ‘Pffft, pffft’ – two more darts hit home.
A drug-induced daze
The first buffalo soon began tottering, as if drunk. As his legs grew wobbly, he sat down on his haunches, front legs splayed and braced. Then, with a groan, he sank down, nose in the sand.
As the other two buffalos keeled over, we ran to them. Kneeling beside a mahogany-coloured bull, I covered his eyes with a towel and wrapped both hands round his curled horns. Holding his head clear of the ground, I counted his breaths while he was injected with a cocktail of vaccinations. Then things got really messy...
“Pull his head towards you,” Peter instructed. Moving the bull’s heavy head was not easy, but as I struggled, Peter skilfully found the vein in its neck with his needle and filled six phials with rich, red blood. These would be sent off for testing for the four diseases – the fate of the entire herd rested on the outcome.
The antidote was administered and we retreated. Surprisingly quickly, our patients were up and mingling with their herdmates, who nuzzled them and licked their haunches where blood from the darts was drying.
By midday, we were adept at processing the calves. Around us, the rest of the herd goggled nervously as they waited their turn. Though they were young and docile, we stayed alert – buffalos are said to kill more people in South Africa than almost any other mammal, and the first time you forget this might be your last.
CASE 3: DARTING GAME
“This is extreme flying,” declared pilot John, with a wicked smile and a twinkle in his bright blue eyes as he swung the chopper in an arc. “Let me know when you start to feel sick!” “When”, I noted sourly as my stomach churned, not “if”.
I was back in a helicopter, skimming across overgrazed grassland, looking for a herd of black wildebeest. This rare species is endemic to southern Africa, and almost went extinct without anyone noticing. But when the population plummeted to only 32 individuals, conservationists quickly moved the remaining animals into one captive breeding herd.
Today, the population numbers in the thousands and black wildebeest have been reintroduced widely.
Our mission was to dart and capture several bulls. “Black wildebeest are stubborn as hell,” John smiled as we buzzed over ostriches and elands, the chopper’s shadow clinging to the contours of the land. “They refuse to be herded. You can push them so far, but when they get to the edge of their territory, they just run round in circles. And they’re fast. Oh, there they are.”
As the chopper lowered beside them, the herd took off, their white-plumed tails held aloft like flags.
They made a magnificent sight, streaming seamlessly over the landscape in a flat-out gallop. I was mesmerised. Fortunately, French vet Charlotte Marcaux was concentrating on the job in hand and had her dartgun ready. The drug affects an animal’s ability to thermoregulate, so it’s important to avoid long, hot chases.
As John steadied the chopper, Charlotte leaned out as far as her seatbelt would allow and took aim.
“Two bulls are going down – go, go, go!” John radioed to the ground team. Leaping out of the chopper, I raced to the vehicle.
As we bounced over the veldt, we spotted the first bull. He was standing, sides heaving, head lowered, legs shaking. The team rushed him from behind, seized his horns and folded his legs neatly beneath him. Wrapping a jacket around his eyes, one of the workers held his head as, without a backward glance, the team took off after wildebeest two.
This bull was less co-operative, bracing his strong shoulders and easily throwing three men off as they tried to force him to his knees. So they simply linked hands under his armpits and groin, and lifted him into the open back of the truck.
I climbed over the side to get my first good look at a black wildebeest. He was a curious animal, appearing to have been put together from spare animal parts found lying around. He was small and stocky, with wickedly curved horns more suited to a cow, a zebra’s Mohican-like mane, the beard and skinny legs of a goat and long, white eyelashes like starfish. All topped off with an endearing tuft of hair standing on end down his nose. I was smitten.
On the way back, we picked up the first sleepy wildebeest, sliding him onto a stretcher and lifting him into the back of the truck next to his herd-mate.
At base, the wildebeest were given the antidote and gently shoved into a pen. They soon awoke and rose unsteadily to their feet, leaning on the walls for support as they staggered around. Whenever they bumped into each other, they dropped their heads and butted each other – feisty little things.