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.


Vet safari in South Africa



Kneeling in the dirt, the grass head-high, I felt like a lion lying in ambush. But this was no normal hunt. Behind me, the capture team talked softly in their own language, completely calm before the storm that was about to break. But I was nervous – I had been warned that this might not be pretty.

A distant rat-tat-tat told me that the chopper was driving the unsuspecting prey towards the trap where I lay in wait. The target were blesbuck – pretty, chestnut antelope, about the size of goats, with broad, white blazes and short, sharp, prong-like horns.

This private ranch was home to a 200-strong herd, and they were all being rounded up for sale. As blesbuck are not valuable enough to justify darting, the only way to catch them was in a net boma.

The boma consisted of a channel of nets, lined with smaller, finer netting, that narrowed into a small ‘box’ with additional nets. The animals would be chased into the channel and the momentum of their flight would carry them into the mesh, where they would become entangled. The men would release them and put them on trucks for transport to their new home. Well, that was the theory.

Hiding in the grass

I crouched by the entrance to the box, terrified of spooking the herd at the last minute, when a sudden movement made my heart jump. It was just a tiny duiker. I wished it luck. A moment later, the herd was careering down the far side of the nets, the helicopter overhead urging them on. Three veered to the right and bounced straight into the net.

The others realised the danger and whirled back the way they had come, but their escape was short-lived. The chopper spun round, racing to beat them to the entrance and turn them back. We could not afford to lose them.

Of the three blesbuck that had hit the nets, two were now firmly entangled, their kicking only making the knots tighter, their bleats filling the air. To my astonishment, the third freed itself, found a gap in the mesh and raced to the horizon. We’d worry about him later.

The herd had been turned and were racing back towards the trap. Wave upon wave hit the nets, the leaders jumping the first obstacle only to be caught in the second. A curtain was pulled to block their escape route and the air was filled with bellowing, bleating and the drumming of desperate hooves. The team set to work.

Blesbuck wrestling

I raced round to the far side of the boma where the three blesbuck were caught. The men were already expertly detaching the animals from the nets when I arrived, breathless and slightly panicky. “Can I help?” I gasped.

One man looked up at me and then down at the blesbuck lying meekly at his feet. Without a word, he pushed its head towards me and, as I grasped its short prongs, he simply walked off.

Feeling the man’s firm grip lighten, the blesbuck started to struggle. Rearing to its feet, it twisted and bucked, springing from side to side. I couldn’t hold it! I feared it would break its neck twisting against my grip.

For what seemed like hours, I held on to the manic beast, its sharp horns digging painfully into my wrists, each lurch nearly pulling me off my feet.

Suddenly, thankfully, the man returned. Unperturbed by my struggles, he took the blesbuck’s horns, tucked its head under his arm and held its chin up to prevent it from using the strength in its shoulders it had used so effectively against me. Shaking, I knelt to free the animal’s tiny hooves from the net, and then the man calmly frogmarched it down the boma and over to the truck.

In the team’s capable hands, the blesbuck were quiet and docile, bearing no resemblence to the demon that had fought me so ferociously.

The ambush had been a success. Though it had been stressful for both the blesbuck and me, no bones had been broken. My blesbuck lived to graze another day.

This was my last case as a wildlife vet. Back in Bristol, the wildest animal to greet me was my German shepherd. But I won’t forget the feel of a buffalo’s heavy head in my arms or my new-found love of black wildebeest.



  1. Locating and darting a rhino from a helicopter is the easy part. Once you catch up with your quarry on the ground, the hard work begins.

  2. As the immobilising drugs start to work on the rhino’s muscles, it becomes unsteady on its feet and eventually topples over. Vets need to be close by to stabilise it as soon as it’s safe to approach.
  3. The rhino’s eyes are covered and kept moist with ointment, and its breathing closely monitored since the drugs affect respiratory rate. Microchips are injected into the skin behind its ears so that the animal can be identified if found dead.
  4. A hole is drilled into the rhino’s anterior horn so that a microchip (the size of a grain of rice) can be inserted and glued in. If the rhino is poached for its horn, and the horn is later found on the black market, it can be traced back to Klaserie and this individual.
  5. The rhino’s ears are notched. Triangles denoting numbers – here 20 + 40 = 60 – help rangers to recognise individuals from a distance. Rhino ears bleed a lot, so clamps are used to minimise blood loss and antiseptic is applied.



  • Sophie joined the Shimongwe Veterinary Project with African Conservation Experience (ACE). Based in the Limpopo Province, South Africa, the project enables ‘students’ (anyone young at heart) to join an experienced wildlife vet in the bush. For more details of all ACE’s volunteer projects, call 0870 241 5816.

  • ACE offset all their students’ flights through Climate Care. Sophie’s flight to Johannesburg cost £19.74 to offset.

To meet Sophie and the rest of the team, click here.  


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