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.

 

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Vet safari in South Africa

Dangerous animals, deadly drugs and high-speed helicopter chases – it’s all in a day’s work for South Africa’s wildlife vets. Sophie Stafford joined the team and discovered that, if you’re prepared to get your hands dirty, you can get closer to big game than you ever dared dream.

 

CASE 1: RHINO CONSERVATION

“I’ve just been abducted by aliens!” For one white rhino, today was going to be like a bad dream. For me, it was the beginning of an experience of a lifetime.

With a sigh, the shiny, black R22 helicopter landed in the clearing, its blades scything the air with a gentle swish-swish-swish. I ran to the cockpit and slid into the back seat, pulling on oversized ear-muffs. The chopper juddered and, with a light hop, lifted into the air.

I was at Klaserie Nature Reserve, 60,000 hectares of prime South African bush that dropped its fences to Kruger National Park about 10 years ago and now forms the park’s western border. As such, it is vulnerable to poaching, so the numbers of black and white rhinos living here are closely guarded secrets.

To safeguard these endangered animals, conservationists have also begun micro-chipping their valuable horns. For this, they need a vet, and the man for the job is Dr Peter ‘probably-the-best-vet-in-Africa’ Rogers, the sort of experienced, unflappable expert you’d like to have as your doctor, let alone to look after your prized pooch.

Trophy rhino

As the helicopter tipped sideways, the ground loomed large and I noticed something was missing – the door. But before I could worry about this unfortunate oversight, pilot John Bassi said in satisfied tones: “Aha! A perfect specimen.” I peered down at a herd of five white rhinos, one of which was a magnificent, two-tonne bull. “We’ve got a big one,” John radioed Peter, so that he could prepare the dart.

As we landed, I jumped out of the chopper and into the chase vehicle, while Peter took to the air, dartgun in hand. Minutes later, the radio crackled into life – the rhino was darted and heading north. He would be on his feet for another six minutes or so until the immobilising drugs kicked in, and we had to be there when he went down to make sure he was OK.

With the chopper keeping tabs on our quarry from above, we set off in hot pursuit. 

Feeling woozy

Moments later, the rhino stepped onto the path right in front of our vehicle. He was unsteady on his feet, giving little high-kicks as the ground moved under him. As Peter crept forwards, the rhino toppled onto his side.

We raced over to prop him up and keep his airway clear. As he was conscious but unable to respond, it was important to keep him calm. Grasping his huge, 62-inch-long horn, I pulled a blanket over his eyes and plugged his ears with what looked like Peter’s old socks. Steadying his massive, prehistoric head, I patted his rough hide and, pressing a hand to his nostrils, counted his wheezing breaths.

The vets sprang into action. All the while a rhino is down, it’s vulnerable to respiratory failure, loss of blood pressure and heart attack, so it’s a race against time to carry out the procedures and get it back on its feet.

The warden whipped out a drill and bored a tiny hole into the rhino’s horn before inserting a microchip and sealing it in with a spot of glue. The chip contains an ID code – if the horn ever turns up on the black market, a quick scan will reveal which rhino and area it came from.

Meanwhile, Peter used a monstrously large needle to inject a microchip behind each leathery ear. When a rhino is killed by poachers, these extremities are often chewed off by hyenas, so the chips are the only way conservationists can identify the carcass.

Animal experiments

As I watched, Peter produced something that resembled a torture device – an ear-notcher.

Klaserie’s rangers have developed a system that enables them to identify individual rhinos from a distance. A series of triangles is punched into each ear, denoting 1, 2 and 4 (on the right) and 10, 20 and 40 (on the left), combinations of which give each animal a unique number. Our rhino was the 60th to be microchipped, so he had two triangles (20 + 40) in his left ear.

Peter edged the device into place and squeezed. I winced. Rhino ears bleed copiously, so the surrounding veins were quickly clamped to minimise blood loss. Blue antiseptic spray marked the job as done. The whole operation took less than 10 minutes.

“I’m going to bring him round,” declared Peter, grabbing an ear and preparing to inject the antidote. “Clear out.” We scooted back to the vehicle – there was a good chance that Rhino 60 was not going to be happy when he came round.

Within minutes, he was clearly awake, though he stayed prone, disoriented. Peter had given him a tranquiliser to see him through these stressful moments while he regained his full faculties. 

But Rhino 60 was not going to take this assault lying down. Lurching to his feet, he began walking towards the vehicle with grim determination. “What did you give him, Pete – whisky?!” exclaimed the warden, as he slammed the truck into reverse and beat a hasty retreat.

The rhino followed. But eventually he decided we weren’t worth the effort and woozily headed into the bush, no doubt to tell his companions how he was abducted by aliens who conducted bizarre experiments on him.

CASE 2: BUFFALO TB TESTING

I stood face-to-face with one of Africa’s most dangerous animals. The buffalo raised his head and gazed down his nose at me – a threat. I held my ground… and, in a puff of dust, he skittered away to be comforted by the rest of the herd. Well, he was only two years old. 

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