Monday, May 31, 2010

Special visit!

Welcoming my lovely parents in the bush has been an amazing experience. It was their first time leaving Europe. They flew straight from their safe Dutch hometown into the African bush, where their 'crazy' daughter lives. I have always admired their understanding for a life-style so different from their own (as part of twins I was raised in the travel bed from a cousin; in my opinion the only reason why I started travelling so much). Their 2 week visit has amazed me even more. At first they became worryingly quiet when I had to explain about all dangerous snakes, scorpions and the wild animals around the house (rhinos, buffalos, hippos), but after settling in, they both started to really enjoy and appreciate the bush. Thanks for everything and lots of love!!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

African buffalo testing

Because African buffalos are closely related to domestic livestock they can get infected with the same infectious diseases. Because wild animals do not need to produce 40 litres of milk a day or high quality beef, they are able to focus on the most natural goal in life: to stay healthy! Therefore they do not get ill from diseases what can make domestic cattle or goats very ill and sometimes even kill them. As we all know, most infectious diseases are devastating for a farmer. Because African buffalos can carry highly contagious and dangerous diseases without even showing a single symptom, it can be problematic to prevent them to transmit any diseases. Therefore the South African veterinary authorities decided to only allow African buffalos with the "disease free" status in areas where domestic livestock is kept. This is the complete country except the area of the Kruger NP, so the demand for these buffalos got so high that the price of these animals increased with the same speed. At a certain time a "disease free buffalo" was worth more than a white rhinoceroses, so it's worth the effort. Also it's important for the survival of the species to have enough disease free animals. Especially the long-term effects of e.g. Tuberculosis on the African buffalos in Kruger NP are worrying. To get the status 'disease free' an African buffalo has been tested negative 5 times for the following diseases: tuberculosis, brucellosis (both bacterials), Corridor's disease (a blood parasite) and fouth and mouth disease (a virus). For the Tuberculosis test each buffalo has to be darted twice: first to inject the tuberculin and second to measure the thickness of the skin (in a TB positive buffalo the skin swells up, the same as the Mantaux test in humans).

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Going for a walk with a rhino

"Walking" a rhino is one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced in my life. During my internship in the Kruger NP as a vet student in 1997 I saw an incredible walk with a rhino for the first time and honestly could not believe my eyes. Okay, during these 2 impressive months I experienced more things I could not believe, e.g. capturing lions while listening to crying hyena's played by tape on top of the roof of a caravan. The fact that a human being can manipulate these large and dangerous animals such as rhinos, so that you can walk with them whereever you want sounds to weired to be true. But it works!
Just try to imagine.....working in the bush and you want to translocate a rhino to another area. After darting a wild animal always runs off. We have to track the animal to make sure we find it once it's down. Of course these huge animals not always don't fall asleep next to a road, but more often in thick bush (a safe place), far away from access for the truck or trailer. What do you do then? It's impossible to carry all these kilo's and you're quite in a rush to wake up this highly precious animal as soon as possible.... Pioneers in wildlife capture figured out a fantastic solution: you wake the rhino up just a little bit and let it walk itself: fantastic trick, not? The most important things are the blindfold, earplugs and of course a correct amount of 'partial antidote'. This means that the anesthetics drugs used to make (and keep!) the animal asleep only partially gets antagonised to make sure that it stays asleep deep enough! The situation can quickly get extremely dangerous if you confuse the partial antagonist with a full antagonist or when you for example give too much of it. A fully awake rhino does NOT wanna go for a walk with you, but just goes for you! So hang-overs or automatic pilot mood are not possible with this work. Once the animal slightly wakes up, it will stand up and 5 guys on a rope will pull it into the right direction. A rope on a hind leg is important as a brake. Sounds practical, not?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Beautiful ugly is not ugly

Isn't she a beauty?? Okay, there not too clever and they always walk exactly in front of your car when in a hurry, but wow these guinea fowls are amazing in their own special way!

wounded buffalo

Buffalos are tough and sometimes it's better to leave wounds, otherwise you'd be busy stitching up wounds all day. But this wound was just too deep, too dirty and too bloody so decided to dart the animal, clean it out, stitch it up and put bandage around the foot; especially for fleas and mud its better to cover up deep wounds. After 4 days I darted it again to remove the bandage: it was healed perfectly. Amazing patients: this makes a happy vet!

Unlucky hippo

Never a dull moment in the office! One morning my boss came in my office at 6 am and asked me: "How good are you with hippos". I thought it was a joke, because hippos are known to be one of the most dangerous and most difficult wild animal species to put under anesthetics. They are extremely aggressive and territorial. An attack is often fatal. On top of that, the physical appearance of a hippo does not help either. The thick layer of fat requires a huge needle to be able to penetrate any muscle and a needle long enough does not really exist. The blood circulation in fat is minimal and therefore drugs can't do the job when landing in fat: it can take hours before all drugs is absorbed and the drugs are secreted by the kidneys and liver in the same time: so the animal won't fall asleep. The best place to dart is therefore the cheek, as the fat layer is there the thinnest, but the fragile eyes are scarely close... Another big problem is the fact that hippos always stay in the water during the day. When you are lucky enough that the animal is out of the water, they will run into it, their safe haven, as soon as possible after darting. In both situations the animal will drown, because the breathing reflex stops under general anesthetics. Luckily I knew about a new combination of drugs, currently under investigation in the Kruger National Park. This combination of anesthetics puts a hippo under general anesthetics, but keeps the respiration reflex going, exactly how a hippo sleeps in the wild. A hippo is able to sleep, while the nostrils come to the surface regularly to take a breath automatically. The same as for example how we blink our eyes: it just happens without knowing. When you see the nostrils of hippos regularly coming to the surface during the day, you are watching a sleeping hippo! They are grazing outside the water all night to fill their large stomachs, so a bit of sleep during the day is quite welcome. This new combination of drugs seems to be very succesful and will improve the capture of this species tremendously. But okay, the face of my boss told me that it was not a joke. A wounded hippo was found at the fench on the other side of the park. She probable came from Kruger NP; this means that she crossed the N4, a very busy road (trafic accidents caused by hippos are unfortunately not uncommon in this part of South Africa). According to the field rangers, she was in very bad condition and we did not have any time to loose. I am always in for a challenge and each wounded animal deserves help, so quickly I read some info about hippo anesthetics (thanks colleagues!) and we loaded the jeep. After a 45 minutes drive we found a severely distressed animal next to the fench. It was heart breaking to see such a powerful animal so weak. She was laying on its side, breathing heavily and not able to move. A very common problem of wild animals is called 'capture myopathie': muscle damage caused by contineous fighting to try to survive. E.g. when you run for your life, at full speed, for 5 kilometers, your muscles will be destroyed and you won't be able to move anymore. Wild animals know that they will die once they give up, so they fight literaly until they are dead; they won't give themselves a break. This animal was probably caught in the fench earlier in the night and had been fighting to get out for hours and hours. By now she was out of the fench but completely exhausted. Because the animal would for sure not survive any anesthetics, I decided to only inject her with painkillers, antibiotics and vitamins. Luckily we could inject her with a pole syringe (a syringe on a large stick) and wet the animal with water, but I knew the prognosis was very bad. Unfortunately there was nothing more we could do for her. Sadly she passed away a few hours later. These occasions make me long for the Africa before humans were dominating the world: an Africa without fenches.

Bird eyes

Rhinos and many other wildlife species are often darted from a helicopter, mainly to be able to find them easier before and after darting. With dangerous species such a elephants and black rhinos it is also for safety reasons. The decision to rent a helicopter and a pilot (expensive rate per hour) depends on the terrain, the animal species, the size of the area and the situation. Most South African helicopter pilots have their own helicopter close to home and use it as a 'car'. In the wildlife season they are most of the time very busy, so each action must be well planned in advance. The shy and agressive black rhino must always be darted from an helicopter, mainly because they are too aggressive to approach and very difficult to find after darting. The more docile and grazing white rhino can most of the times be darted while tracked on foot in the bush (make sure you approach them in the wind: when they smell you they're gone!). But once they run away, what they often do after being hit by the dart, it can be difficult to find them again, especially in thick bush. A helicopter is often amazingly helpful. You won't believe me, but keeping track on a huge animal as a rhino can be tremendously difficult, even from the air. One day I had to keep an eye on a (not yet darted) white rhino for almost an hour from a helicopter to make sure we would not loose it. This was a nerve racking task and I could not believe how often we lost the animal out of sight, even under small trees. Somehow the colour grey works wonderful as a camouflage. Luckily we always found her back and we could dart her and reunion her with her calf. Thanks to the helicopter and of course the pilot! The skills of helicopter pilots specialized in wildlife capture are very impressive. They combine a thorough knowledge of wild animals, their specific behaviour (all animal species act different) and movements with amazing flying skills. Most of them probably were a raptor in their previous lifes. For example while darting wild elephants the helicopter pilot is essential to chase the not-darted elephants or other dangerous animals away and to keep an eye on the safety on the ground. Elephants often come back to help their family members, so it's vey dangerous to dart elephants without a helicopter. Also, large herds of various wildlife species, such as wildebeest and impalas are very often captured by only using a helicopter, as darting each individual animal is practically impossible. This exciting activity requires amazing flying skills to be able to guide a large herd of wild animals into a boma (large pen).