Tuesday, May 4, 2010

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.

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