Saturday, September 25, 2010

Family Hyena

Got such a nice present last week (experience every sight of a wild animal as a special present, as these animals decide to show themselves or not). I often visit the Kruger NP only for 2 hours or so, after work. Yes, I know, it's a luxery to live so close to the world most famous National Park. I was on my way back home, when I suddenly saw 2 hyena cubs next to the road. I stopped the car and saw their den only 2 meters from the road. To my big surprise suddenly a 3th cub came outside.......and a 4th.....and a very little 5th!! Spotted hyenas raise their cubs in a communal den, so several litters of different ages are living together. Amazing that they felt so comfortable and safe with my car that they all came out. They curiously investigated my car and stared at me. Could easily have touched them, but even a cute cub can damage you quite badly. Also really enjoy 'just' observing wild animals, without interfering with their natural behaviour. Wild animals are so amazing because they do not have any connection with human beings and we should keep it that way! No talking, waving or shouting. Just let them BE and just BE yourself. These moments together with wild animals are SO precious and beautiful! After 15 minutes of observing these cute, clever cubs exploring their world, I heard another car in the distance. Within seconds all cubs run back to their den and the show was over. Nothing to see anymore. The rest of the day lots of car will pass this den and these 5 gorgeous cubs without knowing, until they decide to come out again. That's the beauty of wild animals.

Vaccinating roan calves

Roan antelopes are one of the most endangered antelopes in the world. We have one of the largest herds with approximately 140 individuals. Because they are originally not from this area they do not have a high immunity to a blood parasite Theilleria, transmitted by ticks. Therefore I dart each calf born at 3 weeks to vaccinate it with a specially made vaccin and to dip them with Frontline spray for ticks. This is collaborative study with the Veterinary Faculty at Onderstepoort to investigate the effect of different vaccins and it's planned that all results will be published. So far darted I 56 calves in the last 2 months, so it's a lot of work. Darting roan calves is challenging, as the mothers and calves are often very clever. The record was spending 4 afternoons in a tree to dart one(!) calf. Wow, what an amazing feeling to finally be able to get it! Yeah, how to explain I get paid by sitting in a tree all day, haha. Most calves I dart from horseback: working together with a horse is very special and different from riding 'just for fun'. Some horses even approach the antelopes as slowly as they can, when they know I am darting. They seem to understand what we're trying to do. Now I understand the special bond cowboys have with their horses.

Walking African buffalos

The capture of wild animals is an amazing field! Trying out new immobilization methods and drugs is very exciting and each time different. My main goals in wildlife immobilization are 1) the safety and welfare of the animal (the least possible stress and physical disturbance) and 2) the safety and welfare of our team. Because mobile cranes are often not available in the bush, heavy African buffalos are most times carried on a stretcher by manpower. An average African buffalo bull weights around 800kg! Approximately 10-14 strong guys are needed to do this job. But wow, these big bulls are just too heavy to carry with manpower. Even a 6 month old calf is heavy already (see the face of the guys on the picture). So when I started this job and I was asked to move 12 adult African buffalo bulls I decided to walk them, exactly the same as a rhinoceroses (see earlier in this blog). Why not let these heavy animal walk into the truck themselves? More comfortable for both the team as well as the animal. Better for their wellbeing and muscles, as laying too long is not good for the blood circulation and the rumen. On top of that, it is always better to have the anesthetics as light as possible. To get a buffalo to walk, one must use a partial antidote for the opioid etorphine used to immobilize them. This antidote wakes the animal up, just a little bit: light enough to be able to walk and deep enough to keep the situation safe (don't forget African buffalos are one of the most dangerous animals in Africa!). This technique has been used before with another partial antagonist diprenorphine, but the effect of the diprenorphine is often unpredictable. The animal tends to wake up too much, so this technique has not been widely used. Most wildlife vets still prefer to carry African buffalos on a stretcher for this reason. The success with using another, fairly new partial antagonist butorphanol was quite impressive. After successfully walking 109 buffalos (never needed a stretcher), I have learned a lot and now I know how much butorphanol I should give for the effect I want. Amazing to work with these powerful drugs and these powerful beautiful animals. Since we started to walk our buffalos when they have to move, the staff is happier to move buffalos. They are relaxed and quiet, which is crucial. At first they thought that I woke up these dangerous animals completely and they run for their lifes; a few times I was by myself pushing the buffalo in the trailer. Now everybody knows what I am doing (the buffalos are still sleeping!), it's a pleasure to walk a buffalo. Even all small calves walk themselves when they need to move, so no sore backs anymore. Last month an escaped adult buffalo bull was walking next to a railway line. Never a dull moment! Just after I darted him, two meter from the railway line, we heard the train coming... Scared that the bull was gonna fall asleep on the railway line, we quickly chased him into the bush. Luckily he fell asleep 20 meters further, just before the train passed. To be able to walk him to the trailer through the tick bush was very nice. We would neve have been able to get the trailer close enough to the animal to carry it inside. The manager of the farm was very happy when he was safely in the trailer, because this bull 'Butie' (brother) is his favorite.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

rhino with a sore eye

Had again a very interesting day! To be honest, almost every day is exciting and interesting. Each morning waking up grateful to be able to work with such special animals and to take the challenge of immobilizing and treating them. This 2 year old rhino young bull was seen with a swollen eye with discharge for a month or so and it did not seem to improve. Also, his mother just got a new baby and rejected him, so he was unhappy and sad. White rhinos are so sensitive and social that they can be depressed for months when this happens. Sadly there are not other 2 year old weaners in this part of the park to join up with, so he must feel lonely, the poor boy. We decided to dart him to examin his eye to see how bad the injury was and whether there was something I could do for him to make his life a bit better. But...easier said than done. We drove to the spot where we saw him the day before. Because it was so hot (38 degrees or so) I decided to wait one day. Rhinos are very sensitive for heat, so it's better not to immobilize them in hot weather. Especially when wild animals are running in hot weather, the hyperthermia can even kill them. After a stunning hour drive in that area, through mountains, trees and hills, we saw him running around on his own. When he saw us, he took off! He clearly knew we were looking for him. Therefore I decided to track him on foot. The most important thing is to track him off wind, because rhinos do smell very well. On top of this, you must stand frozen still when he looks at you, because they only see movements. Together with silence, it's possible to approach a wild rhino at 20 meters or so. But...unfortunately not the clever and suspicious ones. Tracked and tracked him, walking as quiet as possible, but this boy run already at 50 meters, too far to dart him through the bush. As I did not like him running around too much, it was getting late (you never want to dart a wild animal later than 2 hour before dark, because you MUST always be able to find it when asleep) and it clearly was not that an emergency, I decided to try again the next morning. The next morning at 6.30 am he was quiet and standing under a tree. Was this the same animal as yesterday?? The swollen, closed left eye made it clear indeed. The darting was easy and it was nice cool. Five minutes after darting he fell into 'dog-sit' position: stretched frontlegs and sitting on his hindlegs. It is very bad for rhinos to sit like this, so I put the blind fold on and pushed him on one side. Luckily the trackers arrived to help me to push him back on his belly. Then I injected some respiration stimulans in his vene. This is a routine procedure in white rhinos, because they are very sensitive for etorphine (an opioid used for the immobilization), what causes respiration depression. I checked his ear venes, a good way to check the blood pressure, respiration rate and heart rate. When the anesthesia was steady I focused on his left eye. Flushed it with sterile Ringers fluids and found an old wound in the eye, likely caused by a thorn or horn: the iris, cornea and bulb were damaged and it had developed a lens catharact. Unfortunately this kind of severe eye damage are likely to be permanent. Will also send the picture to some eye specialised vets; maybe they are happy to do a lens extraction in this rhino? Often specialists are more than happy to take challenges what gets them into the field. Will see! I applied eye cream, systemic antibiotics and a painkiller. Unfortunately this was all I could do for him at this stage. Luckily rhinos don't use their eyes as much as we do and he should be able to have a fairly normal rhino life. I injected the full anti-dote in the ear vene. He woke up in 1.30 minute and walked away as if nothing happened. Let's hope he finds a friend soon!

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Rambo is a wonderful name for this little but strong white rhino baby! He was found wandering around alone, so his mother likely abandoned him. His tail was bitten of by predators, he was hungry, depressed and dehydrated. Not a good start in life. Luckily he was found just in time and he was still drinking. He never refused a bottle and can go into the Guinness Book of World Records for fast drinking: the 1L bottle with milk (made of foal milk powder) is finished in seconds. Raising a rhino baby sounds romantic, but is very hard work! In the beginning these babies need a bottle every 4 hours. And a rhino baby suckles for 2 years, so no, it's clearly not for everybody. But wow, how amazing to spend time with this special little boy!!