Every time I’ve traveled to Africa it has been to work, either to do research for my degrees or to volunteer. Through doing this, I have come to know a whole lot of fantastic people working full time to study and save African wildlife (which is constantly threatened and under pressure from a growing human population) with a lack of money and resources. I have myself been an integral part of a few such studies, but being there also gave me the opportunity to pinch in and help with other projects when needed.
As I told you last week, collecting animal feces has been an integral part of my own research, but now and again, I get the odd opportunity to do some really cool stuff. This week I will tell you about the few times I got the opportunity to help with the baiting and capturing of animals that, if we hadn’t done things right, could have killed and eaten me with ease.
Let me start with the first and least dangerous one, but one of my favorite moments nonetheless. The bait and capture of an African wild dog.
By the way, do you even know what an African wild dog is? If you don’t, please check out this link to educate yourself. It is one of the coolest animals in Africa, and the most awesome carnivore species too few have ever heard of. It is also the rarest of Africa’s large carnivores. It might actually be the most successful hunter of all the large carnivore species in the world, and it is very endangered. Such things, and more, are things you’ll learn if you click that link.
Before we get to the baiting and capturing; let’s have a bit of backstory. It was during my time as a research volunteer at Thanda Private Game Reserve in 2012. It is not a very large reserve, and the resident pack of wild dogs had, once again, escaped through the fences too seek their luck elsewhere. There were a couple of problems with them doing that:
#1 The surrounding area has lots of farmers with livestock that will shoot and kill any wild dog on sight at their property.
#2 One of said farms was a game farm breeding sable antelopes.
That might not mean anything to you, but sables are the most expensive antelope species, with one individual being worth as much as $100.000! If the dogs got one of those, then you could bet the reserve (and the dogs) would be in a less than ideal situation.
There was only one option. Find the dogs, capture them, and get them back inside the reserve ASAP. Now, Wildlife Act, who did the wild dog work in the reserve, had done this multiple times already, but this one time the alpha male of the pack, Sky, had eluded them. With the rest of the pack already in a boma (a temporary enclosure), it was our job to help bring Sky back and reunited with the rest of his family.
To make it a bit easier to find him he had a tracking collar on, so we could at least pinpoint his whereabouts. To lure him in, we had a dead impala fastened to the back of our truck. We found a nice hill, parked on top of it, began playing a few wild dog calling sounds on a speaker system and waited, patiently. We didn’t have to wait too long (maybe an hour or so), as it turns out he was just down the side of the hill. He was a bit curious at first, but when he caught a glimpse of the impala he went straight into feeding mode. The veterinary got a clear view and the tranquilizer dart went straight into his left side (you can see the darting and Sky falling asleep in the video a bit further down).
After he was successfully asleep, we all helped lifting him onto the back of the vehicle. During the long drive back into the reserve he was sound asleep between our feet on the pickup floor. That was also my introduction to the stench of wild dogs. And oh my, are they smelly! He smelled a lot worse than the dead impala we had brought with us. Just imagine an animal that wallows in its own excrements from time to time, and gets covered in intestines every time it feeds. Yup, African wild dogs are messy creatures, but I still do love them to bits. They are so full of character, inquisitiveness and playfulness.
When we finally got him back to the reserve and into the boma, we had to wait for him to wake up, just so we’d know he’d be alright. We sat for many hours, waiting, and finally, sometime after midnight, he woke up. A bit groggy, but otherwise fine. It was a very special moment to be a part of, and to make it even more special to me, it was the first time I ever got to see an African wild dog in nature. A moment I had waited for since my time in the Serengeti two years prior.
Not long after this, Thanda was deemed too small to keep a pack of African wild dogs, and the whole pack got shipped to Tswalu Kalahari Game Reserve, where they know thrive.
Lions In The Dark
I think I’ve stated my love for lions on many occasions already, and I’ll gladly do it again, but there is one time when lions go from being awesome, magnificent, and a bit lazy, to being terrifying, ruthless and brutal. That, ladies and gentlemen, is at night. You do not want to meet a lion at night. It will kill you, or at least try. Africa at night is their kingdom. However, because the night is when the lions are most active, it is therefore also the best time to catch them.
Being part of a team catching lions is way up there among the coolest things I’ve ever done, and I was lucky enough to be a part of it more than once. Here are my two most exciting participations.
It was during my time as a leopard researcher in Tembe Elephant Park when the park management asked if I wanted to take part in a “lion call-up”, as they call it. I just had to accept the invitation, as I hadn’t been to one before. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
That specific night our goal was to bait, dart, mark and collar lions in a small pride of four females. They had never been caught before, and the park knew very little about these particular girls. One of the researchers had a chance encounter with them one day, and a lion call-up was initiated the very same night.
Now, there are lots of things to consider when organizing a lion call-up, and I won’t go into all of it, but safety is definitely top of the list. We began setting up the bait in the evening in good time before dark. A dead nyala was fastened to a metal screen, secured with poles in the ground. The screen is there to keep the lions stationary and at an angle for easier darting. A dead animal is usually not enough to get lions interested, as they could be miles away from the call-up site. Because of this, one of the vehicles were equipped with large loudspeakers on the roof. When the dark settled, and everyone were safe inside their vehicles, we began playing the sound of a buffalo calf in distress.
This particular time, I was the one in charge of the loudspeakers. The sound of a screaming baby buffalo was heard for miles in all directions, and it originated from just above my head. The darkness was complete; only to be broken up, now and again, by red spotlights searching for lions nearby. The waiting was tense. Suddenly, the guy in the seat next to me turned his head towards me and shouted in a hushed voice “Lion!”. I looked out my window, which I, of course, had forgotten to close, and saw nothing. I asked him “where?” as I closed my window. He said a lion had been right next to my open window. The buffalo call had worked, and the lions had gone straight for the sound (meaning me).
It was still pitch black outside, and now we had lions surrounding our car. I turned off the speakers, and we waited. The red spotlights found the lions circling our car. There were two of them. Two large males, and not the females we were looking for.
The two males eventually found the carcass, and happy with the free meal, left our car alone to fill their bellies. We knew these lions, and one already had a tracking collar on. As we hadn’t picked him up on the receiver before the call-up, they must have walked quite a distance to get to the bait. There was nothing we could do now but watch the lions eat. Of course, not long after, the females we had hoped for approached, but the two males did not want to share and chased them off. It was, in the end, a failed call-up, but exciting nonetheless! To witness lions that close at night, especially when roaring and chasing each other, really made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck
A few weeks later on, I was privy to a second call-up. Same procedure as before, only this time I was not in the vehicle with the loudspeakers on top. Our goal? To capture and collar a female, and mark her two juvenile cubs.
The lions of interest actually came this time (they even came before total darkness), and the female got successfully darted by the veterinarian. There was only one problem. Her cubs decided to run and hide in the bush, and the mother decided to follow. The lioness then, of course, fell asleep way off into the bush somewhere, and we had to find her and bring her back to the call-up site. At this point, it was dark, and finding her was not easy. One of the vehicles eventually found her in the grass. We parked in a circle around her, so that we could safely get out and lift the heavy lioness onto the back of one of the pickup trucks. That is the first, and only, time I have physically touched a wild lion, and I remember her front paws where immense next to my puny hands. A couple of us had to stay guard so that the cubs, which definitely weren’t small, wouldn’t sneak up on us.
When she was finally secured on the back of my truck, we started to head back to where we had come from. There was only one problem; none of us knew exactly where that was. I now found myself in a truck with a massive lion on the back, but without having a clue on where to drive. We were essentially lost, with a sleeping lion in the back of our car. We spent so long trying to figure out a way back to the road and the call-up site that the veterinarian had to give the lioness a second dose to keep her from waking up. Eventually we found our way out. The lioness was then gently put on the ground next to the bait, and we hoped desperately that the cubs would come back and find her. We waited until she finally woke up a few hours later, but no cubs ever came. We then just had to leave. Again, another failed attempt, but still, very exciting stuff!
When we came to collect the screen and poles the next day, we found out the lions hadn’t gone far. As we removed the equipment, the lioness and her two cubs inquisitively came to have a look. It was a bit too close for comfort, but all is well that ends well. At least the female and the cubs got reunited, and did not seem to have suffered from the ordeal during the night before.
I was very lucky to be able to participate in such operations, but remember, the people I worked with does this on a regular basis, and it is a tough job. They are out there every day, and every night, doing their best to save wildlife. These people are true heroes. Even though things not always go as planned, which is more often than not when dealing with wild animals, they stick with it and continue to risk their lives and work their hearts out for our planet and a safe future for all living things.