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From the 20–31 August 2018, I undertook a course called Vets Go Wild run by wildlife vet Dr Will Fowlds, and his team at Ikhala Vets. It aims to give vet students such as myself experience in working with large game and wildlife.
The course involves lectures, game drives, leisure activities, and most importantly hands-on experience working alongside wildlife vets to deliver care to animals such as giraffe, rhino and antelope. The two weeks I spent on the Amakhala Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape of South Africa were two of the best weeks of my life, I had an incredible time, met wonderful people and got to work up close with some amazing animals. The following report gives a day by day account of what I got up to.
After a delayed flight and a somewhat tense wait to see if we are reunited with our bags (which had been transferred from our original plane), we were greeted at the airport by a team from Amakhala, and transferred in the minibus to the reserve we would be staying. After settling into our rooms we received an introductory talk and a whistle-stop tour of the drugs used in large game capture, before heading to the bar for a drink before dinner. We were also split into our small working groups of four, with whom we would carry out all of our veterinary work.
Our first day of action began at 5:30 am, with breakfast followed by a long transfer in the minibus to the first Game Reserve we would be working on – Bucklands. Our task here was to dart, treat and tuberculosis test 5 male buffalo. It was our first bit of hands-on experience, which made if both thrilling and somewhat frightening, especially given that the buffalos had to have their heart rates, temperature and pulses monitored continually throughout. I was given the task of administering the drugs, including an intravenous opioid reversal to wake our buffalo up. Following this, we were performed similar procedures on 9 sable antelope, although this time we had to carry them on stretchers into a truck so they could be moved to a different location. In the evening we went on our first game drive around Amakhala, which was particularly special for me as it was my first time ever going on safari. We mainly saw antelope and Zebra, but we did see Bush Pigs which are apparently very rare to see in the daytime.
Day 3 began on our resident reserve Amakhala, with a game drive on our way to see some more buffalo. On this, we saw a pair of Jackal’s and several Giraffe up close. Once we reached our destination we performed a similar procedure to the day before, however, this time we had to lift the 800kg buffalo onto trucks so they could be transported. After lunch, we were called to perform a post-mortem exam on a rhino which had died on a nearby reserve, which was a sad but fascinating experience. We didn’t pinpoint an exact cause of death, but we believe it failed to integrate with a new herd and hence couldn’t cope with the bullying from the other members.
This day began at 5am, with a very long drive to a large breeding reserve. The small groups were split up and performed different tasks, but my group was assigned first to an Eland (the largest species of antelope), and then a somewhat smaller Waterbuck. Elands can weigh up to a tonne so lifting this guy up was no easy task, though good coordination and team effort lead to a successful operation. We had a few hours off in the afternoon so we decided to take a dip in the reserve outdoor swimming pool, which despite the sunshine, freezing.
Today we had our first guest style game drive, meaning we could properly go out searching for animals, rather than just seeing what we could spot on our way to a destination. Despite a thick layer of fog, our drive ended in spectacular fashion, with us seeing the silhouette of a fully grown bull elephant (known to the guides as Kali) through the mist, followed by a herd of giraffe browsing the trees. In the afternoon we made use of the good weather and had a few lectures outdoors, including physiology and pharmacology in large game. As it was Friday night, we headed down to the local cricket club in the evening for some drinks and dancing with the reserve staff and the cricketers, which was a lot of fun!
After a somewhat shorter sleep than the previous nights, we awoke at 5:30 and went to a reserve where we were to capture, treat and move 4 giraffes, which had been purchased by another reserve. Having been told that 1 in 4 giraffes die under anaesthetic, we were all quite nervous and hence very focused. Thankfully all the giraffe we treated survived and made it successfully to their new home. Giraffe capture is one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen, featuring a team of guys running after the darted giraffe, and tripping it up with a rope, then us running in with the treatments which we administered to the fully awake giraffe before the team guided it with ropes into the van. In the afternoon we went to the National Elephant Park at Addo, at which we were the only group of the summer to actually see elephants (which we saw in great numbers!).
Day 7 started with a couple of lectures on pharmacology, before we transferred to the Born Free centre at Shamwari – a rehoming centre for big cats which have been rescued, either from the circus or from being kept as pets. We saw Lions and Leopards up close, and the centre sparked some debate as to what we should be doing with such creatures. We spent the afternoon at Isipho Children’s Centre in a nearby town, where we played many games, helped to serve food, and were even treated to singing and dancing performance from the kids, which was so lovely to see and join in with.
We were afforded the luxury of breakfast at 8:30am! The interns cooked us a fry-up, which was delightful, and we then had lectures through until lunchtime. After lunch, we set out on our bush walk, during which we walked very quietly through the non-predator side of the reserve, and saw various antelope, some tortoises, and most excitingly a group of five giraffes. For some reason, I was selected to join our guide in (literally) rolling towards them, in the hope that their inquisitive nature would attract them towards the strange moving shape on the ground. In reality, it just scared them further away, although they did come back a few minutes later to see what was going on.
The day we had all been waiting for… today we were off to dehorn 9 rhino. Following our earliest start yet and a long, sleep-filled bus journey, we arrived at a beautiful reserve and were greeted with cups of tea and homemade biscuits. Sadly, due to the reality of poaching, dehorning rhinos is somewhat of a necessity to reduce the incentive for poachers (though sometimes it is still not enough). Getting up close and in some way contributing to the conservation of these creatures is an experience I will never forget. I also placed my first ever IV-catheter in a rhino’s ear vein, which put me in the rather unique position of being able to say the only one I’d ever placed was in a rhino.
A slightly slower day than the previous one, we worked with buffalo in the morning – darting, treating and moving them to a different part of the reserve. The reserve we visited had recently been on the news for its lions having eaten some poachers! After the buffalo, we were going to treat some Roan (a very rare antelope breed), but unfortunately, a lack of cooperation by the animals meant only one group got to do this. The rest of the day was taken up with lectures and relaxation.
On the final day of action, known to the team as Blitz Day, we were split up into pairs and each given an animal for which we would be entirely responsible. This involved us incorporating all the skills we had picked up over the 2 weeks to ensure the animals were treated swiftly and correctly. After a morning of preparation, and a surprise visit from another elephant called Norman, we were assigned to an Eland which needed to be moved to another part of the reserve. Despite a few minor hiccups, I and my partner worked effectively and our Eland was moved successfully and had a smooth recovery. The afternoon consisted of a dart gun practical, in which we learned to prepare and shoot the dart gun at a target, followed by a game drive during which we finally saw some lions in the wild. The day ended in spectacular fashion with a South African Braii barbecue prepared by the lodge staff, followed by a performance from a local choir and lots of dancing, which was a fantastic way to round of the trip.
We were taken for an early morning drive, to watch the sunrise from a spectacular viewpoint over the river valley. About half an hour in we were rudely interrupted by the male lion and his mate, who appeared in the bushes, prompting a swift return to our vehicles! We took a game drive back to the reserve, during which we found the Amakhala rhinos, who were a sight to behold. After breakfast and packing up our things, Will gave us a heartwarming speech, before we made our goodbyes and were shuttled to the airport for our return.
I honestly believe this course was worth every penny I spent on it and was an experience I could not have had anywhere else. It went above and beyond my expectations, and the community I became a part of was something I will never forget. I would like to sincerely thank Churchill College and the Tutors for giving me financial support to go on this course, and would thoroughly recommend it to any vet students considering it in the future.