Whilst recently staying at Chishakwe in the Save Valley Conservancy I had the amazing opportunity to join Rosemary as she tried to collar an endangered African Wild Dog. In order to give a perspective from a non-expert I offered to write this blog entry.
It is not as simple as just heading out and finding the pack that you wish to collar, you need them to be in an area that you can get to by vehicle and that is open enough to allow you to easily follow them when trying to get a clean shot. Whilst the scouts use motorbikes giving them great manoeuvrability, Rosemary needs to be able to approach in a 4×4 to bring all the necessary equipment. Hence, we had to wait for Rueben to find the pack and advise whether or not we would be able to get a vehicle into the area where the dogs were. Eventually the call came in that the dogs had settled in a suitable area and we were soon packed up and on route, hoping that they would still be there when we arrived.
It took us about 45 minutes to get to the point on the road where we would meet Rueben. Initially the area did not look too promising, as the roadside vegetation here was quite thick, but Rueben assured us that it was much more open where the dogs were, about 500 metres away. Heading off-road we drove to about 200 metres from the dogs staying downwind and out of sight and here we spent some time whilst Rosemary and Rueben prepared the drugs and dart gun.
Now all set we moved to a position from where we could see the dogs. Rosemary advised that I should stay in the vehicle and she would send Rueben back for me and that it could take some time, especially if the dogs decided to move and they had to give chase. So whilst I remained inside the 4×4 Rosemary hopped onto the back of Rueben’s motorbike and they circled around the dogs, looking for a good angle to shoot from. Whilst the vegetation was not that thick it was only occasionally that I could obtain glimpses of them through the trees and attempt to grab a few photographs of the pursuit.
Despite having been warned that it could take some time to get into a suitable position to take a clean shot it was only 3 or 4 minutes later that I heard the first shot, well actually more of a “phut” sound as high pressure air is released, but could not see Rosemary or Rueben and did not know if it was a hit. At the sound of the shot the dogs that I could see all jumped up, but only ambled a few yards, as though searching for a threat, but unable to identify anything they either sat back down or stood looking around.
Nothing further happened for the next couple of minutes and then I heard another shot, so assumed that the first shot had missed. The dogs reacted similarly the second time around to the first, but perhaps a little more on edge and after a couple of minutes I noticed that one of the dogs was a little wobbly on its legs and I then noted the dart in its flank. I was able to grab a few photos of it before it wobbled out of sight.
Rueben then came back and drove the 4×4 over to where Rosemary was in the process of blindfolding a dog, it was only at this stage that I found out that she had successfully darted two dogs, only the second time ever that she had done this. Studying my photographs later I noted that I had captured both darted dogs in one of my images. Having first darted a male, called Nyoka, he had behaved impeccably walking off slowly and remaining in view, so Rosemary had taken the opportunity to also dart the already collared female, Forax, to replace the old GPS collar with a VHF collar.
With two dogs to process it was going to be all hands to the deck. First task was to help carry both dogs into the shade where they could be worked on and then I was required to keep them both cool by spraying them with water. Whilst I was doing this Rueben was putting on the new collars and Rosemary was carefully removing the darts and applying an antiseptic spray. With plenty of water applied and pulse-oximeters attached to their tongues to monitor their pulse rate and blood oxygen levels, I could now enjoy the experience of being up close to the dogs. In what must have been a time stress, as the lives of those endangered animals were in Rosemary’s hands, it was a joy to watch an expert at work and clearly demonstrating that she knew what she was doing.
Fortunately, in what was probably the textbook example of a double darting, everything went exactly to plan. Rosemary was able to take blood, tissue and hair samples and give the dogs a shot of antibiotics and I was able to help with taking various measurements and photos to show the condition of their teeth.
This had all happened in the space of 40 minutes, which for me had flown by and it was then time for Rosemary to wake them up. We backed the 4×4 away to a safe distance and Rosemary applied the antidote to both dogs. After a brief time Nyoka stood up and after falling over a couple of times walked around in circles like a drunk for the next 5 minutes, whilst Forax remained lying down. With Nyoka still staggering and me starting to get a little worried in the delay in any activity from Forax, she stood up and walked off in a perfectly straight line, as though she had just been enjoying an afternoon nap.
We then left them to join up with the rest of the pack and drove back to Chishakwe, myself having thoroughly enjoyed that once in a lifetime experience of being close to these beautiful endangered animals and an expert clearly passionate about their conservation. So it just remains for me to thank Rosemary for the wonderful experience that she allowed me to be part of that morning.