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Phinda Wildlife Research Project: 28 November - 12 December 2023*
Katie's wildlife adventure!
My trip started in a small town in Limpopo Province, called Ellisras. The landscape was arid and the temperature ranged from 25-39 degrees Celsius. While I was there I worked as an assistant to a veterinarian who had a clinic in town. As well as treating small animals at the clinic, a lot of the work we did consisted of treating and/or transporting wild animals on game reserves.
On a typical day, I would start at the clinic at 8:30 am.
From 8:30 to 10:30 there were consults where people could bring in their sick animals to be treated. During this time I would observe the treatment and ask questions after the client had left.
From 10:30 to 12:00 pm surgeries took place. In this case, the clients were not there so the vet could explain in detail about the procedures he was performing and I could provide assistance when necessary.
The majority of surgeries were cat or dog neutering, but every once in a while an unusual case would show up at the clinic.
For example, while I was there I saw a dog that had fallen off the back of a bakkie (aka pickup truck) and had a crushed jaw requiring careful wiring to set it back in place. Another dog that was brought in was thought to be pregnant. After performing a caesarean section, it was found that the dog had been carrying a dead puppy in its uterus for almost a month and as a result, the puppy had mummified inside the mother.
Gross, but fascinating to say the least! The highlight for me in surgery though would have to have been when I was permitted to neuter a cat. I wasn’t sure if the blood would bother me but I was so excited to be given the opportunity that I didn’t feel squeamish during the procedure at all.
The early to mid afternoons were dedicated to callouts. This was my favourite part of the day because I never really knew what to expect until we got to the animal. Transporting animals, which was the most frequent reason for a call out, required sedating the animal, lifting it onto a stretcher (depending on the size of the animal) and placing it on the back of a bakkie or trailer to take it to the new location. Simple in theory but when the animal starts to wake up while you are holding the horns and on the back of a moving bakkie, things can start to get a bit scary.
Some of the wild animals I worked with included buffalo, rhino, giraffe, and many different types of antelope such as sable, nyala, and wildebeest. The bigger animals such as the rhino and giraffe required a helicopter to find them on the vast stretches of land where they lived, and sometimes they would also be darted from the helicopter. On a few special occasions, after the job was finished I was allowed to ride in the helicopter. Close to the end of my stay, a four-person helicopter was used for darting a buffalo, so I got to see Niel darting from the helicopter while sitting right in front of him! It felt like something out of a James Bond movie because the helicopter has to hang sideways a bit for him to get a good shot.
The most difficult animals to transfer were giraffes. First of all, because of their height, after they have been darted (to sedate the animal), they have a long way to go. For this reason, they mustn't be too close to electrical fencing or other such hazards when they are darted. Once they are down it takes approximately 10 men to cover the eyes of the giraffe and get the ropes into the right place around the legs so that when it wakes up they can pull the ropes and guide the giraffe into the trailer. Once given the antidote (to the sedative), the giraffe wakes up within a matter of seconds and then the workers try to get the giraffe into the trailer as quickly as possible. Sometimes I got to give the antidote to other animals such as buffalo and sable when the conditions were safe.
For this reason, farmers were employing different measures to try and protect their rhinos. One of the ways they were doing this was by putting chips in the rhino’s horn as a sort of tracking device and a way of labelling the rhino as their own. Only a certified vet could do this procedure so a couple of times while I was there I got to assist Niel with putting the chip in the horn. The process looks brutal because you are using a drill to make a hole in the horn, but the rhinos do not feel it…it is equivalent to when a human clips his/her nails. After drilling a tiny hole a small chip smaller than the size of your pinky fingernail, is put inside the hole which is then filled with a very strong type of glue.
Being able to get all this hands-on experience was amazing in itself but another really important part of my experience in Ellisras was meeting the remarkable people who I worked and lived with. While I was there I lived in a small apartment next to the house of the veterinarian’s in-laws, Alfie and Jackie. Every evening after work I would go to their house to join them for dinner where I had some of the most incredible meals! Alfie was a pro at cooking meat and a lot of it was game that I had never tried such as kudu and wildebeest. It might have been the fact that I had not had meat in a very long time but the game that I ate in Ellisras was some of the best meat I have ever tasted, and as free range as you can get! Eating meals with Alfie and Jackie, and often other members of the family was so special and I felt so welcome into the family while I was there. Leaving Ellisras was very sad and difficult for me. I have never before felt homesick anywhere else other than my home in Toronto, so I was surprised when I felt so homesick for Ellisras.
When I left Ellisras I made the journey to Plettenburg Bay where I would be staying for the next seven weeks. During the drive, Professor Vic Cockroft explained to me what I would be doing...
He assigned me a project that involved analyzing a library of photos that had been taken of Southern Right Whales in Plettenberg Bay. He wanted this done so that he could see the migratory patterns of the right whales in the area to identify individuals and to see how often they returned to the bay. To identify the whales I looked at headshots and used the number, shape, and placement of callosities (the white marks) on the whales’ heads. In addition to analysing and cataloguing the photos, I would also go out onto whale-watching boats to add to the existing library of headshots.
Being able to go out on whale-watching boats as often as I did was extremely lucky. While I was on the boats I saw southern right whales, bottlenose dolphins, cape fur seals, humpback whales, and an unusual and unexpected occurrence of an elephant seal. After getting to know the skippers and guides I was allowed to drive the boats a couple of times which was very exciting!
While I was there I was able to do many activities outside of my project with other volunteers staying in Plettenberg Bay. They included bungee jumping (at the tallest bungee in the world!), scuba diving with seals, kayaking with dolphins, hiking at some of the most amazing sites I have ever been to, and of course going out dancing on a Friday night the local club/bar called Flashbacks.
Once when we were hiking we came across a dead puffadder shyshark that washed up onto shore. We decided to try and find out why it had died and I performed an autopsy to do so. After dissecting the shark I found fifteen mermaid purses inside the shark (sacs that hold the young) and we also noticed gashes on the neck. From this, we deduced that the shark had died from being bitten by a seal or some other predator. I must say though that one of my favourite experiences while in Plettenberg Bay was teaching children at a preschool in a township called Qolweni.
The small school had over one hundred children enlisted with five teachers in total. I have never met such a well-behaved and curious group of children in my life. Each week we would give them lessons relating to the environment and conservation, after which we would play a game and then it was time for lunch. Feeding 100 children takes teamwork so to be efficient we would form a sort of ‘line of work’ where each person had a task such as putting carrots on the plate or handing out dishes to the kids. Because the children could speak very little English (their first language was Xhosa), and the other volunteers used a lot of hand gestures to explain things. Because these children rarely leave the township it was a big deal when we took them on a field trip to see elephants and exotic birds.
Seeing their facial expressions and excitement was priceless. The group of volunteers that I spent my time with in Plettenberg Bay were an amazing and diverse bunch. They were from all over the place, as far as Australia to Belgium to London, etc. I grew close to each person that I met and have now come to realize that that is the one difficult thing about travelling, having to say goodbye. I hate it! But I am going to stay in touch with as many of them as I can so that in the future I can perhaps visit the places that they come from.