South Africa is classified as one of the most important countries in terms of rhino conservation, specifically the white rhino. At the end of 2007, South Africa was responsible for conserving 35 percent of Africa’s black rhino in the wild and 93 percent of the continent’s white rhino!!
In the last year rhino poaching has notably increased to a catastrophic level and is becoming well documented both within South Africa and globally.
Signalling a tough new approach to rhino poaching in SA, Johan Kruger, head of the National Prosecuting Authority Organised Crime Unit, has classified all future rhino poaching as organised crime. According to Business Day newspaper published in Johannesburg on 6/10/2010, this will go towards making it more difficult for those arrested in connection with rhino poaching In South Africa to get bail. In addition, those convicted will face longer sentences.
In a recent news story covered by BBC News, it was confirmed that the rate of killing has doubled in the last year, with South African criminals being funded by the East Asian demand for the horn.
South Africa has lost 227 rhino to poaching since January 2010, compared with 122 reported for the whole of last year.
Many of you hope to get involved in conservation at the forefront of topical issues, joining ACE to help us support conservation in real terms, and that is exactly what our Shimongwe volunteers are doing!
Many Rhino populations are owned by private individuals not the state. Phinda Game Reserve where Dr Masterson is resident vet, is home to a large population of white rhino and remains a member of the black rhino custodianship programme, essential to their continued preservation.
Many private game reserves are busy mobilising against the poaching threat by moving vulnerable animals to safer areas and by notching their ears and implanting microchips for identification of both the animal and the horn. Volunteers at Shimongwe Kwa-Zulu Veterinary Experience work alongside the resident vet to ensure the rhino both within this reserve and smaller surrounding reserves are micro-chipped and recorded.
Darting the impressive animal from a helicopter can take time and patience. When it is sedated all hands are on deck to ensure they reach the animal quickly, cover its eyes and ears to keep the animal from becoming stressed and reacting to senses around it. Ropes can also be used to guide it to a safe area for the procedure or transport vehicle.
Once sedated adequately to work with the rhino, antibiotics will often be given to the animal by our volunteers (taking a steady and tough hand to get through the thick skin of a rhino!) while the microchip is inserted by the vet. The chip number will then be scanned and recorded on the rhino’s file.
The reversal drug will then be given to wake the rhino up and the volunteers and vet will wait quietly to ensure the animal is safely awake and moving before leaving the rhino.
At times it is necessary to move the rhino to a safer area or reserve which requires much co-ordination when moving an animal weighing over a tonne!
Once the rhino is safely in the transporting vehicle, pole syringes will often be used to top up the sedation to keep the animal calm for the journey. Volunteers sit up top with the vet ensuring all drugs are drawn up and available for the vet when required.
Volunteering with wildlife vet also means opening your eyes to the more vital yet unpleasant world of veterinary work. Such procedures can include autopsies which are often necessary to give reasons to an animal’s death. Recent Shimongwe volunteers assisted Dr Masterson in a rhino autopsy.
Due to the incredible size and weight of a rhino, autopsies are almost always done in the field. This is bush veterinary work at its most raw…the picture only gives a slight indication of just how difficult a procedure can be, not mentioning the very raw smell that is part of this procedure.
It is not just the impressive rhino however that volunteers have worked alongside recently; one of the unique privileges of working with Dr Masterson is the variety and amount of predator work that volunteers have access to. As the resident vet to Phinda Game Reserve, volunteers are exposed to working with cheetah, lion, leopard and hyena.
Cheetah are occasionally darted and treated for injuries sustained from attacks while being chased off their kills by lion, hyena and leopard. Fighting between rival male coalitions may also results in injuries that require veterinary treatment.
As the reserve provide a closed ecosystem, the wildlife within the reserve is successfully managed by a wildlife research team at Phinda. This often requires a vet to be on site to assist with contraceptive programmes or research projects.
At Phinda Game Reserve, the lion work is mainly contraceptive based, controlling population numbers through contraceptive implants.
The leopard work is in support of the ongoing Leopard Research Project, darting animals to check their condition and to replace tracking collars, or to repair collars. From these radio collars, their movements and behaviour within the reserve is studied. Much of this work is done at night and can be exhilarating, when being circled by unknown predators on the reserve!
Although charismatic, due to the nature of predators, volunteers often are more involved with recording anaesthesia and assisting in procedures, however when working with less unpredictable and valuable species, volunteers can carry out complete procedures under the guidance of Dr. Masterson, depending on their level of experience and confidence.
A recent volunteer drained the abscess on a zebra within a local reserve following it being sedated, showing just how involved the wildlife veterinary work can be!
Working as a wildlife vet can be exhausting!