Shimongwe vet working with sedated cheetah

Shimongwe volunteers Amy and Allison get up close to cheetah!

“Two weeks into our trip, we once again found ourselves on the plains of Phinda. With Wildebeest and Zebra being the main animals in our line of sight, we were all surprised when Chap called out “cheetah” and pointed into the distance. Chap quickly followed his discovery with “125 points” – the reward of spotting a cheetah in our animal safari game. This prompted us all to get out our binoculars and scan the horizon for the animal. After some careful guidance from Chap, we too saw the cheetah, lying down in the scrub nearly 300 metres away, perfectly camouflaged. Excited at the discovery and hopeful that the cheetah may be the one that had been eluding Chap for three weeks, we quietly approached in the car. Stopping within 10 metres of the cat, we were all taken aback by the beauty of the animal…until it got up and started to walk.

"The moment it got up, we immediately saw a problem with its left back paw, which got worse as it limped up onto a mound. Realising this was the animal we were after, as a suspected bovine tuberculosis (TB) case, we circled inwards to get a better look. We found two cheetahs sitting there, not just one. The reason the injured cheetah had survived this long was down to his brother, who had been providing food and protection. Unwilling to scare the brother off, incase he didn’t come back, Chap made the decision to dart both cheetahs. He then invited the cheetah researcher, Tarryne, along to take advantage of the situation and get data that she needed. The darts went in fairly easily, with the injured cheetah staying close to its asleep brother, until it too was darted. After moving them into the shade, the volunteers gave them penicillin and vitamins to help them recover when they came around. Then Chap set about his examination. Chap began with taking blood, explaining we should get everything else done first, before looking at the obvious swelling. Blood and extensive measuring was done on both cheetahs, as information for the research project, with ear notching and micro-chipping used for identification.

"All the work was done with minimum movement, due to the cats sensitivity to grass rustling, and gave the volunteers an opportunity to really examine and ask questions about the animals. After the work was done, Chap examined the injured point and the nature of the swelling. Due to the fact that it was localised and not attached within the foot, he was reassured it was not TB. To confirm this diagnosis, he took a smear sample and drained some fluid before giving the cheetah a concoction of anti-inflammatory, antibiotics, and pain killers to assist with the recovery. We all retreated to the truck and drove a short way, as Chap gave a reversal drug to wake them up. Both cheetahs woke up within moments and after initial confusion they both got up and started walking. The injured cheetah was now walking instead of limping, giving a very encouraging start to recovery. As the cheetahs walked, they started ‘chirping’ and calling for their sister – a surprising noise from such an animal, but very cute none the less. The whole experience was once in a lifetime and incredibly intimate. We all got to see and learn an incredible amount, get some great photos, and was certainly the best experience of the trip. It showed us to always expect the unexpected.”

Allison Besser and Amy Powdrill, Volunteers at Shimongwe Kwa-Zulu Veterinary Experience, August 2010.

Cheetah and leopard populations are unique in that they are very hard to contain within a reserve, meaning the majority of populations occur outside reserves. Both cat species are able to get through game-proof fences, resulting in a greater risk of human conflict – which can be lethal for the animals. Due to this ability to sneak through fences, cheetah increase their chances of getting injured, which is why it is vital to have wildlife veterinarians in the area. Veterinary work is essential to the preservation and protection of rare and endangered species endemic to Africa.

Dr. Masterson’s volunteers at Kwa-Zulu Veterinary Experience join in the day-to-day activities of a wildlife veterinarian in the field, as well as assisting with treatment and physical handling of animals. The vet is also hand rearing two orphan rhinos – Mkombe and Nyoni. Shimongwe Kwa-zulu Wildlife Veterinary Experience is ideal for current and prospective veterinary students. Dr Masterson works closely alongside the Phinda research team, often giving volunteers the opportunity to work with the ‘Big 5’. If you are passionate about conservation research, you may also be interested in volunteering at Phinda Wildlife Research Project, based on the reserve the cheetah, mentioned in the story above, were found. Phinda Game Reserve has a research team looking at various aspects of southern African wildlife. On top of small mammal surveys, and white rhino monitoring, the research team at Phinda also assist in contraceptive programmes for lions and elephants as an ethical alternative to culling. They are also involved with cheetah and leopard monitoring, which includes tracking and darting individuals for data collection. All of the work – both research and veterinary – that occurs within Phinda Game Reserve is necessary for the conservation of southern Africa’s wildlife, and depends on hard-working volunteers to get involved.