This blog is longgggg overdue. I didn’t know I had to write blogs for this internship too, but I am glad I have to ’cause it will finally allow me to say everything I have to say about South Africa, the best 5 weeks of my life. When people ask me, “How was Africa??”, all I can say usually is ‘Amazing’, because it really is. But I know I would talk their ear off if I said everything I actually had to say about that incredible country. So instead, this will give me the outlet to spill everything I have done, seen, tasted, and accomplished over the last 5 weeks of what will probably be the highlight of my college career (lets hope not, maybe something even more exciting next summer!)
So for the first of the three blogs I am going to write about South Africa covers the first three weeks of the program I was in, the next one will be about the last two weeks, and the final one will be about the program as a whole, the people I met, the amazing things I got to do and see, pretty much all of the juicy stuff that I want to be in one place.
During my first 3 out of 5 weeks of the veterinary program I did a sub-program called the Game Capture program located near Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. This was designed for people who really wanted hands on experience with the wildlife in South Africa, mostly antelope. Game capture was such an eye opening experience, but first, let me explain what it is. Game capture is the act of capturing wild animals on game reserves owned by individual farmers through a variety of methods (I will get to later) in order to trade or sell them to other game reserve owners or to auctions. At first glance, it sounds like maltreatment of wildlife and humans getting into things that they shouldn’t poke around in, however, in today’s day-in-age it is necessary for us to look after these animals on reserves like this and one way you need to do that is population control. The majority of animals caught on reserves that go to other reserves is for breeding and population control. These are essential for a healthy reserve because of overpopulation and the necessity for money to keep the animals safe and secure. I can’t stress enough how important it is for game capture to exist for these animals. Because of long term migration routes being cut off through increased infrastructure and human land use, reserves are necessary to watch over these animals.
Okay, enough of the boring chatter about it, what did I actually do there?
For the first week, nothing. Game capture is a very ‘on-call’ business and its hard to plan things in advance because it requires a lot of things in order to go right. You need a tiny helicopter typically, and in order for them to fly you need proper weather. As for the animals, you also need proper weather. Too windy, they hide. Too cold, they hide. Too hot, they hide. It’s difficult to coordinate when and where you will be able to capture. The next two weeks were a bit different, because at the end of my three weeks in the capture program there was a auction being held, one of the biggest game auctions in the Eastern Cape. It is a huge festival where during the day is all business, but at night it is one huge party (which I will get to in my last blog). So in order for there to be animals at the auction, the business I worked for catches them for people to sell and he gets a portion of the profits. So fortunately for me, this meant nonstop capturing of animals like Kudu, Bleisbok, Springbok, Nyala, Eland, Blue Wildebeest, Impala, Sable,
and a few others. It is very intense and very dangerous work. The boss, Eric, has 36 workers that live on his farm that work for him day round to catch these animals. It is a sunrise to sunset job, you don’t get back till its pitch black most days. Here are some photos and videos of what game capture looks like:
Some of the different types of captures were; net-gun capture, net capture, boma capture, and dart capture. Typically all of these use a tiny helicopter to make it easier to find and corral the animals where you want them to go. Let me explain each of these in a little more detail. Net-gun capture – Basically you have a gun that fires a net. The net shoots out into a square pattern and lands on the animal and it gets tangled in the net. The marksmen is in a helicopter and the pilot must get really low to the ground and near the animal for this method to work but it is effective and safe for the animals typically. Once the animal is tangled, the ground team rolls up in a truck and we sedate the animal and put it in the bed of the truck. Depending on the animal you can get 8 or so in the bed of a truck before you take them back to the big transport vehicle.
Net Capture – This is when you funnel animals into a space on the ground where their only option is to run straight into a net that is set up between two natural structures, which makes the animals think they can go through there but instead they get caught up. This is the cheapest method of all of them, but also the most dangerous for the animals because they can break their horns or their legs occasionally. If their leg breaks, we put them out of their misery. It sucks, and everyone hates it when it happens, but with all forms of capture it is a risk.
Boma capture – This is an interesting one, I have a video of it above with the helicopter and the large curtains and tarps. It is basically another funnel except this leads straight into the transport vehicle. When the animals enter the boma (I think it is Afrikaans for enclosure essentially) workers pull curtains behind them to trap them. Then as they get closer and closer, more and more curtains get pulled until the animal is nearly forced to run right into the vehicle. Typically very safe and easy to capture many animals at a time. The only problem is that you don’t get to pick and choose which animals you are taking. So after they get loaded up you have to go into the vehicle with the animals and pull out the males/females/babies that you don’t want, which can be dangerous since they aren’t sedated.
Dart gun capture – The safest, but probably the most expensive form of capture. This is because you have to have a licensed veterinarian use the dart gun to shoot the animals with the tranquilizer. Since it is a high class drug, game reserve owners can’t legally use it themselves, so they must hire vets to shoot for them. However it is typically a very safe method of capture of everyone involved. The animal gets darted, we pick it up, take it to the vehicle, give it a reversal drug to counteract the tranquilizer, and everyone is happy.
I was with one other student during the game capture program, which was nice because it allowed us to help each other, but also gave us many opportunities to do what we were there to do. Like the title says, this is a veterinary program, which means we learn how to treat animals with medication and wound treatment etc. We were given the opportunity to inject hundreds of animals with sedatives and immune boosters to make journeys on the road safer for them (and us). We gained a lot of comfort and experience for this kind of work while working with these animals because of the sheer size difference between an antelope and a dog.
During the capture program we lived at Eric’s house on his small game reserve. He had many types of antelope, as well as giraffe and one of the big five, Eastern Cape buffalo. We had the opportunity to sedate one buffalo for a routine health inspection which was amazing and terrifying because of how dangerous they can be. Other times we would go on game drives, basically riding in the back of a truck and looking at all of the animals on the reserve, checking for sick animals, newborns, dead animals (which never happened fortunately), and just for eye candy as well. On the farm we fed cattle, blue daikur (one the smallest antelope species), turkeys, chickens, peacocks, the whole nine yards.
Perhaps one of the best things before and after a long day of working was the sunrises and sunsets. The prettiest I’ve ever seen were during the game capture program. Deep purples and reds and hot pinks and magenta. Here is a taste of what they were like:
Like I said, at the end of the three weeks there was an auction for all of the animals that were caught on these reserves. What was amazing to see was that nearly all of the animals that were being sold were caught by us. I handled nearly every animal in that auction, an auction where hundreds if not thousands of people go to buy animals for their reserves. It was a very rewarding feeling to see the start to finish of the our labor and hard work.
That concludes the first 3 weeks of my South African journey. I left out a lot of little things here and there, like that my nickname for the workers on the farm was turkey in Afrikaans, but I am already much deeper in than I expected to be. I hope you enjoyed this brief look into what game capture is like, and why people do it. One of the things I learned while doing this was understanding exactly how much these people care for the animals. They are deeply passionate about the animals they catch and the ones they have on their reserve. They look after the animals with such diligence and respect it was eye opening and amazing to watch and be a part of. On that note, I will see you in the next blog!