We were based about 45 minutes South of Kimberley : the country’s historic diamond capital - the world’s biggest hand-dug hole still sits in the middle of the town. It was also in an area renowned for its Boer War battles - the most famous one appearing to be at Modder River in 1899. The operational base was split across the road that carried on South to Cape Town.
WTS (Wildlife Translocation Services) is run by Shaun Rambert (who originates from NE Zimbabwe) and John Blythe-Wood (a game capture helicopter pilot). The staff also includes Emma (Shaun’s Brit wife) - a vet - and LJ (Little John : Big John’s son), another helicopter pilot. Whilst I was there the was a locum Vet (Pete from the UK) who was covering Emma’s absence whilst she produced a second daughter : Sabi. Sabi’s older sister - Phoebe - is a three year old who is very at home wandering around the bush with either one of her parents or her nanny : she also is used to getting her own way in most things.
On one side was the accommodation for the full time staff, parking for the vehicles and a large storage shed and on the other was the ‘lodge’ and holding pens. The staff accommodation for the lads was pretty basic - small rooms in a single story block made of breeze blocks with a corrugated roof. They worked for the capture season but were paid for the whole year and also had basic food staple (Maize flour & vegetables with the occasional casualty of the capture process) provided. If there was nothing to do on a weekend, they were occasionally given a day off to go into town or play football against staff from neighbouring farms & reserves.
On the other hand the ‘lodge’ was rather more luxurious but not as ‘posh’ as the ‘lodge’ label might seem to convey. There were four separate twin bed (ensuite) thatched units and two larger ones - one used by Shaun & Emma (and growing family) and the other used by big John and his son LJ - the helicopter pilots. Before arriving at the ‘lodge’, I had envisaged a quiet oasis in the bush. In reality, there was a constant hum / roar (depending on the wind direction) from the main road down one boundary and a local road down another. In addition there was the occasional rumble from massive freight trains on their track just the other side of the staff accommodation.
The main socialising / eating area was a large thatched structure with a high internal roof - it was probably very cool in the height of the Summer but as the temperature dropped whilst I was there, a fleece was usually needed when sitting around. What it really needed was a large fire both to provide heat and to act as an alternative focus to the TV.
The communal meals - cooked (by Gibson - a very friendly Zimbabwean) - were filling and tasty but not up to what you would expect to have served in a mainstream tourist lodge - there was usually only one course at the evening meal. The other principal features of the lodge was a bar (with an honesty book to record your ‘purchases’ which was totalled up at the end of your stay) where the drinks were fairly inexpensive; a TV with satellite access; a PC with internet access (however, the its monthly download / access was limited and, as a result, internet access could fail towards the end of the month and three leather settees - these were very comfortable but with 10 + people you could end up sitting on hard dinning chairs. Eliza looked after the housekeeping and kept on top of the washing & ironing of the constant flow of mud & blood splattered clothing that game capture generated.
A couple of hundred metres from the ‘lodge’, in a separate fenced area, were the holding pens, vet centre and orphanage. There were two sets of pens. Each had its own loading ramp but were of different construction - one had tall walls made of wooden posts set close together in the ground and comprised of pens of various sizes and was mainly used for the lighter animals - although Buffalo were also housed. The other pens were slightly smaller in total area but were much more robustly constructed with thicker posts - although they were set further apart : some of the slimmer people could squeeze through the gaps. These were primarily designed to contain Rhino although whist I was there it housed the larger Buffalo bulls that were caught. More about these later ! The vetinary centre comprised of three principal rooms : an office, a vet room with secure drug storage and one that contained pens for, the smaller orphans. There was a separate outdoor pen for the older orphans - whilst we were there it contained a Black Wilderbeest, two Roibok and a Waterbuck. There was also a Jersey cow and calf that was milked for the orphans.
Capture was undertaken in two main ways : ‘chemical’ capture where a dart syringe filled with sedative was fired from a rifle into the animal - this was either done from a vehicle or by Shaun hanging out of the helicopter door. One of the sedatives used was Ketamine - very strong and there were constant reminders not to get stuck by a needle or even to get some on a cut or graze - if you did you would be unconscious within seconds and possible dead soon after if you didn’t receive the antidote quickly. It was strange that an antelope would be given a dose three times that given to a substantially larger Rhino - it was something to do with their respective metabolic rates.
The other method was ‘mass’ capture using a boma. This was basically a funnel (a couple of hundred metres at its mouth) made of plastic (the weight of canvas) erected in the bush into which the selected animals were driven by the helicopter. It was hidden, as far as possible by using natural vegetation and the lie of the land. As the animals progressed into the narrowing boma, gates were closed behind them. These gates were made of the same sheeting as the boma sides and were suspended from tensioned wires across the boma. At the narrow end was the ‘crush’ : this was a narrow corridor with metal sides and three sliding gates one at each end and another in the middle. The crush was used to hold and sort animals before loading on to trucks via a loading ramp and to contain them whilst they had sedatives administered via syringe poles. Gemsbok had sections of black plastic piping rammed on to their long sharp horns to prevent them injuring / killing each other when fighting whilst in confined spaces. We used this method for capturing Gemsbok, Wildebeest, Eland, and Roibok and Zebra but other animals, including Giraffe, are also captured this way.
Our principal job was to run (close) the gates after the animals had passed deeper into the enclosed area. The Main (first) Gate was naturally the longest. It was worked by the lads and, as it wasn’t secured at its foot, they had to ensure that it didn’t fly up and offer an escape route. A dozen or so of us (with Shaun & Pete) usually worked the next gate - First Gate (!) - which was shorter and often in several sections - which also had a loose foot that had to be prevented from flying up in any breeze. I often worked the next gate from one side with another person on the opposite. This could be worked by one person a side because it was anchored at the bottom. The idea was to keep hidden in the folds of material until a signal from the helicopter and then run into towards the other side dragging the gate behind you. However, occasionally animals lagged behind and the gate was closed to ensure that the majority were secured, so you had to wait for the animals to be shut in the crush and then reopen the gate to let the others through. This could take sometime as by then they were aware of the confined area and reluctant to go into the even narrower part of the boma. Occasionally, animals turned back towards you when they saw the crush so that you ended up with animals on both side of your gate. It was surprising how brave usually timid animals were when in such confined environment. Both Gemsbok and Eland would have a go at you and even Wildebeest would ignore you when making for a gap - my closest call was when a Eland (they have the bulk of a cow and the size of a horse) backed me into a thorn bush - I was worried for a while as I held it off by holding on to its horns in trepidation but, when I kept still, it lost interest and trotted off. Evidently Zebra could be one of the most aggressive : we were advised to carry lengths of the pipes used for Gemsbok horns - if a Zebra came towards you the idea was to hit it as hard as possible on the muzzle and if it turned away to be aware that it was likely to last out with both hind feet. If it still came towards you the pipe was jammed into it mouth (keeping the fingers out or they would be bitten off) but we were unsure what the next step to disengage was.
A variation of the boma was one where the sides were made of netting. Animals were still driven in by helicopter but instead being contained in the crush, they became entangled in the net. We had then to rush from hiding to untangle them before the strangled themselves and then carry them around our shoulders to the truck. This method was used when we caught Black Impala (very pretty) and Bontebok.
We were also given the opportunity when working at a boma to help place/ram the pipes on the horns of Gemsbok or administer tranquiliser via stick syringe - both from the side of the crush or through the ventilation hatches on the roof of the trucks. For those who wanted a thrill (mainly the lads) you could enter the crush with two others and a metal push board about 3’ by 4’. You used this to move obstinate animals either between the two halves of the crush or up the ramp to the truck. Gemsbok especially took exception to this and would continually head but the board. On one occasion just before I arrived a combination of the force they used (together with the horns’ sharpness) allowed a horn to penetrate the metal and skewer a lad’s hand !
In addition to the excitement of capture we were also asked to help out with the more domestic chores. Before the Buffalo arrived for the quarantine stay we were asked to help the lads to clean out the pens in which they were to be held. The idea was to cut down on the likelihood of the expensive Buffalo catching some thing from previous occupants. The pens hadn’t been cleaned for a long time and the ground was either muddy ooze or a compacted dung & earth - these were tackled with shovels, picks and a shuttle service of wheelbarrows. On another occasion we were tasked to unload two large trailers of their loads of Lucerne bails - fodder for the Buffalo : we ended up with very tiered muscles and cuts & abrasions from the bales and their binding twine. Being of a more mature age (!) and having both driven in SA before and having my International Driving Permit with me, I was asked to drive one of the Land Rovers to Bloemfontein for its 100,000K service. It was a drive of about 90 minutes and I was lucky enough to remember where the LR garage was from my previous 6 day stay in town having my own LR repaired a few years ago. It was Shaun’s own vehicle as it didn’t have one of its front wings cratered from where a Giraffe had stood on it. Whilst it was being services I went for a wander around town and ended up at the much enlarged shopping centre down by the lake. Between snacks & ice creams, I hit the big book store and bought a Jeep fleece-lined suede jacket for just £50.
Given their size and often cranky nature, it was the method of capturing Rhino that was most surprising. We only captured one whilst I was working on the team - it was to relocate a female whose mate had been killed by lightening. She was going to a neighbouring reserve to join a breeding herd so as not to waste her ‘fertility’ cycle. It was a really cold and claggy morning with low cloud and a fine rain - it was so bad that as soon as the helicopter took off it returned as the visibility was too limited. Most of us jumped into the back of the Backie (the SA term for a pick-up) but, by pure luck, two of the girls and I were already inside the Land Rover with Shaun driving. Without the helicopter to quickly search the large area we had to drive around looking under every bush. We knew that she usually was in company with a small herd of Buffalo - so, in theory, she should have been easy to spot. But no - we spent an hour or so driving around with seeing much through the rain. The guys in the open back were gradually getting damper and colder and eventually decamped into the covered backie from the reserve.
Eventually we found her deep in the bush amid the Buffalos who were very inquisitive as we drove up - several came up close and seemed willing to challenge the vehicle. Eventually Shaun managed to drive off the Buffalo with the backie but then the Rhino came too close to be successfully darted, so we had to wait for her to wander off. Once she was far enough away, the dart flew and she took off at a trot with us bending bushes as we followed. When she slowed and showed sign of succumbing to the drug - eventually falling over, we all piled out of the vehicles to undertake our briefed tasks. Shaun put on the blindfold and somebody else stuffed a rugby sock down each ear - both to cut down on things that may stimulate it. A rope was put around a rear leg with another around a fore leg : the front was to generate forward motion and the rear was to act as a brake should she take off (if there had been any trees in the area it was to be tied around one to anchor her in one place). Somebody was also standing by with a bottle of oxygen just in case she had trouble breathing.
When all this was achieved, Shaun administered the reversal drug - just enough to get her up and walking. It must have been a strange sight with a group pulling on the front rope, a few on the rear brake and one either side of head to steer. Whilst we waited for the transport crate to arrive, we walked he round in circles and when it arrived she walked easily up the ramp and inside. As we drove her down the public road to the adjoining reserve, she started to become more lively and both the trailer & backie wobbled & jumped as she jumped about at horned the crate’s sides. When we came to release her, she slowly backed out of the trailer and ambled off slowly, as if nothing had happened, into the bush.
Catching Buffalo was equally exciting but rather more dangerous and much more tiring. WTS had been contracted to move 52 male Buffalos from a small farm that had gone bankrupt to the reserve next to the lodge. A boma was erected and we cut bush to disguise the crush and its entrance. One difference with this exercise was that it was a ‘sneaky boma’ - this was where some of its sides were laid flat to give the animals had an escape path. When it was too late for the animals to escape, the side was quickly raised to complete the enclosure. I was given the job of raising this section of the boma by quickly reversing a backie a set distance - if I went too far the whole side would be torn down and if not far enough the animals would see an escape route. Once they had been in the boma and escaped it would be compromised and the whole thing would have to be relocated : two days work for the lads.
From the seat of the backie I only heard the clatter of the helicopter and the thunder of hooves accompanied by a cloud of dust as the Buffs charged into the final bit of the boma. The smaller animals went straight through the crush, up the ramp and into the lorry. That left 20 or so big mean ones only surrounded by flimsy curtain material - if they saw the shadow of a person though the material they would charge it. Eventually they were all darted and we had to go in and hold they heads up and make sure their tounges were out, so that they wouldn't choke. We had to do this until other members of the team came around, sprayed them for ticks, inserted an ear tag, took blood samples and admisinstered a TB test. Supporting a big head with heavy horns was bad enough but after the team had finished all their jobs, we had to roll the Buffs onto a heavy metal stretcher, carry them to a vehicle, lift them up and push them off the stretcher and inside. At the end of the day we were absolutely spent.
A week later we had to go to the bomas at the Lodge and redart the Buffs so that the State Vet could read the TB test results. TB free Buffs are worth several £10,000 each (we had caught 52) and if there was a positive result all (or most) would have to be killed. I left before the definitive results came back from the lab.
By the time the gates of the crush were closed our camouflage and young trees outside the gates had been obliterated by tons of bovine passing over it.
Capture was often delayed as a result of the wind coming from the wrong direction at the boma site. It had to more or less blow straight into the boma mouth otherwise the animals would smell us and refuse to enter no matter how hard the helicopter tried. On one occasion when we were using a net boma, the helicopter hovered over the wider portion attempting to blow away our smell with its downdraft. If the weather forecast had predicted a change in wind direction, we would hang around the site, talk, read or snooze. If there was little chance of it blowing from the right direction we would return to the lodge. Here we would lounge around, catch up on sleep, read or chat. If there was any excess energy there would be games of touch rugby, football and commitment ball. For a couple of days we were exhorted by LJ to dig out a volley ball court. So we were issued with picks, shovels and wheel barrow to tackle the hard ground - in the heat of the day we tried to dig the dry hard ground down to about 12 inches : it was hard thirsty work that generated many blisters. I didn’t mind doing any work directly relating to game capture but only made a token gesture to this project and gradually more and more people found excuses to escape this chain gang.
Death is part of life and, unfortunately, also part of game capture. Animals died of stress, of fighting with each other and being put-down as a result of breaking limbs. Some were found dead e.g. from breaking their neck running into a tree and others e.g. the injured had to be put down : by gun shot or by having their throats slit. Those that weren’t contaminated by drugs were hung from a handy tree to let their blood drain into the soil. Their entrails were carefully removed and the carcass was either used by the lads to supplement their diet or sent into a butchery in town to be turned into Biltong or sausages (Boerwurst). One slip of the knife nicking the digestive organs would ruin the meat. One Buffalo died for no apparent reason when being held in quarantine and Pete the Vet conducted a post mortem to try and ascertain the cause - it was thought that it might have been as a result of a deficiency of Copper as the herd had been running on poor land. Sample of blood and organs were sent of for analysis but I left before the definitive results returned.
Most of the animals we caught were destined for private reserves where they would be hunted for trophies. Shaun said that he was selective in which reserves to which he would supply animals - they had to practice ‘ethical’ hunting where animals had at least a 50% chance of surviving ! Many of the less ethical reserves held their animals within small areas that gave the hunter a great advantage with close shots from hides very close to water or from the back of a vehicle. The best maintained the tradition of the hunters walking the bush searching for their kill.
I wasn’t sure what to expect before I joined WTS but I enjoyed time in the bush and it was especially good to be so close (sometime too close) to animals that are normally only seen at a safe distance. The only caveat I would put on others doing something similar is that you shouldn’t be squeamish or adverse to early morning starts. In addition, if you are of more mature years, you need to be willing and able to work & socialise with teenagers.