Hugh Paxton’s Blog ran a series of chapter excerpts from Dries Alberts’s remarkable collection of essays recounting his experiences as chief warden of one of Namibia’s wildest National Parks. The series lapsed (for a few months) but now resumes. I’ve met Dries, shared drinks and stories around camp fires far from the bright lights of electricity but beneath the brighter lights of a southern hemisphere’s nightly starscape. I will assemble all the Dries stories shortly.
Over to Dries for the latest, called:
Buffalo “Hunting” and Other Merciful Acts
Among the many treasures in Bushmanland, just 8 kilometers from Tsumkwe lies the home of over sixty-five disease-free African Buffalo. They are in an enclosed camp which was made just for them about six years ago. They have more than ample room to roam, and if you drive through the camp you will most likely never see the buffalo. They travel in herds and have so much space that they can easily “disappear” when man is nearby.
There were approximately 60 buffalos in the camp according to Nature Conservation’s most recent estimate from full-moon game counts. Twenty-eight had been released in the camp originally, but there had been many calves born over the past six years, and of course some natural deaths as well.
The buffalo had previously migrated between Gura Pan and the Okavango Delta. During the 1980’s Botswana had a huge loss of cattle from Foot and Mouth Disease. They were forced to kill and burn a half a million of their own cattle. Botswana proceeded to erect a 1.2 meter high fence with steel cables at the top and the bottom. All cattle, and cattle-like animals cannot pass through as these are normally the animals who carry Foot and Mouth Disease. The buffalo’s migratory route was interrupted and these twenty-eight buffalo remained on the Namibian side of the fence and were subsequently captured and put into the camp. Currently every disease-free African Buffalo has an estimated value of $N170,000.00.
I was fortunate enough to be here when the Game Capture crew came back to test the buffalo to ensure that they remained free of foot and mouth disease. I had never seen an African Buffalo. Before the week had ended, I was riding through the bush in the back of a bakkie with baby buffalos resting on my lap.
September 9, 2002
I had been looking forward to this day for months. The full orchestration of such an endeavor required many months of preparation by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. I had high hopes that I might join them at least one of the days they were darting. That decision would be determined by the veterinarian and the game capture people.
At8:45 a.m.Monday morning I heard the helicopter hovering overhead. My heart was
racing as fast as the propeller was spinning. I rushed out to take pictures of the pilot landing on the landing pad, just about a hundred meters from the house. Many of the local bushmen were eagerly gathering around to witness this “technological wonder.” I was amazed at its small size. There were only two seats and no doors.
The team consisted of one veterinarian who would dart the buffalos, a member of Game Capture, two Nature Conservationists, the pilot and a friend of the veterinarian who was familiar with these type of projects. The entire crew was obviously as excited as I was about the coming week. We had coffee, made plans and they were off to the buffalo camp to survey the area where they would spend the upcoming week.
I was soon informed that it would be no problem for me to accompany them any and all days they were here. Needless to say, this was far more than I’d ever hoped for and again, I was left speechless as Dries delivered the news of their generous offer.
Every morning we rose at around5:30 a.m. The pilot and the veterinarian would “lift-off” first as they’d require a bit of a head start to sight and dart the buffalos. We’d follow shortly thereafter in two vehicles. Upon arrival at the camp, we’d wait until the helicopter radioed to tell us they’d darted a buffalo. We could see approximately the area they were targeting as we watched from the ground. The pilot could see us quite clearly
and he would direct us exactly to where the buffalo was likely to drop after being darted.
The objective was to try to “direct” the buffalo with the helicopter so the buffalo would drop as near to the road as possible, thereby giving us easy access for taking blood samples and other important data.
We measured the inside and outside curve of the horn, the distance between the tips of the horns, the length of the “boss,” or helmet, the shoulder height, from the hoof to the top of the shoulder, the tail length, the total body length, from tip of nose to tail bone, and the “half-girth,” – the center of the chest cavity to the spinal cord. One measurement of neck circumference was measured at 140 centimeters (just behind the head). The biggest bull, tip to tip was 124 centimeters. This is currently the largest bull on record inNamibia, exceeding the past Namibian record by five centimeters and a minimum of five inches.
We would track the darted buffalos by spray painting sequential numbers in large white numbers on their backs after collecting all the data to allow the pilot and veterinarian aerial viewing. This tracking ensured no duplication, and only “non-numbered” buffalos would be targeted.
As soon as a buffalo had been darted, we’d drive as quickly as possible to where the buffalo went down. If the buffalo did not make it to the road, we drove off-road, through very heavy thorn bush. One day there were four flat tires; three on one vehicle, and one on another.
Approaching the first buffalo was probably the most intimidating. He would “drop,” but was still somewhat alert. Two of the Nature Conservation people were charged with holding onto the horns. They’re “curled” like a ram, but much, much bigger. The buffalo was heavily sedated. Holding onto the horns, keeping his head off of the ground allowed the buffalo to breath more easily as opposed to his nose lying in the sand, thereby preventing suffocation while the tranquilizer was in effect.
So there I found myself, sitting on the ground, petting this massive beast. I caressed his heavy head, stroked his eye-lashes, walked around his body, touched him as long as I could before all the statistics had been taken and it was time for the injection that would counter-act the tranquilizer. Of course in this “state” they seemed so gentle and harmless, but African Buffalos kill hundreds of people inAfricaevery year. I knew I was experiencing another incredibly rare opportunity.
Once the injection was given to awaken the buffalo, we would run back to the bakkie before he was alert enough to charge us. On one occasion, a Game Capture member was chased up into a tree as the buffalo woke too quickly and charged him. We heard his cries for help and rushed to him in the bakkie. The branch he clung to had broken and he seemed to be in serious danger. The sound of the bakkie scared the buffalo away and he was soon back in the safety of the vehicle.
It was beneficial for the veterinarian to dart a few buffalos together to expedite the measuring and blood taking procedures. Often, the pair was a mother and calf. Typically they would become separated before the effects of the tranquilizer set in, thereby leaving them lying several meters apart. We would first collect the calf, quickly place her in the back of the bakkie with the rest of us, and take her to her mother’s side. There, the statistics from both buffalos were taken and the anti-anesthesia administered simultaneously so that they would wake at the same time.
One afternoon, as we had a calf in the bakkie with us, the mother who had also been darted, came after us. She was an unusually large, very strong cow. She wasn’t moving very quickly, as the effects of the drugs were setting in, but still she followed us for at least 20 or 30 meters as she knew we carried her baby with us. As her calf’s head laid on my lap and I witnessed the determination and perseverance of her motherly instincts, I wanted so badly to convey to her that we there to do them no harm and that this endeavor was purely undertaken for the survival of her species. All she knew from her perspective, was that a group of two-legged beings had shot her, and were fleeing with her injured baby. Finally she had run out of strength and went down. We measured and took all statistics from mother and calf and they both woke together.
On the second day of darting as it was time to return to the house for lunch, the pilot approached me and asked if I’d like to ride back with him. No verbal reply was necessary; I quickly got out of the bakkie and followed him. I was instructed to walk around the front of the helicopter and keep my head down, avoiding the propellers. I climbed in, was securely harnessed; headphones in place. The headphones enabled the pilot and I to communicate during flight as the engine is quite loud. “What do you want to see?” he asked me. Still hardly able to formulate a sentence, I nervously answered, “Anything.”
We lifted off and all I could do was laugh hysterically! It was an incredible feeling. I watched the crew beneath me, still working on waking the last darted buffalo. They all became tinier and tinier as we ascended. Some waved from below, probably remembering the excitement they experienced the first time they’d taken this ride. We twisted and turned and swirled in every direction. He was a master at maneuvering this little “bird.” Since there are no doors, it is a very “vulnerable” feeling, but still I felt quite safe especially after witnessing the veterinarian hanging, un-harnessed in mid-flight while darting. He took me to several herds of buffalo and allowed me to see things from the veterinarian’s perspective as they darted. We swooped down very quickly over a herd of fifteen or so buffalos, and were only within a few meters overhead as they fled from the noise of the helicopter. I saw very clearly the large, white numbers we’d spray-painted on their backs. But what struck me most was their gracefulness as they ran together in such uniformity. On the ground, face to face with them, they’re so big they almost looked like they’d be clumsy; unable to pick up much speed. I got a true sense for the danger that is imminent if one should cross the path of such a stampede.
After allowing me to take several aerial snapshots, we ascended very quickly. We wanted to disturb them as little as possible, as they were in for four or five days of this “noise” for which they would never understand its purpose. We soon spotted two Roan Antelope running across Tsumkwe’s small, gravel runway. We flew closer for a better look and they were magnificent against the white background as they ran and leapt in great strides across the runway. As we flew over the remainder of the landmarks of Tsumkwe, I got a feel for how tiny this little town I now called home really is. Just a few roads, two shops, the school and the Lodge. The few spatterings of huts in what they call “locations” were a pleasant reminder that I was living among the bushmen.
All did not go well unfortunately. I had not gone on the afternoon shift that day and the crew returned in very somber spirits. The pilot pulled me aside and explained that one of the buffalos they darted did not recover from the tranquilizer. It happened to be the buffalo they had been working on as I watched from the air with the pilot. The veterinarian was particularly disturbed, feeling responsible for the buffalo’s death. It was actually quite emotional and I was touched by the deep and genuine disappointment these men were experiencing. It wasn’t even a particularly old buffalo and seemed to be in very good health. After lengthy discussion and theories as to why the buffalo had died, they determined that animals, just like humans sometimes will have adverse reactions to anesthesia, and this was just one of those unfortunate cases. The next few days would begin with a new sort of anxiety. They definitely didn’t want to lose any more.
On the fourth day, as we watched the chopper flying above in the camp, the pilot radioed to us below,
“We’ve lost another one – and we’re coming in.”
We had all been standing near the bakkies, looking up at the location of the chopper, waiting for word on where to go next. As the grim news registered for each of us, our heads dropped in disbelief and sadness. – All seemed to have been going so well. The chopper lowered onto the road and the veterinarian dropped a buffalo skull! – A very old, skull. A few of the men raised their hands to their heads in grateful disbelief. The pilot radioed,
“Sorry, couldn’t resist that one,” and again ascended in search of another herd.
The humor was eventually appreciated, but they truly succeeded in altering our spirits for a few moments . . .
Each day it seemed the crew darted a few more than the previous day. Within five days they had successfully darted and documented statistics on 65 buffalos, and I had been privileged to ride in the chopper on three separate occasions. The last two were at sunset when we’d finished for the day.
From the air the pilot sighted a growing bush fire that would never have been noticed until it had spread to the point of endangering the buffalo and the other game in the camp. We brought in more Nature Conservation employees that afternoon and they successfully extinguished the fires.
On the last day, the pilot also spotted an Eland who had recently given birth, but was in very bad shape. The remains of the birth were exposed and she clearly would only live for a few more days, if even that long. The calf was not with her, but had to be nearby as the mother couldn’t have walked far from the birthplace, considering her condition. We soon found the calf. It was a baby bull. He was lying underneath a small tree, very near the road, all curled up. He looked to me like a tiny reindeer with the most beautiful big, brown, wide eyes, long, long eyelashes and two tiny black sprouts that would become his horns in adulthood. I wondered what would become of him now that his mother wouldn’t survive. Surely other Elands would care for him. It was explained to me that the calf would die. They must let nature takes its course and it wasn’t the way of the Eland to care for young other than their own. The most humane thing to do would be to kill him so he wouldn’t suffer through starvation.
And this seemed like a horrible ending to such a successful and exciting week! But there was one option other than killing him. If we could find someone that would agree to pay for milk, bottle feed him and keep him until he was old enough to survive on his own, he wouldn’t have to be shot.
Upon returning home late that afternoon, Dries phoned the local Lodge owner and asked if he’d be willing to care for this young Eland. Gratefully he agreed and we were off to collect the baby Eland. First the mother would need to be euthanized, otherwise she would only suffer unnecessarily. We stopped the bakkie where the calf was lying. Dries walked into the bush, in the direction of where the pilot had seen the mother Eland. A few minutes later we heard one shot. The calf was loaded onto the bakkie and we drove in the direction of where we’d heard the shot. Dries was standing at the road, waving us into where the mother was lying. We would need to draw milk from her to initiate feeding. We had brought along several 2-liter plastic containers and a large nipple.
It’s hard to explain the feeling I had upon seeing this beautiful cow lying dead, partially shaded by the trees she fell beneath. How sad it was that she could no longer roam, or nurture her calf and watch him grow.
The bushmen began drawing milk and soon we were all taking turns, trying to get as much nourishment as possible from her for her baby who had probably never nursed. What a strange and sad feeling, to be drawing life from the dead.
We coaxed and stroked the calf until finally he began to suck from the bottle. The cow and calf were loaded onto the bakkie and we returned to Tsumkwe. The mother was taken to a nearby village where the bushmen would butcher her and be provided meat for the next few days.
The primary objective of the week’s project began with the continued maintenance of a valued population of buffalo. This endeavor lead us to a mercy killing, and ultimately resulted in the perpetuation of the Eland species. We’ll never know how many animal lives were saved as a result of the bush fires being sighted from the air.
Eland roams the Tsumkwe area freely now and is a welcome sight and comforting reminder that there are times when man’s intervention with nature, if initiated with compassionate intent, successfully reunites us with the animal kingdom and our mutual struggle for survival.
A few weeks later we received the results of the buffalo blood samples.
They indeed remain, disease-free.