After NWU, we ate dinner and had an early night, then we packed up and left Johannesburg Friday morning. On our way to Shosholoza game lodge, we stopped at CLAW veterinary clinic. This facility only services people in the Townships, those that can’t afford typical veterinary care. They turn away anyone that pulls up in a pricey make new car, and they refuse to assist animals that are not going to be sterilized. They aim to reduce the stray population size and to stop the spread of diseases. In this plight, they have a massive shelter set up and can house up to 30 dogs at a time (I’ve had to walk over 30 dogs at my kennel before. That’s a lot of animals). Due to a miss communication, they did not have surgeries scheduled for us to practice sutures and to shadow the vet. Instead, we helped with morning treatments and then it was PUPPY PLAY TIME!
The dogs were so sweet and so under loved, it was a frenzy when we walked into their kennel. Dogs running everywhere, licking everyone, and 10 women and gays squealing from excitement. It was a soul refreshing experience. Also, I suggest any reader to look up Canis Africaans. It’s a species of dog endemic to the continent due to interbreeding of domestic dogs and Africa’s Wild Dogs, they’re beautiful creatures (and totally domestic, they are tens of generations removed from the wild dog). This was a wonderful day and I admire the work these vets and technicians are doing without much monetary reward. I’m going to look into crowdsourcing funds for them when we get back. A few years back a series of riots in the area caused them to abandon the clinic for 2 years, and when they came back their pipes and wires were stripped. Now they run off of electrical panels, but they’ve been stolen twice and now their third system is enclosed in electrical fencing. They do so much, get life dumped on them, and keep pushing on to help the animals in these impoverished communities. I’m starting to cry thinking about it so on to the next day.
On Saturday, we went to the Uwukula Conversation Center and BioBank. Here, we were lectured by Dr. Madelein Grundlingh more about the perilous situation our worlds wildlife finds itself in, what can be done, and how Uwukula is helping. The topics overlapped a bit with the last lecture and an Al Gore documentary, but she taught us a lot about what a “BioBank” is. Essentially, Uwukula and many other locations are compiling reserves of genetics like in Svalbard’s Seed Bank, except with frozen semen. The best was to explain the necessity of this is looking at the Northern White Rhino. You would have to live under a rock to have missed the day “The Last Northern White Rhino Died”, even people from the Townships know about it. Well, that’s not exactly what happened. The last male died, and two females (a mother and daughter), still exist in the wild. So, a wildlife vet was sent out to the male rhino who was being kept on life support and collected all his semen, and he was allowed to pass. Now, with his frozen semen, we can use artificial insemination to impregnate the females. We can also use fertility techniques to collect their eggs and implant fertilized eggs in the Southern White Rhino, who will happily mother their off-species babies. Hope is not lost.
To the fun stuff. Uwukula’s owners purchased the property with lions included, because that’s a casual occurrence in South Africa. They try to keep breeding to a minimum, but sometimes nature wants what it wants. As a result, we got to play with lion cubs! We went into their inclosure during feeding time and they acted like big kittens, running around swatting each other, running into our laps, doing summersaults, all the cute kitten stuff. For the animal rights fanatics out there, these animals were well taken care of and have N O hope of being released into the wild. Lions are territorial and with parking lots taking up most of earth’s surface area, dropping a lion into the wild means encroaching on another pride’s territory and certain death. So, a little human contact when the cubs are under 5 months is not much of an issue. We also got to interact with cheetah brothers that were born in captivity as well. This was the most shocking experience. Cheetahs will run before they fight, they’re too fragile so they don’t want to risk injury, and since they were born in captivity, they’re pretty tolerant of humans. We were allowed in their enclosure and got to pet them, rub their bellies, and scratch behind their ears. It was really amazing. If I were to come back to South Africa, I would dedicate time volunteering at this reserve.
As a side note, there are 10 of us students total and our guide Luis who are constantly together, and every single person is amazing and fun to talk to. It’s so hard to keep up on my blog because all of us will sit down to write our journals and then just end up talking for hours.
Anyway, after we left our last location we had a 4 hour drive (South Africa feels endless) to Zion game lodge, owned by Dr. John. We walked into paradise here. The water runs hot, the hangout spaces are incredible, and we get to see zebras and ostriches every day when we sit on the ‘deck.’ We all settled into our beautiful rooms and explored the property for some time before we sat down with Dr. John to get a lecture on game capture techniques and immobilization drugs. This lecture ended up being very long and somewhat over our heads, but he talked a lot about the different types of drugs and I took the opportunity to bounce some of the endocrinology and biochemistry knowledge I acquired this past year off of him. The major takeaway from the lecture was learning how to approach, monitor, and wake up an animal that has been darted with tranquilizer, and we were going to apply that information the next day. The downside, after Dr. John kept us late for dinner, we were informed that breakfast was going to be at 5 am (This summer I’ve slept until 11 and ate breakfast at noon). And this began my 4 day long mantra of “its worth it. It’s worth it. DONT BE GRUMPY, ITS WORTH IT.”
Monday morning we got to watch the sun rise as we were on our way out of camp, which was absolutely stunning. Zion is located in a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is situated on a large flat plain that is encircled by picturesque mountains formed from volcanic activity. The region is worth the UNESCO status because the mountains contain crystals that filter the water, resulting in the third cleanest water in the world. The place is just stunning.
To get to the point, we drove to our first game capture experience and were mightily unprepared after being so tired from the lack of sleep. Typically, Dr. John sedates 2 wildebeest at a time, but due to the context of the situation and all the students, he sedated all 6 of the wildebeest that were in the enclosure. Out of fear of taking to long and having animals wake up while we were all in the enclosure, the professional game capturers jumped in and did most of our jobs for us. We all still got the opportunity to pet the animals and feel their horns and most of us got to monitor vitals or give a penicillin shot. It was for the better though, walking up to these animals, even sedated, made our one lecture of theory wash away. I felt pretty frazzled and clueless when I was in front of the animal, so it was more for the experience of seeing how it all worked. For future game capture events, it was definitely much easier to remember the steps for approaching and monitoring an animal after watching this frenzy. We then saw an auction house and the system for transferring game from one owner to another. That brought the private wildlife industry down a notch in my mind. The animals were kept in small stalls and they seemed to be highly stressed, but they did not stay their long. The auctions didn’t change my opinion on the system in South Africa, it was eye opening to see the more commercial side of the industry, that there is more to it than just antelope and zebra running around in 500+ acre reserves. Over all, today was a good transition from theoretical to in the field, applied, knowledge.