I awoke at 04:00am and tried to blink away the disturbing dream I was having about Elton John, a dolphin and a supermarket trolley. Damn those malaria meds. But that was soon forgotten and replaced with a feeling of anticipation and excitement as it was the 24 of January. And we were about to get up close and personal with some Pachyderms.
I sauntered over to the breakfast area to find Craig 1 trying to crack eggs for breakfast whilst simultaneously trying to light his first cigarette of the day. The constant stream of abuse emanating from his lips scared all but the bravest terrapins in the adjacent pond deep underwater. As explained to us in the briefing the night before by the project leaders in the area, the esteemed Drs Michelle and David Henley, we were here to assist the Save the Elephant Foundation in the darting of two elephants to place radio tracking collars around their necks. This would enable the good doctors to track their movements and provide invaluable information which would ultimately be used in the fight to save these majestic creatures.
We sped off in our trusty Land Rover with volunteers clutching the seats in front whilst soundlessly mouthing Psalm 23 over and over. We were running late. We joined the convoy in the nick of time and began following the helicopter that was hot on the trail of the elephant cow. Soon the vet located the cow and promptly darted her from the chopper. She began stumbling about like she had been bingeing on fermented Marula berries all night and soon she was down. Unbeknown to everyone the cow had a calf with her, who was now visibly distressed over his mothers plight. This provided a heart-wrenching spectacle as the young elephant would try to get his mother to stand up.
Thankfully the vet was very professional though and quickly darted the young ‘un as well as to minimize his stress. We heard a crashing sound coming from the patch of trees behind us. It seemed another elephant had taken offence to what we were doing. The chopper swooped low over our heads and luckily managed to scare him off. When the all-clear had been given we moved in and were confronted by the humbling experience of seeing these creatures close-up. The collar was secured and the volunteers took measurements, blood and hair samples and one was even lucky enough to administer the antidote into the mother’s ear which would wake her up. We all moved back to the safety of our vehicles before she rocked herself back onto her feet. She moved off into the bush, followed by her calf. Probably wondering what the hell just happened.
We were back on the trail of a big 22 year old bull called Shoshangaan. We sped through rivers and soon located him. The vet darted him and he went down. Soon we were all surrounding him, ensuring he could breathe properly and the process was repeated. It was all over in about 20 minutes. We made our way back to the lodge for brunch. Sure in the knowledge that what ever we chose to do for the rest of the day, there was no chance it would be as exciting as this. Our volunteers assisted the researchers with the gathering of morphometric data and DNA samples and some had the intensely gratifying experience of administering the antidote to blood vessels in the ears.
It was a privilege to work with such a professional, ethically orientated veterinarian who always considered the well-being of the animals first. It was also enriching to contribute to the work of the Save the Elephant Foundation and a pleasure to work with these enthusiastic and knowledgeable like-minded people. We have been working with the Save the Elephant Foundation and contributing photographic identification and herd dynamics data since 2008 in an effort to close gaps in the data sets of the research into the movement of these mega-herbivores throughout the massive 3000000ha Greater Kruger National Park.
We all felt that this was money well spent and a small investment for long-term returns. By the end of our journey we had devoured 210 kilometres, 36 eggs, 700 cigarettes, singed some throats with 80% stroh rum and destroyed the land rovers radio, lights, battery and pretty much everything else. 1 pair ofpants was also irreparably ripped on a wayward elephant tusk. Our thanks to Ezulwini lodges for the lone of an additional Land Rover (now in need of a major service), Brass from Campfire Safaris for their assistance in co-ordinating the volunteers and to the intrepid and ruggedly good looking Craig 2 who couldn’t accompany us this time as he had to keep the show goingback home. We’ll keep you updated with our new adventures here at TransfrontierAfrica.
Till next time
John – Research Assistant