A month volunteering at a vet project in Limpopo, South Africa
Firstly, I would like to encourage everyone reading this to take a gap year. There were various reasons for me taking a gap year, primarily to gain more work experience in preparation for veterinary medicine applications to university. It is my goal to become a wildlife vet in African conservation, and undertaking work experience in this field has been extremely beneficial. It has enabled me to participate in the work that I would be doing as a vet, it was able to make contacts there, and I have learnt a great deal not only about the work but also South Africa and life in general. I also made some amazing friends. Having paid for the entire trip myself and for a short time living on my own out there I have gained that much more independence.
“It was the best month of my life.”
I travelled with a company called the African Conservation Experience. They support select conservation projects by sending volunteers, and volunteers pay them indirectly via ACE.
My project is listed under Phola Veterinary Experience and is located at a small frontier town called Alldays in Limpopo province. 80% of our time was spent the vet Dr. Dup Du Plessis who runs the recently built clinic in the town. Nearly all of this time was spent out in the field on game farms, the rest of the time (generally weekends) was spent at the local game farm were we slept in tents out in the bush where the night sky was always dark enough to see the Milky Way.
With the vet day to day operations consisted largely of animal capture. We would draw up a dart for the animal, then dart it, follow it until it went down, get it on a stretcher if we had to move it, and then wake it up. Depending on the circumstance this entire process could take anything from 7 minutes to half an hour. When using anaesthetics such as etorphine, animals lose their ability to regulate their temperature so it was of paramount importance that we got the job done as quickly and efficiently as possible when most days it was nearly 35*C. We soon became an efficient team in the process of game capture.
At our first capture Dup said “We don’t go around bushes, we go through bushes.” At first I thought he was joking but in that kind of environment there is not the time or space for anything between 6 and 18 people to walk around a Winter Thorn Bush or the aptly named “Stay a while” thorn bush. Dragging a male Waterbuck 100m to the transport “bakkie” through dense scrub can be interesting to say the least. At times we were aided by “pangas” or machetes, other times we just ploughed through.
A bakkie is a pick-up truck, in which we travelled everywhere. Getting to drive a Toyota Hilux through the African bush at night on my own was an experience I will never forget! Given that there was often not enough space in the cab extra passengers rode on the back everywhere. And depending on who was driving you could sometimes find yourself temporarily suspended in the air over a particularly rough track.
Generally we were safety conscious and took all the precautions we could, but you can never really fully predict animals. Having worked with lions, rhinos and crocodiles most people are surprised to hear that I would consider the most dangerous animal there the buffalo. One day we darted 38 to draw bloods to test for Bovine Tuberculosis. Nervous creatures at the best of times they were becoming increasingly skittish as we removed completed individuals out of the temporary holding pen and back onto the reserve via a partition through the pen. After a buffalo had gone down the rest of the herd would be moved into the other half of the pen by the tractor and the owner’s bakkie. It was a huge operation, but was running smoothly.
One went down near the corner. Needing a new needle and shoulder to draw blood for samples I was to go and get them – they were outside the pen the other side of the gate. The small remainder of the herd had been driven to the other side so thinking we were alone the owner, Jaque, and I went to open the gate in the corner. Reaching the gate Dup screams. Turning, we face a buffalo cow that has been separated from her calf. We are cornered. She charges. Jaque grabs her horns to push her out of the corner, having none of it she easily flicks him back tearing a huge whole across his shirt. For some reason she suddenly turns around and runs off. With Jaque on the floor against the wall I am assuming the worst but he shouts to get up on the fence. Somehow he follows, just before the buffalo returns to have another go, eyeing us above her on the fence. The rest of the team manage to get her out. Unbelievably, Jaque is asking if I am OK! I reply yes then tentatively ask him if he is. I cannot believe he is still breathing, let alone climbing the 4m fence. By some extraordinary stroke of luck he is largely unscathed with only a substantial bruise.
After, as the adrenaline rush hits I can only laugh. I laugh with the workers as they ask me what I saw in that corner. With a wry smile Dup says “It’s funny now,” then shakes his head in disbelief. He seems more relieved than I. Later he tells the anecdote of how the same situation occurred but where the gate was locked and he watched another vet have his heart and rib cage gored out by a buffalo. Over the next few weeks he reminds me every now and then about how lucky I was, and how I probably don’t fully appreciate what peril I was actually in. It is funny how an incident that lasted no longer than 5 seconds stays with you.
“Some people would say it’s strange that I can’t imagine anything better than doing this for the rest of my life.”
Despite the large amounts of exhilarating buffalo work the real highlight of my trip was getting to work with a lioness. Due to a land dispute on a huge game farm she was being kept in temporary accommodation with her ‘husband’ and her son. In such a limited abode any family pride structure had broken down and being the little one she was on the receiving end of frequent altercations. She was limping badly, but more worryingly her right ear was torn and badly infected. We darted her then others in 4x4s drove the male lions as far away as they could within the confines of this camp. Monitoring vitals is crucial, as it’s the first indicator that something’s going wrong.
Listening to her heartbeat was an experience I will never forget.