Protecting the Bushveld’s Wildlife

As a Biology major looking toward veterinary school, I chose to do my second cooperative education experience deep within the bushveld (the wilderness of rural South Africa) dividing my time between two veterinary and wildlife projects.

The first four weeks was at a lion-breeding farm not far from Johannesburg. While lions are not an endangered species, many ecologists predict that they soon will be at risk in South Africa due to illegal hunting and poaching. In particular, one subspecies of lion, the white lion, is especially at risk due to its desirable coat and inability to camouflage in nature. This farm works with the local veterinary school (Onderstepoort) facilitating research to prevent population decrease and to put healthy, disease-free lions back into the country’s population. In addition, the facility hosts international visitors in order to educate the public about the conservation of these incredible animals.

My role alongside other farm workers from around the world was to care for the lion cubs and monitor their health and development in the nursery, prepare food and deliver it to the adult lions, assist with various farm tasks such as enclosure maintenance and harvesting vegetables for the herbivores who shared the farm, and speak with visitors about the work of the facility. I was given the opportunity to assist the local veterinarian with procedures such as lacerations repairs, darting lions for relocation, and even fixing a young cub’s turned-in eyelid. The differences between a “sterile” procedure in the African bush and the sterile procedure I am used to seeing in my local, U.S. veterinary hospitals were massive. The veterinarian was working on the dusty ground in the middle of the night, his surgical site illuminated only by his head-lamp. He had brought all of his equipment and drugs in small toolboxes that he arranged around him on the ground. The veterinarian had to work quickly as the sedative he gave the two-year old male lion was temporary; he could not use full anesthesia because there was no oxygen tank, intubation kit or monitoring equipment. It was incredible to not only witness, but also to assist.

For the second month I traveled deep into the northernmost province of South Africa, Limpopo, to a farm about 45 minutes away from a small town called Alldays. The purpose of this farm – what we would think of as a reserve – is a unique form of conservation. Most game farmers in the country will kill any predators (lions, cheetahs, leopards) found on their land because they raise and sell expensive game, usually antelope. The farm I worked for is a refuge, allowing predators safe haven and even collecting unwanted predators from neighboring farms for safekeeping.

Our team set out daily to track a pair of male cheetahs that had only recently been relocated to the farm. These cheetahs came from a conservation agency and had already been placed on several other farms, which they had successfully escaped from. The two young males were considered quite valuable for potential breeding purposes. If the cheetahs escaped our farm, there was a high likelihood they would be killed. Each day we left our basic tented camp with our Land Rover and tracking supplies. After hours of driving around the massive farm (over 20,000 acres) and checking the tracking equipment we would wait to get a strong signal before tracking on foot, at which point we would carefully walk single-file through the bush until we spotted the cheetahs. They were usually resting in a shady spot, bellies full from the day’s hunt. Just like house cats, they laid about lazily, licking their paws and yawning. While by no means domesticated, “Happy” and “Fluffy” were habituated to our group’s presence from afar.  We did have to be incredibly careful with how close we got to them, especially if they had a fresh kill nearby.

Other tasks at the project included farm maintenance work such as checking miles of fence lines for weak spots and searching for poacher’s traps, capturing and relocating game (zebras, wildebeests, buffalo, giraffes), and wildlife veterinary work such as mass vaccinations, disease control and herd management.

By traveling to South Africa, it was possible to work with diverse people and wildlife in an environment that I could only dream of America. This co-op experience also increased my awareness of the various ways that people use and work with animals across the world, and how these differences affect the role of a veterinarian within society.

Kaitlyn Rank, Biology