Starting out in wildlife, Part II


…the continuation of life at Moholoholo…(see Starting out in wildlife, Part I)

Meet & greet in the mornings

Getting to work in the mornings usually involved a tail or two!

Getting to work in the mornings usually involved a tail or two! Source: Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre

 

We did a lot of teaching in the area, helping locals, helping farmers. It was good work and it often paid off, with some farmers even buying their own traps to catch porcupines that ring bark their apple trees; once the animal was caught the farmers would phone us and we would relocate the porcupines to other properties in the area.

Here, drink this

Cameron, my son, used to help quite a bit with the animals. He never complained though and here you can see him with Naughty, our little Serval.

Cameron, my son, used to help quite a bit with the animals. He never complained though and here you can see him with Naughty, our little Serval. Photo copyright: Mark Jones

 

Dad, he wants my bottle!

Cameron helping out some more with a Suni, a small antelope species.

Cameron helping out some more with a Suni, a small antelope species. Photo copyright: Mark Jones

 

The tough side of rehabilitation

It was a tough job; working in incredibly hot dry summers, long days averaging 11 hours with 5 days off a month. A large part of my time was spent raising animals, for which I would often find myself with multiple species at any one time. At one stage I had to be parent to a genet, hippo, zebra, impala and tsessebe at the same time. Oh yeah, I had my son then too, only 3 months old at the time. The animals had me from 06h00 all the way through to 01h00 the next morning and then Cameron would proceed to keep me awake until my next 06h00 calling. Such is life hey!

I realise how lucky I was to be in this work, nonetheless it was tough, very tough. I remember coming in to work one day to find my baby zebra in seeming agony. I had got this zebra in from the Kruger Park six weeks prior; he had been only about a week old and was a bit of a miracle, hence I named him Lucky. His mum had been killed by lions three nights before. After three days of complaints from visitors driving through the park (seeing this baby running around calling and by this third day he had begun to suckle on car bumpers) the rangers decided to catch him up and bring him in to us. It was a rare bit of interference by the park rangers whose policy is not to interfere with nature. I guess the fact that it was holiday season helped to sway their reasoning. By the time Lucky got to me he was severely stressed out, dehydrated, and had acute diarrhea. I fought with that animal for six weeks as he went on and off with a runny tummy. Diarrhea is a big killer for the mammals and his stress levels were so high initially that it must have knocked his whole system out of sync.

I got so desperate at one stage that I wondered the reserve looking for fresh zebra dung. I found some and took it back with me to mix with water to give to this little guy. I was hoping the natural bacteria’s within the zebra droppings would help strengthen this lad but it didn’t help.

Then one day, when I was beyond all hope, his droppings looked almost normal. I think I held my breath all day whilst I waited for his next dropping and his next, and next; each one looking ever so slightly better than the first. I had him!

Three days later he was looking so good, waiting for me at the hospital door alongside my wildebeest in the morning. I have to say that I was quite proud of myself. I came in the next day and he was nowhere to be seen. This really concerned me as even through all his problems, he always waited for me at the hospital door. Where was he? I searched around and quickly found him behind the hospital, standing, but looking sore in the tummy. My heart sank.

This was different though, his tummy was contracting in pain, he wouldn’t drink and, after quite a bit of coaxing, I managed to get him down to the garden where he eventually lay down virtually on me. It was there, after nearly an hour, he eventually died in my arms.

Brian allowed me to take him to the wildlife vet down the road for a post mortem. Sadly it revealed that he had got hold of some old rat food (the centre kept rats as a food source) from the night before that someone had forgotten to dispose of. That, mixed in with rat droppings, killed him. I was told that once it was in his system there would have been no chance of survival.

We buried old Lucky in the bushveld and when I got back to the centre the first thing that Brian said was “where is the skin? The owner would like it.” I walked away from him before I said something I’d regret. Later on that day in a very rare moment, Brian came and apologised to me saying that he didn’t realise that I had been so attached to the animal. He was a tough old bugger.

Lucky & Tinkerbell

Lucky & Tinkerbell grazing in the rehab gardens together. If they weren't there, they were following me wherever I went.

Lucky & Tinkerbell grazing in the rehab gardens together. If they weren’t there, they were following me wherever I went. Photo copyright: Mark Jones

 

Educating

We taught a lot in that place, two tours every day, Monday to Saturday. Most tours (mine anyway) were at least two hours long. The place helped me see the huge importance of using real animals and real stories to teach; without them I am just someone who talks, but with them there I come alive and I can attract every sort of person to listen to what I have to say.

Never was this more obvious than when we visited Johannesburg for wildlife expos. This would happen twice a year and I would quite clearly be the farm boy going to the big city for a few days; I was utterly out of my league. During those expos I would speak to about twenty thousand people in four days. It was exhausting, and exhilarating. On getting back to the rehab with standard tours of 10 or 12 people, you couldn’t help but feel deflated, almost emotionless. There were two of us that would go and we would take two eagles with us, a bateleur and a fish eagle. I always worked the fish eagle. She was a wonderful bird to work with; old, about 30 years, had been in captivity most of her life and was a very calm bird, especially while you carried her on a glove as she would then have her blind eye against you, the one she can trust, with her seeing eye facing out. She would sit so close whilst on my glove that her beak would touch my face and her breath from her nostril would tickle my eyelashes.

She came down fishing one day and landed up in a fisherman’s net, breaking it. He took offence to this and hit her repeatedly with a stick blinding her left eye, breaking both her wings and leaving her for dead. She didn’t die, but thankfully went on for many years to show people their magnificence and beauty. She taught so many about the importance of fish eagles. My work is impossible without the real animal, for even people with no real affection for wildlife can feel something when they make that contact. That is when I step in and plant the seed that could change that persons’ perspective on life forever.

 

Swimming with Tinkerbell

Swimming with Tinkerbell was always a pleasure. I can't imagine it would be everyone's idea of fun though; don't forget that hippo's go to the toilet in the water!

Swimming with Tinkerbell was always a pleasure. I can’t imagine it would be everyone’s idea of fun though; don’t forget that hippo’s go to the toilet in the water! Photo copyright: Mark Jones

 

My last official day with Tinkerbell

Although I saw her often after this day, this was the day I officially released Tinkerbell into the wild.

Although I saw her often after this day, this was the day I officially released Tinkerbell into the wild. Source: Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre

 

Tinkerbell

That is what Tinkerbell did for me for nearly two years. She was a most marvelous hippo and she entered my life one day while I was getting a haircut. It was my time off and I still had three days left. Brian phoned me and told me they had received this hippo. She was about 12 – 24 hours old and pretty stressed out; not looking good. He told me I had a choice: carry on with my days off and she dies or forfeit my days off and spend the time with her, bearing in mind that she probably won’t survive. I lived on the other side of the 500 hectare property and I was there in less than 20 minutes.

Those first few days were crucial for her survival potential. I spent 20 out of each 24 hours with her over the next three days, going home every morning at 07h00 (when everyone arrived for work and someone could just keep an eye on her for any complications). I’d have a shower, some breakfast and catch 2 hours of sleep, and then I’d be back with her for another 20 hours. I had to get her to bond with me if she was going to drink and calm down; she had to accept me as mom. I also had to get 10% of her body weight in milk down her every 24 hours; she weighed about 30 kg which meant that she needed about 3 litres! Not an easy task when I was lucky if I could get 50-100 ml down her at a time.

She came close to exhausting me but after 3 days I walked out of the room, little Tinkerbell in tow. From then on she followed me religiously, although she had to fight for position as I already had a zebra and a wildebeest trotting behind me. Yes, I was dealing with their feeds throughout the day, and with the night came Tinkerbell and her needs.

Tinkerbell’s new home

Tinkerbell's home, where she was soon joined by a young male from the hippo relocation project.

Tinkerbell’s home, where she was soon joined by a young male from the hippo relocation project. Photo copyright: Mark Jones

 

Hippo release

Release of a hippo relocated after causing friction with a farmer.

Release of a hippo relocated after causing friction with a farmer. Source: Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre

 

The excitement of game capture

Moholoholo is a pretty amazing place and you find yourself being involved with a bit of everything. I taught introductory ranger courses, helped run the lodge and worked as a guide. I was involved with some anti-poaching, did some farm management, quite a bit of game capture of various species and of course I was intensely involved in educational work.

Game capture was pretty amazing and I was lucky to be involved with catching lion, leopard, cheetah, serval, nyala, giraffe, eland, impala and hippo to name a few. It was the hippo capture that scared the crap out of me one day.

We had been called by a local farmer. He had had, for some time, a pod of hippos living on his property. Then one day he pulled out their grass and planted Lucerne. Surprise, surprise he all of a sudden had a problem on his hands. He shot and killed one of the hippos before deciding to call us. We went through a painstaking system of relocating the remaining animals to a nearby game reserve. I wasn’t involved with the capture of the whole pod, but helped out with two in the end. One of those was a large adult female and she is the one that managed to give me the scare.

In case you don’t know, hippos are quite notorious in Africa and famously have a pretty bad temper. They are prone to attacking from seemingly nowhere, are unbelievably fast (attaining speeds of 40 km/h), and have massive teeth with mouths that can open to a 150º angle. They are nocturnal, which means that they move mostly at night, preferring to stay in or near water during the day. This helps protect them against predators but primarily protects their rather weak skin. They’re not good with sun and, although they will sunbathe, need the water to protect their skins. They exude a viscous, red substance from their skin pores which acts as a natural skin lotion. (Here’s a bit of trivial information: it looks like a gel of sorts until you rub it into the skin whereby it turns into a white cream; it also happens to stain clothes which is something I found out through Tinkerbell)

They are a remarkable animal and I have the utmost respect for them. This female helped to reinforce that feeling in me one night at about 02h00.

We built up a boma over a period of weeks along a pathway that they used every night, having electrified other possible routes with a single strand of wire. You put this at knee height and you stop a hippo from going through; that simple really.

The walls of the boma were built with 4 metre high poles about 25 centimetres in diameter. The gate was a metal gate that was so heavy it needed three of us to pick up. This was hitched upwards and kept there with a metal pin in place. We had a cable connected to the pin which ran nearly 200 metres away to where we would sit, inside a pickup vehicle, staring at a monitor. We had a night vision camera set up to see the gate as well as into the boma (this is where we fed them every night for weeks as we built up the walls around them until they were happy to walk in). We also had a speaker set up to help us listen for any noises that would alert us to their movements.

There is nothing quite like working an 11 hour day, then sitting in a pickup all night staring at a camera view of an empty boma, followed by another 11 hour shift the next day; knowing full well that you will be back again the next night. It took three nights after the gate was put up before the hippos relaxed enough to start moving up the pathway towards the boma. We could hear them shuffling along, breathing and eating along the way, but we couldn’t see them yet. It took hours before we saw the dark shape enter the boma. I had been leaning out of the pickup, ready to release the cable, for about 20 minutes by now and we were all anxious, not willing to make any noise whatsoever. I got the signal, I unhooked the cable and the gate fell down 200 metres away. The night erupted with noise, she was not happy! We had to move fast now. The crew came running and driving in from a waiting area with a truck that was to cart her to her new home.

Now came the interesting part. A section of the boma wall was done with poles lying parallel to the ground. This meant that as you reversed the truck with the trailer, you could take out one pole at a time and slowly get the ramp into the boma area. This was a brilliant plan until one of those poles got stuck coming out. A natural knot in the wood was stopping it from moving. I was on my haunches on the trailer ramp, trying to twist the pole when someone shouted; I looked up and she ran out of the darkness straight at me. As I jumped back I bumped into someone behind me and it caused me to fall back down and smash! That giant mouth slammed straight into the wall, wide open and right where my head was, just on the other side of the wall. I was mere inches away from those huge teeth; I scrambled back with my heart pounding, feeling a bit weak in the legs but other than that I couldn’t help but feel exhilaration. What a rush!

The work continued and we finally got her into the trailer. She stayed there for the night, and the next day she was successfully released onto a newly made dam. She was the first of six caught and moved and it all went well.

Mathimba & Savannah

Working hard after hours....well, not really! Having a bit of down time with two leopard cubs.

Working hard after hours….well, not really! Having a bit of down time with two leopard cubs. Photo copyright: Mark Jones

 

Conclusion

All in all Moholoholo taught me a lot; it turned a part of me hard and calloused and still today I can come up with some pretty macabre jokes about wildlife. My respect for wildlife has always increased, and that is far more important than love.

I have stories about that place that could go on forever, but that is not why I started this blog. This is part two of an introduction into what is still becoming my life in wildlife and I want us to move on to another section that taught me a whole different side of wildlife and conservation; working as a zookeeper in the UK.

My special boy

This was a very special leopard that I hand raised, called Mathimba. He was about 14 months old here.

This was a very special leopard that I hand raised, called Mathimba. He was about 14 months old here. Source: Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre

I finished up at Moholoholo after nearly four years but stayed in the area for a few years more, mostly freelancing in anything from guided drives and walks to transfer trips and temporarily managing lodges. It was good fun and all that helped me in the end. If you go out everyday meaning to learn something, I guess you have the right attitude.

I moved to Durban with the family and worked at a bird park for two years as a bird trainer and show presenter. That was certainly enjoyable but little did I know that I would serve a second term there, a few years later. This time it wouldn’t turn out so nice.

I missed the bush and eventually got myself back into guiding in a marvelous area called Balule Nature Reserve. It is a large, 60 000 hectare piece of land that is open to the Kruger. I loved it but I never saw the family for more than two weeks out of every eight. It started driving a rift between my wife and I, and I was a bit of a stranger to my two kids.

It was partly this factor that got my wife planning a move to the UK for us. I had some serious trepidation about this, but I went with it anyway, sure that it would all work out.

End of part II; if you liked it please keep an eye open for my continued adventures as it will follow a whole new wildlife adventure into England as I went from working in one of the largest wildlife parks in Africa to a small zoo outside of Cambridge.

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