These are e-mails from my friend in Zambia. She runs an elephant safari and recently went on a capture course. I thought some of you might find it interesting.
The course… man it would take hours to describe it. It was fantastic --the highlight was darting from a helicopter. The helicopter had no doors, we were strapped in. The chopper did a low sideways dive over a target, while we were hanging out with the gun-- aim and shoot! Felt so macho!
It was incredibly intense. I'm still exhausted. The usual routine was-- up for 5a.m—capture-- back by 8 a.m. for breakfast, then lectures for about 6 hrs if another capture wasn't in the works, dart loading and target practice, more lectures, soccer or sundowners before dinner at 9p.m, bed, and back at it in the morning. The hands on stuff like learning to load darts with meds (complicated and fussy in itself), and shooting, were easy, the amount of physiology and the sheer number of drugs we needed to learn, and how every one affects which part of the body and how exactly, was incredibly difficult.
Everyone was wiped out by about day 5, and starting to freak out over the exams because there was no time to study. The exams were brutal. I felt really confident that morning. There was one two hour written and two oral exams. I did okay on the written but totally blanked on the orals. The instructors said it was okay and to come back in the afternoon. I came back, was okay for a few minutes but then they started firing questions at me and I blanked again. They were worth 50% of the score so if I want the license I'll have to do the exams again next year. The license is only applicable in that country anyway so I'm not going to bother. Out of the 35 students only 20 of us actually took the exams, the other 15 didn't want to do them (no kidding), two people flunked completely, four of us are placed to rewrite and the other 14 passed.
Okay, on to the captures. We were split into teams of 8 and given a set of different animals to dart, whatever the search party tracked that day. Our team did the first net capture of a wildebeest the very first day. The chopper would herd a team of wildebeest towards on enormous net with a series of curtains. Hiding behind the net, as the herd runs through, you run behind them and close each set of curtains. Luckily they didn't run back, which apparently they sometimes do, and then you’re trapped in a net with an angry scared herd of beesties.
Overall my team did the wildebeests, impala, white rhino, all the teams did donkeys (shame, you'd have hated that) we all worked on giraffe and elephant and I was lucky enough to join a lion capture by accident. I will go on about that scary episode in a minute.
After spending hours on the planning, the animal is darted by vehicle or chopper or on foot. Each person has a job to do, monitoring breathing, heart, temp, respiratory oxygen etc. After taking blood, we reverse the immobilizer drug with an antidote, bring the animal back and release. It's much more complicated than it sounds and I could spend hours explaining the details.
Now the lion capture. Man, I’ve never felt so scared in my entire life! The other students on it criticized the lecturers for that one. All the other teams went along to observe each capture, but because these were lions, the other teams couldn't observe for safety reasons. Although my team was not doing lions, there was a spare seat in the vehicle so I was picked to join in (lucky me).
This particular lioness had a radio chip which needed changing. The lioness was baited to an area with a freshly killed zebra and called in by the recording of a squealing pig in distress. The pride of lionesses eventually moved in and started to gnaw on the zebra. The student’s first dart ended up in the dead zebra. It was hard for him to get a shot because the lionesses kept moving around and he had to get a specific one. She was huge. We spent a good hour waiting for him to get the shot when along came a really angry elephant followed by two other eles, and then damn, into view comes a calf. We were only about 20 feet away from the pride when the mama ele moved in between us, not knowing who to be more angry at, the lions or us. She put on a full display, trumpeting, charging, stamping her feet and throwing dust around. I’ve never seen anything like it!
Meanwhile, we were in the back of open pickup trucks. We couldn't move forward or back or turn around. There was just one firearm somewhere in the middle truck.
One of the women in my truck started crying (remember these are all hardened bush/wildlife people). A younger lioness picked up on scared, weak prey and moved in through the grass and placed herself about 5 feet from the side of the vehicle. Mama ele was still looking like she was going to full-on charge either us or the lions. After about 20 minutes of trumpeting angrily she eventually moved away, but the lioness stayed by our vehicle. Other lionesses moved back onto the zebra. Our intended actually ate the missed dart stuck into the zebra. The dude fired another shot but missed because by now we were all emotional wrecks, so the instructor took over. He hit the lioness. She went down and the procedure began opening up the lioness to change the chip in her belly. By now it was pitch black--9pm. At this point we were all on foot and it was okay and we brought the lioness back and waited for her to rise to her feet. All around the vehicles you could hear, and only occasionally see, the other lions waiting. The whole time, further down the valley, you could hear the angry mama ele trumpeting madly. (During that time she actually kicked and tried to roll over a safari vehicle, we found out later).
The whole time the other teams were in vehicles further away and they could hear the elephant where we were and started to get worried. It was all just mad and truly dangerous.
The other students were great, mostly from conservation programs, and also capture specialists needing the license. They were from Indonesia, the U.S., South Africa and Kenya etc.
I will say that towards the end it did get a little crazy with what started as a water pistol fight and turned into a water and cake fight after dinner. The following evening was MUCH more crazy with a full-on belly soccer match in the dining room, which had been flooded with water and soap bubbles and had a rope swing.
This will take hours to read as it is and I've barely scratched the surface of the course!
Man does the course feel a million miles away and ages ago. The Disney guys were great and it was such a relief for me to chat with N. Americans in an accent I could understand. All the Zimbo's, S. Africans, Namibians and Kenyans - they pronounced drug names entirely differently and I found myself translating even general conversation from the Africans to the Americans, was quite funny.
The two guys were from Animal Kingdom, keeper supervisors. Most of their animals are hands off, somewhat free roaming so they would need to dart if an accident or injury arose. They'd both been in the zoo business for many years and it was interesting to hear that hands on care is going away, most keepers coming in new have studied animals and know how to care and enrich but never actually have touched the animals they look after. Disney does an amazing job in conservation, and they contribute and support programs all over the world. One of the guys was going on to Uganda to check on a black rhino release program they're funding. Because of the array of work done Disney has three times as many keepers as any other zoo per area.
The guys in the capture industry are hard as rock, been charged at by every animal out there. Highly professional and ethical. The whole purpose of the course was to teach how to dart quickly, with as little stress, bring the animal back quickly with as few side effects as possible. You get that right away. After planning our first capture in the net with the wildebeest, I was doing the temperature (yes my first morning there was spent holding a thermometer up the beesties bum). We netted a huge herd, then chose a young male as planned. He was darted, went down in about 4 minutes after running back through the gates. I learned how to take an arterial blood sample as well.
Another person on my team was my roommate, who did animal rehab in an elephant park, she works with mainly horses but takes in a lot of young rhino. There was also a wild dog researcher funded by WWF and a guy who was doing freelance Elephant Human Conflict research. (Man if I could count the number of times I was asked what I thought could be done in that area by just about everyone the world over…) There was a quiet Kenyan Parks warden, one of the Disney guys, a Zim vet assistant who works dogs and cats in the UK for 9 months solid, then spends 3 months on holiday in Zim every year, and a cheetah researcher. On the course itself were three zoo vets from Holland.
One of the problems we ran into was that the dosages are completely different in capture. The dosage is worked out per volume x body mass as opposed to ml per kg, which we're normally used to. Only grasped the formula after the Zim vet explained it so can see why others didn't get it from the lectures. You also need to know how each drug affects each animal - every animal - every drug. There were also formula's for dart velocity, gun velocity and drug measure velocity. I'm getting shaky just writing about it now.
And then in the middle of learning all this, the scouts find a listed animal in the bush and you jump up, find your team members and if your team is darting that one, run to get your equipment together, jump into the back of a vehicle and race out to the location.