Sunday, June 26, 2011

Chasing Giraffes, Part II: In Which Our Heroine Actually Chases Giraffes

When last we spoke of South Africa, our plucky travelers had been challenged to a foot race to determine who was the speediest among them. Alas--but not surprisingly--I finished dead last. Track star, I am not.

The need for all this speed?* Our first hands-on wildlife capture with Andre, game capture specialist and our tour leader/instructor.

First on the schedule for that day: observing a rhino capture. The rhino, a pregnant female, was to be transported to Moholoholo, a wildlife sanctuary and rehab center. Now, one does not simply walk up to a two-ton animal with a wicked horn and tendency to charge and ask her to pretty please get in a trailer...that is, assuming one can even find her. This is where modern technology comes in:

Once the rhino was spotted by helicopter, a veterinarian on board darted her with tranquilizers from the air.

Rhino down. That's Andre on the left. In front is our own intrepid Margot, taking a respiratory rate to be sure sleepy mama is doing OK. Just after this, her beautiful horn was sawed off, leaving only a stump. (Rhino horn has no nerves; the sawing was painless.) Rhinos are killed by poachers for their horns. The hope is that if the horn is removed, then any poachers who find her will let her live.

This strategy doesn't always work, Andre told us. A poacher who has spent three days tracking a rhino--only to find out that the rhino is hornless, and thus (to him) worthless--may kill the animal anyway. That way he won't waste more time tracking the same animal. And perhaps retaliation, too: the horn was stolen from the poacher, and so the poacher will steal the animal from the world.

Horn off, next came the tricky bit: the veterinarian partially reversed the sedation, enough so that the rhino could stand. Then the game capture crew--all experts, no amateur types like us--liked arms around the blindfolded, groggy creature and guided her onto the trailer. We crossed our fingers for her and her baby. And then we headed to our own adventure: the capture of three adult giraffes.

Our crew from left: Lindsey (veterinary student and Andre's intern), Brent, Kevin, Margot, Mitch (aka sweetheart), Tanya, and Ferris. (Our friend Dave isn't in this pic.) The adorable little truck is Andre's bucky.

Andre loading darts with etorphine, an extremely powerful narcotic sedative.

Giraffes spotted from the helicopter. (We didn't get to go aloft, alas. At this point, the eight of us are squished in the back of the bucky, awaiting directions.) For each capture, Andre darted one giraffe, had the pilot land the helicopter, hopped in the bucky, and drove us like mad over the veldt after the target. Contrary to popular belief and Hollywood movies, tranquilizer darts take several minutes to take effect; animals can run a looong way in that time.

Once we got close to the staggery giraffe, we leaped out of the bucky and started running. The footrace winners, armed with ropes, halter, and blindfold, took the lead. The rest of us followed in a mad dash, dodging acacia bushes, holes, and other hazards, while trying not to drop our own equipment. By the time we caught up, the giraffe was safely down.

Here Mitch is supporting the sedated giraffe's head. (Brent provides a sympathy tongue loll.) Meanwhile, under Andre's direction, I was pulling up the dose of drug that would partly reverse the sedation. I may not be fast on my feet, but...

...I can hit a giraffe jugular with the best of `em.

Once the giraffe was up and walking, people took turns leading it the quarter mile to the parked trailer. Here Andre is guiding it up the ramp.
These three hours are among the most intense and surreal of my life. Looking back, what I remember best is the excitement. And the fear. Vaulting out of the bucky, my feet pounding across hard uneven ground. Concentrating, trying to block out everything else, as I pulled up drug doses and gave injections. Relief at the sight of blood curling into my syringe, the easy slip of drug into veins. The smooth dusty feel of giraffe hide under my fingers. The whole time, afraid that I'd mess up somehow. Let down the animal. Let down the rest of the crew. That fear kept me from taking a turn on the giraffe lead rope. I should have done it anyway.

And the others? If you've ever traveled, you know that in a strange country, in unfamiliar situations, people (ourselves included, let us be honest) are not always at their shiny happy best. But we didn't have time to be strangers looking askance. No time for ego or self-absorption. We pulled together as a team and got the job done. Three giraffes. Three smooth and successful captures. Nobody hurt.

We did almost lose Mitch once, when the bucky hit a particularly sharp bump and he bounced off the tailgate. He was literally in mid-air when quick-witted and quick-handed Ferris grabbed him and yanked him back into the truck bed. (Thanks, Ferris! I like my sweetie in one piece.) And I sliced my finger open on an acacia thorn. Acacias do not kid around.

The worst casualty was Mitch's photo card. Popped out of his camera while running through the bush. It's still on the veldt somewhere.

That night, back at the game lodge, sitting around the fire after dinner, listening to Andre tell wildlife stories...surreal, still, and perfect. The eight of us, most of us newly met, but already with stories of our own that bound us together.

And more to come...

*Apologies to Top Gun