Working for a South African game capture keeps you on your toes; I was feeding rhinos, picking ticks off my overalls and rugby tackling antelope.
I was watching TV and as I was flicking through the channels I stumbled across ‘Great Animal Moves’. There was a translocation team moving two large bull elephants in Malawi, from one game reserve to the next. This brought back great memories of when I was working with a game capture unit in South Africa. Imagine my surprise when the camera panned round and there was Kester Vickery organising the loading of one of these elephants. It had been Kester’s team that I had worked with!
I had been asked by a good friend of mine, Jason De Carteret, to join a game capture unit. I had been asked to give some feedback on the viability of a business idea. Jason was the helicopter pilot working alongside Kester’s game capture unit. I spent a very happy month living in the bush. I was manhandling animals of all shapes and sizes, loading them in and out of crates and driving them across the South African wilderness.
How does a game capture unit work?
I was certainly thrown in at the deep end; I found myself feeding captured rhinos whilst they were in their crates, walking in a line through the African bush trying not to step on any unsuspecting snakes (and in the process shepherding game into specific enclosures), picking ticks by the dozen off my overalls and rugby tackling antelope before injecting them with a sedative. It was the stuff that dreams are made of. It was hard work. We were getting up before the sun rose and after a quick breakfast we were on the move for the whole of the day. There was no time for those that could not keep up. If you made a mistake you certainly knew about it!
The most enjoyable time I had was capturing nyala. Admittedly this did not involve the use of the helicopter. Nor did it involve chasing after semi sedated giraffe in vehicles across bumpy terrain or even watching rhino been manoeuvred from one crate to another. Nyala capture was even more exciting, as it is done by hand.
Nyala are dense bush dwelling antelope so cannot be rounded up by vehicle or helicopter. Capture is all achieved by manpower. A large net about 3m high and 30m long is set up in the bush, in an area where nyala are known to frequent. Then a handful of people called spotters, which often included myself, hide in the bush in front of the net, and simply wait. You have to have incredible patience as you could be waiting a while before the action starts. Any movement can spook nearby game. Meanwhile, a few kilometres away, the rest of the team form a long line and start ‘beating’ the bush to flush the out the nyala. This pushes them towards the trap.
At this point my adrenaline levels were normally overloaded. I could hear the game in the bush moving nearer to my hiding spot. As the animals got closer the tendency to hold your breath got greater. Often I found that my senses, especially my ears and eyes, were heightened. And then a dozen or so nyala would run past me, so close that I could touch them, and fall into the trap of the netting. Then the action began.
Immediately the spotters would be upon the animals bringing them physically to the ground, lying across them and blindfolding their eyes. If any nyala did not hit the netting it was a bit of a free for all. Nyala were rugby tackled to the ground! Lying on the animals and blind folding them calmed them down and prevented the antelope from damaging themselves. At this point a vet sedated the captured nyala to prevent further stress. Once sedated you could walk the nyala as if you are pushing a bicycle; one hand on an ear and the other hand grabbing the hair on its shoulder. It was then easy to steer it towards the truck or container. A very odd experience all round!
I had a wonderful time working alongside Kester’s team. You never really knew what type of game hit the net. More often than not it was nyala, and we once had a rather unhappy leopard. We decided to leave her to untangle herself!