Buffalo Capture

Trip Start May 25, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of South Africa  ,
Thursday, July 14, 2005

Day Two. 4:15am Time to catch some buffalo.

'OK guys, time to get up!' I yelled in their general direction. I had packed the night before, but I wasn't so sure about their morning speed ability, and was taking no chances. Forty-five minutes should be enough for anyone to get up, and drive the ten minutes to the scientific centre.

"Hey Christian, what's your brother doing?"

I asked, watching the carefully packed car landing in pieces all around the open doors.

'He's looking for his toothbrush!'

"Ok, enough you two. We're going to be late. We have to leave NOW!"

It looked like I was going win the Miss Popularity contest for the second day in a row!

At the science labs we thankfully weren't the last to arrive. We helped load up the bakkies and signed out indemnity forms and began the long drive into the park.

The buffalo had been tracked the night before, and by the time we got there the sun was beginning to rise and the cold land was warming. The helicopter had already begun to corral the animals, circling, circling, circling. It was important to get between 10 - 15 buffalo; and a mixture of females, males and calves so that the testing would be representative of the herd.

Around and around the helicopter went, its nose perilously close to the ground, the tail almost vertical in the air. The chopper blades were narrowly missing the dense bushes. The vet was hanging out of the open doors with the dart gun. There was no room for mistakes.

And then the buffalo were down, and had staggered to within a rough 20 metre dispersal. It was impressive to watch. And then I found myself driving at full speed over the terrain. Why was no one else advancing?

After the briefing I had been told to jump on the back of one of the bakkies. It just so happened to be the lead vehicle. White pieces of material were thrust into my hand. Blindfolds!

'Be careful as you run up to the buffalo. Put these tightly around their eyes and tie it above their horns. Make sure to avoid their head if they start swinging it around. Not all of them go down first time. Try and pull them onto their front legs so that they don't crush their airways.'


The back of the bakkie emptied as about five of us ran into the pile of dazed buffalo. Everyone else was a vet, so I observed, copied their actions, and felt relieved when the other vehicles felt it was also safe enough to approach.

Everyone had their designated job, and did it quickly. The shorter the time needed on the ground, the less drug would be needed for the knock-down, and the better it was for the buffalo.

Every animal had a card attached to its horns. All the empty boxes would need to be filled before we could revive them and leave. People began to run around. There were pregnancy tests to be done, blood to be collected, branding, and age and sex measurements to be completed and radio-collars to attach.

My job was to monitor and record the breathing rates of the buffalo. If it changed my job was then to shout for help! If it slowed too much then the buffalo may need to be revived early, if it went too fast, the buffalo may be coming round.

Placing my fingers on the warm noses and feeling the air rush past the tiny hairs on the back of my hand was a thrilling experience. How many people get that close to sleeping buffalo? One....two.....three.....four.

On average the larger males had 12 - 16 breaths per minute. They often snored, and shuffled their heads as if dreaming. I felt so happy and connected to the beasts.

To measure the age of the buffalo, measurements of the horns and teeth were made. The bone between the two horns doesn't fuse until later life, and the teeth show degrees of wear and tear, giving an estimate of how many years they have been used. I would stand behind the buffalo head and pull up the drooping heavyweight while people investigated the mouth. After a couple of minutes my arms would begin to shake at the sheer mass I was lifting. After a quick breather, I would lift it again.

The smell of the buffalo was intense. They were caked in mud and had tics the size of golf-balls all over. Their tails were coarse hair and the skin was thick and hard. Their weight was over a tonne in some cases, with even the babies being larger than me. Lifting their head was the least of my worries if this thing started to move.

OK, time to check the cards and revive the animals. This was the most dangerous and tricky bit. Reviving large and dangerous animals from a deep sleep requires timing and coordination. Two people were stationed at each buffalo, one to inject the drug and one to steady the head and remove the blindfold. It was a nerve-wrecking moment.

First of all the needles were inserted into the vein. Not a difficult task, but tricky if the blood pressure has caused them to collapse or contract.

'Is everybody ready?' came the question from the chief vet, standing in the middle.

'No!' came one shout. People rushed to help and the signal was given to proceed.

'Are you OK?' one of the vets asked as he walked past.
"Fine thanks" I said
'Just be sure to pick the truck you are running to now, and then as soon as you inject, run as fast as you can!'

Great advice!

The chief vet stood and pointed in turn to each buffalo. It was important to wait for your signal. The buffalo furthest away from the vehicles were revived first, giving the team chance to run through the still sleeping buffalo and make their escape.

I was one of the closest to the bakkies, and thus we waited and waited as the buffalo around us got up.

Crikey! Just wait, just wait.

And there it was, our signal. The drug went in, the blindfold was removed and I ran and ran as fast as I could, not stopping until I was up on top of the bakkie.

I turned to watch as the sleeping beasts awoke. Some were up and moving around quickly. Others were slower to revive, slowly standing, shaking their heads to remove the sleepiness they were feeling. Some would turn sharply, suddenly noticing the 30 humans watching from a distance. But soon, all were running off to join the herd.

We waited until they were all fully functional before starting the next session. It was important not to jeopardise the animals and leave them open for predation or injury.

And then the helicopter flew overhead. The next herd had been sighted and we were off in the bakkies to keep up.

Later, back at the lab I helped to process some of the samples we had taken. They all needed processing within a short time, in order to make sure the blood can be stored and remain viable for future use.

What a day. I stank!

As we made our way to the bush camp we stopped to collect firewood. The rangers watched us with guns ready. We really were out in the middle of nowhere. We were considered viable prey!

The camp was a small, 20m diameter, semi-enclosed area close to where we would be working the next day. We pitched the tents, got the fire going, and waited for night time to descend. There was only one rule; don't go beyond the fence. (The tiny chicken wire fence that would save us from very little? OK!)

I trusted the rangers completely that night as I cooked my meat on the open fire, and chatted with the rest of the group. We had certainly earned this meal and rest time. It had been an exhausting day. But there is nothing better than being outside at night, listening to the hyena calls in the distance, and the elephants moving through the bush. And we would get the chance to do it all again tomorrow.

What a privilege to be involved with such an incredible team; the vets, the officers, the technicians, the rangers, the guards, the researchers, and the other volunteers.

What a thoroughly perfectly wonderful day. It really was a dream come true.
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