Victoria Falls

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In at the deep end

In at the deep end

Numbering a sampled buffalo
Numbering a sampled buffalo

I raised my camera to capture events for ZT, only to have an armpit length rubber glove thrust at me with the order to collect a faecal sample from deep within the bovine lady gently reclining by my feet.

Then I was instructed to collect ticks from the intimate undertail area with which I was by now already warmly familiar. As a newly appointed Wild Horizon Wildlife Trust (WHWT) trustee I’d asked for some first-hand experience of the trust’s work, but I’m not sure I signed up for this.

My day in the field had been only minutes old when I realised that the words I’d heard casually uttered so often ‘we’re doing a darting exercise,’ actually involved huge logistical planning.

A seriously sexy, black helicopter was readied for take-off at base while a fixed wing aircraft was already in the air searching for buffalo. We land-based folk formed three teams in 4x4s.

Here’s the plan: once the aircraft pilot locates a target herd he directs the chopper to the area and gets our vehicles headed in the general direction. The helicopter attempts to herd the animals into a clearing accessible by vehicle. Then, hanging out of the swooping, swerving, amazingly nimble flying machine, Dr Chris Foggin and Roger Parry manage to place sedating darts precisely in the rumps of about five buffalo.

The animals go down in scattered locations and it’s then the ground teams’ turn to go to work. First find your designated animal, often guided by radio from the fixed wing pilot, some distance from your vehicle through dense bush. Check your buffalo is properly sedated – carefully; some take longer than others which can lead to distinctly heart-stopping moments.

Spray the beast with cooling water and wrap on a blindfold which calms her, as it’s not actually sent to sleep. This is all too evident as you hold the heavy head up for the blood sample to be taken from her neck, only to find yourself being bodily shifted in the opposite direction. Even sedated, these are immensely strong ladies.

Now for the all-important data collection:- age is determined by tooth development, as in horses, and blood samples are taken from the jugular vein to be later analysed for disease especially bovine TB. Foot and mouth disease samples come from saliva, using a medieval looking tool, a small metal cup on the end of a stout wire thrust energetically in and out of her throat. Hair samples are extracted for DNA analysis.

Throughout the sedation, the buffalo’s breathing is constantly monitored. Any open wounds or injuries are treated. Each animal is given a specific number which is applied onto the rump in bright yellow paint to ensure the animal isn’t redarted later in the exercise, and an ear tag is fixed.

Finally the reversal drug is administered and the blindfold removed. Now you really do want to be in a distant place when a buffalo regains her senses and starts to look for the people who have invaded her privacy so comprehensively. The drug is given intravenously if you can reach your vehicle quickly, or intramuscularly if you need more time to run back to your wheels. By the end of the day we had successfully processed 15 rather ungrateful buffalo.

So finally, to Ms Buffalo number B85, please forgive my intimate intrusion and many thanks for your generous sample. Thanks also to Jessica Dawson of the Trust who organised my fascinating day, but please note for the future Jess; when I request hands-on experience that’s what I expect, not hands-in!

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 06, Sept 2011)