Objective of the flights: 

The objective of the first leg was to transport five female Wild Dogs from Zimanga Private Reserve (KZN) to Tswalu Kalahari Reserve (NC) where they would be bonded and made to form a pack with the four male Wild Dogs being held in their bomas.The dogs were placed together in a holding boma and will eventually be released onto the reserve as a single pack. Three male lions were then transported from Tswalu to Khamab Kalahari Reserve (NC) as an effort to re-introduce new genetic potential into the lion population on Khamab. Three male lions were then transported from Khamab to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve, also as an effort to introduce new genetic potential into the lion population in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi.

Pilot: Ryan Beeton

Aircraft: Cessna 402C

Beneficiaries: National Wild Dog Metapopulation Project & KwaZulu-Natal Wild Dog Project (Endangered Wildlife Trust); Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife); Tswalu Kalahari Reserve and Khamab Kalahari Reserve

Report from the veterinarian, Rowan Ashley: 

“Preparations for the first flight started at 4am at Zimanga to track and find the Wild Dogs before they started moving and hunting. By 5am the Dogs had been found and a bait had been fastened to a tree. Luckily enough the Dogs (a pack of 20), are quite habituated and came in very quickly to start feeding. Dr Dave Cooper and I readied some darts and began searching for potential female targets; one adult (the Beta female) and 4 sub adults. The beta female came into view and was the first to take a dart. After that, and with the help of everyone on board the game viewer, especially Zimanga reserve ecologist, Hendri Venter, darts started to fly as everyone desperately searched between the legs of the dogs trying to distinguish Wild Dog genitalia, which proved rather difficult with the younger dogs.

Fifteen minutes later, 5 dogs down, records broken and feeling a sense of achievement, we started rounding up the downed dogs. The rest of the pack were still hovering around, feeding on the remains of the carcass when we got the dogs together and realized we had accidentally darted a young male. Dave and myself sprung back into the vehicle and drove towards a group of young dogs playing with the hide of the carcass. A female was singled out and quickly darted. The dogs were loaded and transported to Mkhuze airstrip where Ryan and Steve would meet us.

The plane arrived, the dogs were loaded and we were off on our first leg of the mission. We landed at Tswalu at approximately 11am. The Kalahari heat was a serious concern with the anaesthetized animals, and precautions were taken. The dogs were loaded from the plane into a nice, air-conditioned  Range Rover and transported to a holding boma. The race was now on to get the 4 males in their other boma darted and transported to the same place before the females woke up. While the female dogs were taken away to their new boma, I traveled with Dylan Smith to the other holding boma where the males were, and began mixing darts.

The dogs had been fed recently so darting them proved difficult, but with a bit of tree climbing and a little bit of running around, 3 of the 4 males were darted. The last dog was proving very difficult and with time running away, we decided to leave the last dog for later, and take the 3 males through to the females. All the dogs were placed under a shaded shepherd’s tree and rubbed all over each as part of the bonding process. The dogs had to smell like each other and wake up close to each other so no hostile behavior would happen when they woke up. All dogs were dewormed, treated for ectoparasites and vaccinated. The females who had been anaesthetized for close to 6 hours now, were put on drips and given fluids to rehydrate them, as well as to speed up the recovery period. Water was constantly available to keep wetting the dogs as the beaming Kalahari sun had pushed the ground temperature close to 40 degrees Celsius. The dogs were monitored as they stumbled around, slowly recovering from the drug (Zoletil). It was important to make sure none of them stumbled away and fell asleep again directly in the sun.

       

Once all the dogs had slightly woken up, we rushed back to the other boma to try for the last male. At about 4pm, the sun was still high and the temperature hadn’t backed off too much. Regardless, we had to get this last male, and get him to his new pack. With a bit of luck, he rested for a moment at his water trough, just long enough to get a decent shot in. He went down and was rushed back to the new boma, where he was given the same post darting treatment as the rest of the dogs.

At about 7pm, the sun was still shining bright and all the dogs were almost fully recovered and were stumbling around nicely. The last male to be darted had also recovered quickly as fortunately he only got one dose. The Tswalu team and I left the bomas and packed up all the equipment. We quickly shot back to the lodge to fetch Ryan and the rest of the crew, and drove back to the bomas with a well-deserved beer to check up on the (still slightly drugged) dogs. After checking on them, Gus van Dyk and I were happy with the progress and decided to leave them for little bit to recover a bit more before turning the electrics of the boma back on.

Another early start the next morning as Gus and myself headed towards the other bomas to dart the 3 male lions destined for Khamab. Dart guns at the ready, we drove into the boma. The lions looked at us intently, confused as to why there was no food associated with our vehicle. Two lions stood side by side and were simultaneously darted by Gus and myself. The last male presented a challenging shot, but it had to be taken as he was getting skittish. Luckily enough the dart hit, but didn’t hit muscle. The dart went sub-cutaneous and we were all concerned that he might need to be darted again. We decided to give him some time as we came up with a game plan.

Gus took the pilots back to the airstrip to ready the plane, while we would load the lions onto 3 vehicles. By the time we had loaded the first 2 lions, the third male was knocked out; it might’ve taken a bit longer, but the dart worked luckily enough. The lions were loaded onto the plane and by 7am we were in the air, off on our second leg.

50 minutes later we approached our destination as well as some dark looking weather. Hardly any rain in the Kalahari for 10 years, and it was now pouring on our descent to a calrete runway. I sensed the concern of the pilots as we did a low fly by over the runway, passing our receiving party waiting for us with land cruisers on the ground. I didn’t grasp the seriousness of the situation until I saw Ryan take off his headset and phone Hanno Killian, the ecologist of Khamab, one of the ground crew waiting for us. “Is that runway hard?!” I heard Ryan shout over the noise in the plane into his phone. A couple of concerning nods later, Ryan taps Steve encouragingly on the shoulder and puts his headset back on. I couldn’t hear what they said to each other, but I topped up the lions one more time to be sure no stimulation would cause any unexpected wake ups. The wheels touched down and I could feel the whole plane drifting right. The calcrete had almost turned to putty and was extremely slippery. Steve and Ryan managed to pull the plane straight and we thankfully started slowing down. After the plane shut down, I heard Ryan ask Steve if that was the scariest landing Steve had ever done. Steve replied “In this plane, yes!”.

      

Scary landing over, we offloaded the lions into the vehicles in the (surprisingly cold) rain. One would never have thought to pack something warm, let alone a rain jacket, to the Kalahari. The lions were put in the boma and processed by Hanno and his team while I drew blood from each of them and readied their dose of antidote. All things done, we gave each of the lions a jab of the reversal and watched from outside the boma as they slowly came to. Happy with their progress, it was off to the office for some coffee while we waited for Steve to let us know if he was happy with the runway for takeoff. It had stopped raining, but Steve was concerned we would not be able to take off if the runway was slippery.

We got the word from Steve that he was happy and Hanno and myself hopped in a chopper and went ahead to the other bomas to ready things for the darting of the 3 male lions destined for Hluhluwe-iMfolozi. We drugged the meat and left them to feed and wait for the dormicum in the meat to take effect, just enough to take the edge off. After a couple of minutes I readied 3 darts and off we went into the bomas.

It didn’t help that 2 big males outside the bomas were giving the lions inside the bomas a hard time, fighting and charging them through the fence. I managed to get all 3 darts in within 5 minutes. We waited patiently. One lion went down, another was looking drowsy, but the last was patrolling the fence as if nothing had happened. Ten minutes later, I decided the last 2 lions didn’t receive enough of the drug, so we reversed the vehicle to a safe spot and I mixed two more darts. Luckily we managed to dart both again within a short amount of time. The second lion went down, but still, the third was pacing the fence, although now slightly drowsy. Fifteen minutes later the last lion still had not gone down and I mixed yet another dart, this time a drug combination, in an effort to save on my fast diminishing Zoletil supply. The drowsy lion was now pacing up and down the fence compulsively, and would not stand to take a shot. I managed to take a shot in the split second he turned to pace back along the fence. I watched in horror as the dart hit just below his tail. Nothing could be done now, except to wait and see. He seemed to become more drowsy, but not enough to approach and load. We decided to bring in the vehicles and load the first two lions. Luckily, as had happened at Tswalu, once we were done loading the first two, the last lion had fallen asleep. I later found my darts, and learned that the first two darts on that last lion had burst upon impact resulting in the drug squirting out onto the lion instead of into the lion. Luckily enough the third dart worked.

We raced to the airstrip, another good 40 minutes away. The first two lions had already been knocked out for almost an hour already and required a top up for our journey to the plane. These lions were substantially larger than the ones we brought from Tswalu, and I constantly asked Ryan if we would be able to fit these chaps in. Space never seems to be an issue to Ryan and he always ensured me there would be more than enough space. It was only until we were loading the last lion that the back of the plane decided to give way and dropped to the ground. The nose of the plane was now hanging in the air and I grew increasingly concerned. However, Ryan calmly sat under the plane and lifted the tail while we finished loading the last male.

Time was carrying on and we were already behind schedule. We finally closed the doors and the plane roared down the runway. I later learned that we were less than 200 meters from the end of the runway before we started getting airborne and Steve was getting increasingly concerned as we fast approached the trees at the far side of the runway.

We were finally off on our last leg and the 3 lions were starting to wake up left, right and center. I couldn’t keep up with the top ups and grew increasingly concerned about my fast diminishing drug supply. The lions were going through Zoletil faster than I could mix the drugs, and the injection didn’t seem to keep them knocked out enough all that long. We still had another approximate 3 hours in the air and being exhausted over the last 2 days, I shuddered at the thought of constantly being worried about these lions waking up and constantly injecting them with more Zoletil. Luckily I packed IV catheters and decided to place an IV line in each of their back legs so I could easily top them up quickly and with immediate effect from the comfort of my seat. The immediate effect also allowed me to use less Zoletil and I saved a lot on my drugs.

After a quick stop at Lanseria to refuel, we were on our way back to Zululand. Coming in to the town of Hluhluwe, I saw Ryan turn to me and shake his head as if to say we just couldn’t catch a break with the weather; the clouds were thick and low. Breaking through the clouds we were on our final approach, the runway came into view and I was a bit nervous with all this weight at the back of the plane with an uneven grass runway. With a few bumps and skids the plane came to a halt at the end of the runway and turned around, heading back towards the awaiting vehicles. 6pm and we were loaded and on our way back to a holding boma in Hluhluwe Game Reserve.

It started to drizzle as we arrived in the dark. We offloaded the lions and began processing them, collaring and drawing blood. Eventually, around 8pm, all was complete and we evacuated the boma with one lion waking up rather quickly. He lifted his head and let out a slight roar in disgust to his incoordination and drugged feeling, and the crew got a haste in their step to get out of the boma quickly. The mission was now complete, kind research staff volunteered to stay and watch the lions as they woke up, while I went off with Ryan and Steve in search of yet another well-deserved beer.

In conclusion, new dogs were brought to Tswalu to form a new pack; new lions were brought from Tswalu to Khamab to re-introduce genetics and new lions were brought from Khamab to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi to introduce new genetics.”