Starting out in wildlife, Part I

The reason

This is my second post in 5 years; nothing to boast about really, but I do hope there will be more to come. I started out in that first post, feeling like it was the beginning of a blogging career for me, but it became an ordeal. Once posted, I was glad to see the conversations that it started. I expected a lot of anger and aggression to be thrown my way; these intractable emotions seem to crop up inevitably with any genuine accounts of wildlife. Instead, for the most part, there were some true remarks and arguments that came from it. I virtually went off the grid after that and I’m finally trying my hand at this writing thing again. We shall see how this goes.

When setting up a new blog, as I am sure a lot of you know, it is said that a bad blog is one written about yourself. Well, I’m about to do pretty much that, so it does have the potential to bore the crap out of most, however I am in truth just the incidental party. This blog is really being put out there entirely on the back of the wonderful array of animals my work has introduced me to. They are the marvels, I am the storyteller.

I have been pondering this blog for the past few months, feeling compelled to write something, anything, about my life right now. It is such a problem that I in fact almost finished this blog and had most of it up and running before I found myself rewriting it all to try and get a message out there without it becoming a boring story about my life. Who am I? I’m nobody; but I get to do some amazing things, all of which revolve around animals.

I have a desperate need, hell; desire even, to teach about wildlife. Some have said that I should be on television; many have said I should write a book. I’m too old to make a good TV personality, and my life spins too fast and busy to devote to a book. Maybe I can get this blog thing working though, and that’ll do; for now.

I’m dropping the so-called controversial for the time being. I’m not a controversial person, but I do try and practice conservation in my life, in everything I do, and sometimes that means making a tough decision and putting noses out of joint. I’m not an animal lover and do not profess to love them. My life has intertwined in and around wildlife for nearly 16 years now and I have done, seen and been a part of some incredible moments. None of these moments would have been possible without those animals. I have also witnessed some of the most awful things human beings are capable of doing to wildlife, both purposefully and unintentionally.

I am one of over 7 billion people on this planet and virtually nothing will happen if I die tomorrow. So what makes my life special? Wildlife; I’ve taught it, studied it, trained it, eaten it, killed it and reared it, put it back to the wild and shown it off in all its glory to hundreds of thousands of people over the years. I live and breathe it, and for the past few years have managed to do so even more alongside my partner. She has managed to allow me to see wildlife in an even better way than I was used to.

It is these stories that I would like to tell you about. They are my stories but my intention is not to brag, I simply want to use them to reach more people about the necessities of wildlife; how to live with them, how to try and balance our lives around them and how to see them with the mind and not just the heart.

Learning about wildlife is not easy. The more you do learn, working alongside them, the more you comprehend the intricacies. You realise that there is the need to manage various systems individually as well as as a whole; and you understand the necessity of making conscious difficult decisions that will influence species across the globe.

By the very products that you buy from the local shop you affect the lives of countless species on the other side of the planet. To some this is just plain obvious, but it has been shown to be so easy to forget this when caught up in the momentum of modern life

An enviable backdrop

Standing in the car park of Mohoholoholo, looking at the centre with the beautiful Drakensberg mountain range as the backdrop.

Standing in the car park of Moholoholo, looking at the centre with the beautiful Drakensberg mountain range as the backdrop. Source: Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre


The start

I started out in this business in August 1998 at a wildlife rehabilitation centre in the Limpopo province of South Africa. The manager of the facility was one tough nut to work for. I’d had very limited wildlife experience up until then and he was a firm believer in two things – throwing young novices like myself into the deep end, and never expressing gratitude for a job well done.

In my first week there he sent me out to one of the aviaries to catch two non-flighted black eagles (both had had broken wings from power line collisions). My new boss then didn’t go with me to provide the guidance or assistance I might reasonably have expected; I simply got given a few pointers as we stood in the office. Go and stand in front of them, I’m told, and catch the birds by their legs. I am then to expect them to jump upwards in response to the grab, so go with the movement he advised; bring them round till they are hanging upside down in your grasp. Oh, and don’t get in the way of their talons, he warned. This last was a fair comment, the black eagle is the second largest eagle in South Africa, and their talons will crush straight through a human hand with ease. Once I had this fine bird dangling, I was to wrap them carefully in a towel and bring them back to the office. Sounds easy hey?

I stood less than a metre away from that first eagle for about ten minutes; my hands up by my chest area, ready to snatch out and grab his legs. That bird just sat there and looked at me with those incredible eyes that only an eagle has. They had been in captivity for a few years already and didn’t care that I was standing there. I finally snatched out and grabbed. I had him and he immediately jumped up high, just as I had been told. I went with that jump, and within seconds I had him on the ground and toweled like a newborn baby. I quickly took him off to the hospital and called for my boss, whose response was simply to ask why it had taken me so long. And so with that first exercise came my introduction to the philosophy of Brian Jones. It is how he is. In nearly four years that I worked there I received a grand total of two thanks’ from him. Boy oh boy, did I learn from that man.

A Verraux's Eagle, also known as a Black Eagle.

A Verraux’s Eagle, also known as a Black Eagle. Source: Photo copyright: Mark Jones


Some of the babies

This is me with Lucky (zebra), Hongonyi (wildebeest) & Tinkerbell (hippo). All about 2 weeks old at this stage.

This is me with Lucky (zebra), Hongonyi (wildebeest) & Tinkerbell (hippo). All about 2 weeks old at this stage. Source: Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre


The enjoyment factor

In the years to come I hand raised a multitude of mammals from leopard, hyena, otter, and honey badger to impala, zebra, wildebeest and the little duikers, mongooses, genets and civets. One of my most memorable however was a hippo, whom I named Tinkerbell. Management wasn’t too happy with that name, but she became rather iconic for the place.

Tinkerbell was no more than a day old when she came to the rehabilitation centre, and I was lucky enough to release her back to the wild nearly two years later.

The side no one sees

It was at this place that I came very close to throwing in the towel on work in conservation. You see, we did a lot of outreach work; dealing with farmers and local residents. Although the area was pristine and remains one of the most diverse areas for wildlife in South Africa, it has a lot of underlying problems too; namely poaching and the mass poisoning of so-called problem animals. It is the all-too-familiar clash between agriculture and wildlife; people and animals just trying to survive.

This area of Limpopo is a tourist hive and people flock from all over the world to see sights like the Blyde River Canyon, the third most visited place by South Africa’s tourists. The Kruger National Park just down the road, with some of its world renowned five star lodges close to the area. This is the place to visit if you are looking to experience the glamorous wildlife in South Africa, but like so many wildlife areas it has its underlying problems.

A lot of this area has been converted into farmland and some of the farmers (a minority) have taken to poisoning anything indigenous as they cause perpetual problems for the farmer and his crop. Baboons, monkeys, bushpigs, porcupines, eagles, vultures; well, you name it and it will probably get killed at some stage. Most are just secondary poisonings, not the species being targeted, but that just makes it more tragic.

I saw a lot of death during those years at the rehabilitation centre, but one day still stands out as my most awful.


A victim of poisons

A Cape Vulture, classed as a vulnerable species, population declining.

A Cape Vulture, classed as a vulnerable species, population declining. Photo copyright: Mark Jones


We were called out early one morning by a farmer we knew in the area, a good man. His property was on the Klaserie River near to the back end of Kapama game reserve; a really wonderful area, neighbouring the Kruger National Park. He’d said that he had found a few dead monkeys when he went out early and had also seen one that looked like it was dying. We got hold of the police and we all met there at 08h00. We left that property eight exhausting hours later having spent an unbroken day wondering the property.

First thing to see was of course the dead monkeys. The live one was now dead too. There were no injuries and we just knew they had been poisoned. Poison investigation cases were still fairly new for me and I had no idea what was about to come that day. We walked out to an area that was at the end of part of the crop field, nearby a beautiful stream. Here we found the target; guineafowl! In an area just 20 metres in diameter we saw the crops and gizzards of about 40 guinea fowls. It’s the favoured way. Kill them with a fast acting poison, then send a kid in there to fetch them (if he gets caught he is just a kid and won’t go to jail or tell who really did it). The gizzards are pulled out there and then, leaving a lot of that poison behind, in meat and blood, which attracts predators of all kinds; the birds are then taken away for personal consumption and local sale.

It’s not what you see at these sites that scares you, but rather what you don’t see. There was spoor (footprints) of civet, genet, serval, warthog and porcupine everywhere we looked. If they weren’t eating the dead, they were eating the original poisoned corn. Overhead we saw doves, vultures and eagles. Along the ground we saw francolins. Most could, or would, die within the next couple of days. The vast majority will go unrecorded. Possibly the biggest awakening for me that day was watching the ant nests, seeing the ants come out by the thousands (possibly millions through the day), all dying from the fumes. We smelt that poison in the air all day and were all sick the next, with headaches and nausea. I went home that night, sat on the edge of my bed and just cried. We have a lot to be accountable for, us humans.

Within the next two weeks of that case we had a further two hooded vultures, two white-backed vultures, one white-headed vulture and one tawny eagle come in for poisoning from that property. All were casualties of that case, and all thankfully survived.

As it turns out, all this was done by one man with one small bottle of poison and a bottle of corn. He soaked the two together overnight and got a kid to go throw it out where the guineafowls go every morning. We found the corn, the poison and a dead guineafowl in his room. He was arrested and sent to jail. He spent three months waiting for his case to be brought to the magistrate’s office and when it did, it was thrown out for lack of evidence.

Venting your anger in the right direction

Don’t get angry at this man for who can blame him? He is a worker on a farm, getting paid minimum wage and has no education. What would you do for your children if you had no money, no food and you lived in the middle of nowhere? He’s not a poacher, he’s just a survivor. It took me a while to discern the difference between the two. Wildlife in South Africa is killed daily for food and also to make money. Never will a day go by without some mention of rhino poaching and its severity; but you almost never hear about the guineafowls, francolins, cranes, storks, antelope and other species that are targeted as a food source. No more do we bother with the old methods of snaring; now we poison. Bear in mind that most of these people will ironically die from poisoning themselves. These are high strength poisons being used and you can cook it all you like; residual amounts will be there and it will affect you in the long term.

A lot of other species are also targeted for the black market trade; traditional medicines. Animals like vultures, eagles, lions, leopards, ground hornbills and snakes are targeted for their body parts.

Vulture brains and hearts are used to get the mind and soul of the vulture. This is said to help you to see into the future.

Ground hornbills hung upside down, alive, over dry riverbeds are considered to help to bring the rains. These magnificent birds are in fact the number one species on the list sought after in the muthi line, a trade which involves a lot of traditional medicines. Some are good, but some are really bad.

End of part I, please look out for part II in the continuing story line of Moholoholo…

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