Spotted game (September 14th, Hanyini Research Station, Caprivi)
Writing about web page http://www.biosphere-expeditions.com/caprivi
Having loaded the Land Rover pickup with capture gear, food, vehicle recovery equipment, overnight gear and ourselves (Francois the scientist, Edmore the vet, Martyn and myself the guest research assistants) we set off into Mamili National Park to look for animals on our list of study species (lion, leopard, cheetah, hyena, wild dog) and to try and dart one or more to fit radio collars. This was the first night of the second week of our slot in the expedition and so far these forays by other team members have not born fruit. We should have gone out last week, but that was the day the pickup was needed to rescue all the other cars each of which had independently become bogged down or developed flat tyres.
But things are calmer now that Matthias has left and our turn is rolled over to the start of the second week so we are determined to give it our best shot. Normally there would be three guest researchers in the car and a park ranger, but the rangers' car also got terminally stuck at the end of last week and one of them has gone to Windhoek to fetch a new car leaving them short handed. So tonight there are just four of us.
We soon come across a large herd of around 300 buffalo which would no doubt attract the attention of the local lions so we cast around looking for lion spoor and soon come across tracks of a pride of four heading in the general direction of the herd. A passing troop of baboons is also quite excited about something so we feel we are getting close. But we lose them in the growing gloom. We then set about systematically quartering the area, stopping only for a quick dinner and to fire up the spotlight when it got dark. We go on for several hours finding a number of small cats (wild cat and serval). Then Martyn finds the eyes of another cat with the spotlight which we think is another serval, but Francois spots its tail which gives it away. It is a small leopard, a juvenile and because it is not so clued up it sits and watches us. Edmore and Francois prepare the dart gun and discuss how to get closer. There is so much thick undergrowth including mopane which we cannot drive through.
Edmore does the driving whilst Francois tries to line up a clear shot and Martyn operates the spotlight. In the light of an almost full moon I can see the leopard clearly using my binoculars and much better than with the Russian night sight we have brought along. Francois tries a shot but it misses and the leopard runs behind a nearby tree. I can see it looking round the tree and curiosity gets the better of it and it comes round to sit in front of the tree to watch us. We work closer whilst I monitor the leopard with binoculars Francois reloads the dart gun. This time the dart finds its mark in the shoulder and the leopard is startled and runs. It takes us a heart stopping 30 minutes to find it driving up and down the area dodging thorn bushes and mopane groves. Francois spots her by a termite mound and she is still partly alert so he prepares another dart and approaches on foot to fire it from close range. But it bounces off bone and does not inject. No more darts.
Edmore prepares a syringe with a top-up dose and asks us to wave torches around in front to distract her whilst he goes round behind to administer the immobiliser drug manually. Francois thinks the leopard is young enough to still be with its mother and he is nervous she may be nearby so he sends me back to the Land Rover to turn the spotlight on and search the area. There are eyes approaching from the direction we drove up so I wave the light around in front to discourage their owner from coming closer while we wait for the drug to take effect and bring the leopard over to the car.
We put her on the tailgate of the pickup and Edmore checks her over, and declares her old enough to collar (but the collar will need changing in around 3 months). So we start taking and writing down her vital statistics. Overall length is 166cm (which in the excitement is written down as 66cm, oops). I use my camera to take photos of her spot patterns (for leopards a uniquer identifier like human fingerprints or retinal patterns) and dentition (she has a full set of teeth), and Francois fits the collar. She is named FLE1 (female leopard number one). Edmore notes that she has lice and finds evidence of mange on her ears. He takes blood samples. She is already showing signs of the drug wearing off so we check we have all the data sheet filled in, take the final photos of her with the team members and leave her on the ground, pack up the equipment and withdraw a short distance to give her protection from other predators as she recovers. The eyes are still watching us from 50 meters and the outline of a larger leopard is clearly visible.
Francois has recovered two of the used darts so we contemplate also darting the mother. But she is much less naive than the cub and every move we make to get within range she counters and retreats deeper into the bush, always just out of shot. We think she is only hanging around because of the cub, who is now back on its feet and recovered. After a while we decide to give up and let her go this time. With her cub collared she will be easier to find another time using telemetry and hopefully on better ground.
It is around 2:30 am and we are all elated at what we achieved so when Francois asks what we want to do we decide sleep is out of the question, so let's go find those lions. It is now quite chilly on the back of the pickup and I am shivering but we carry on searching, only turning the car towards home around 4 am, but searching all the way back.
Around 6:30, just after dawn, we come across a small elephant family and try to drive across their path to reach the camp. The matriarch doesn't like that and immediately starts to charge. Francois spins the car around drives flat out back the way we came. She chases us for what seems like an age before deciding we've learnt our lesson. We turn back and head towards camp again, this time without incident and check back in just after 7 am.
A busy 15 hours. Our leader Peter complains because we didn't phone ahead to announce our success.
The next day Edmore, when checking the data sheet, notices that the body length is anomalous at 66cm. The tail is 69cm long and the body length is from nose to tip of the tail! Fortunately we have a photo of the leopard on the tailgate and there are protective strips of metal at regular intervals, so I can lay out a piece of string on the tailgate where she lay to create a virtual leopard and measure that. It comes to 166cm.
A crew-cut stranger is now in the camp. Francois has shaved his hair and beard off now he has successfully collared the first predator in the study area.
Francois and Edmore are dedicated professionals. Martyn and I didn't have the same stamina and the cold got to us both towards the end of the night. It was a privilege to have been with them and to have assisted where we could.
And I won't ever forget the feel of that warm soft fur as I put my hands under her tummy to help lift her down onto the ground.
Click on a thumbnail for a larger picture. More pictures in the Hanyini gallery.