You may ask yourself what a photographic safari operator such as ourselves is doing getting involved in a conservation safari. The answer is quite simple really. As passionate wildlife photographers what would we have to photograph if there was no conservation efforts or protected areas? It’s a sobering thought given the current plight of both white and black rhino in South Africa at the moment.
Apart form this, Gerry, Jono and myself have a deep rooted love for wildlife and conservation, and always have. It was this in mind that we ran our first official Wild Eye Conservation Safari in Madikwe at the end of January.
Our guests had all visited various private game reserves in the past but each and every one of them left saying that this was truly the most incredible experience of their lives. Perhaps it was the experience of laying a hand on the hide of a rhino, feeling how sharp the dew claw of a lion really is, fitting a collar around the neck of a cheetah, or knowing that they had contributed DIRECTLY to the conservation of wildlife in Madikwe Game Reserve. I have no doubt that each of them will take home a different message from this trip but here is my take on what was a very special weekend…
Madikwe Conservation safari: The Experience of a Lifetime
Staying at the luxurious Tuningi Safari Lodge our first afternoon drive was spent exploring the south of the Madikwe Game Reserve in an attempt to locate a coalition of male lions that the Ecologist had hoped to collar. Alas, we did not find them and they managed to elude everyone in the park for the entire weekend. Our group enjoyed a spectacular sunset before returning to the lodge for dinner and the brief for the next mornings activity: Collaring a male Cheetah.
Madikwe has been wanting to re-introduce cheetah into the reserve since the last known coalition of males that used to hang around on the Madikwe Plains disappeared. Finally, after much paperwork and admin, they received four young males from a reserve down in the Eastern Cape. Cheetah populations are closely managed by The Endangered Wildlife Trust and it was important that the cheetahs introduced into Madikwe formed part of the metapopulation management strategy.
An impala carcass was used to feed the cheetah, giving the vet an opportunity to dart one of the males so that we could fit a collar to him. The darting process went smoothly and without any hitches and it wasn’t long before the sedated cheetah was moved to the shade and one of our guests fitted a tracking collar around the cheetah’s neck.
It is vitally important that the Ecologist is able to monitor the movements and well-being of the cheetah after their release into the park. Typically, when animals are released into a new area they will explore the boundaries of the region, taking advantage of any breaks in the fence which would allow them to move beyond the boundaries of the reserve. For this reason, their movements will be closely monitored and recorded to ensure that they remain in the park.
The afternoon was spent in the north of the park where our sightings included Buffalo, Rhino, a pack of 25 Wild Dog and loads of general game. Madikwe is well known for its wild dog sightings and we were treated to a spectacular sunset sighting which we had all to ourselves (we have also been fortunate enought to assist with conservation work with the Wild Dogs in the past, click here and here for more info on that).
The next morning began with an air of excitement as we moved into an area where 3 lions that needed to be branded had been found. The vet wasted no time in darting the lions and before we knew it the guests were getting their hands dirty by loading the lions onto the bakkie so that they could be taken to a safe location for us to work on them.
Branding plays an important role in the monitoring of lion populations in Madikwe and many other smaller reserves. Today’s branding exercises leave cryptic, naturally-shaped scars on the either the front or hind quarters of the lion. This unique shape and position of the brand mark will allow the Ecologists and field guides to identify the lions as individuals. Monitoring various aspects allows the Ecologist to make informed decisions based on the population dynamics of the lions in the reserve.
It was an incredible experience to be able to place ones hand against the paw of one of these magnificent beasts and get an appreciation for just how big they are! I also ran through various interesting facts about the anatomy and biology of lions, pointing out interesting features such as the dew claw, large canines, serrated incisors and the serrated tongue. If you think your domestic cats tongue is rough then this is on a different scale!
The excitement of the lions had hardly had a chance to settle before we dashed of to dart and notch our first rhino. Searching for un-notched rhino (I will expand on this just now) using a helicopter, it didn’t take long before we had found a suitable candidate. With the dart in the chopper pilot skilfully guided the animal back towards our position and the road, ensuring quick and easy access to the animal as soon as it went down.
Now the hard work began. Guests were actively involved in measuring the front and back horn lengths, inserting the microchip transponders, taking tissue and blood samples for DNA analysis, and even monitoring the breathing of the animal. So, what is this notching I have been going on about?
Notching is the process whereby a series of cuts are made into specific positions on the rhino’s ear. Each of these positions has a corresponding number assigned to it and the combination of these “notches” gives the rhino a unique identification. Once again, being able to identify an individual facilitates the collection of a wide range of information such as movements, associations, calving intervals etc etc. All of this information plays a crucial role in the management of rhino populations in Madikwe Game Reserve (you can read more about the contribution this sort of operation makes to conservation here).
Over the next 4 hours we notched another 3 white rhino, making a significant contribution to the future conservation and monitoring efforts in Madikwe. One of the additional benefits of these sorts of activities in Madikwe is the fact that it re-enforces a presence in the area and what better way to do this than by helicopter. Increased activities such as this will hopefully deter poachers from entering the reserve in the future…
The excitement of the mornings activities had left us all pretty exhausted and so we returned to the lodge for a light lunch and some much needed rest before our evening game drive.
Our final morning provided the perfect end to this conservation safari as we headed back to the 4 Cheetah who were now ready to be released into Madikwe Game Reserve. A superb lion sighting distracted us briefly as we made our way to the Boma where the cheetah were, and added to the anticipation of the big event.
With great skill the ecologist lured the cheetah out of the boma and into the park, the first three cheetah cautiously exited the boma and took their first steps in the reserve whilst the cheetah we had collared two days earlier showed a bit more hesitation. Seeing his brothers feeding on the impala carcass soon proved to be too much of a temptation for him and he too joined them in their new home.
After leaving them in peace we headed back to the lodge feeling completely overwhelmed by this incredible experience.
A Special Thanks…
This trip would not have been possible were it not for the co-operation and commitment of the North West Parks & Tourism Board to the ongoing conservation efforts in Madikwe. A special thanks to Carlien for her time and expertise and for organising the necessary veterinary staff and helicopter. The staff at Tuningi Safari lodge were great and apart from catering to our every need, were understanding and accommodating of our erratic schedule of events.
Join us on a Madikwe Conservation Safari
The core feature of our Madikwe Conservation Safaris will always be the notching of rhino in the reserve. This is a priority for the Parks Board and the Ecologist. We may also have the opportunity to get involved in other activities such as the removal of old elephant collars, the collaring of lions, the branding of lions and many more activities. However, these will always be done at the sole discretion of the Park Ecologist and will depend on the priorities at the time of the safari.
Our next safari is scheduled for the 18 – 21 April 2013 and all the details for this and other future safaris can be found here.