/ 1 April 2010

Animal rescue Eastern Cape

Animal Rescue Eastern Cape

“Get here before sunset.” The warning loomed in my mind as we raced the fading light across the red, rugged landscape outside Port Elizabeth towards Shamwari Wildlife Reserve.

As we reached the maze of dirt roads at the park entrance, the sky darkened and a pair of sleek tawny-and-white animals I’d never seen before skittered across our path. One fled into the bush, while the other, a black-masked, horse-like creature that resembled a unicorn, trotted gracefully in front of us. We pulled over to let her pass undisturbed, but she stopped and stared at us, her liquid eyes glowing in the violet-black night. This animal, an oryx, makes a life for itself in the harshest conditions, where few others can — a reminder of why we’d gone there.

Stretching across a 25 000ha patch of bush in the Eastern Cape, Shamwari is a rare mixture of luxury game park and sanctuary. Here you can spot wildlife or do volunteer work at the Born Free Foundation, where lions and leopards that have been mistreated or abused in captivity are resettled. On the edge of the reserve, Born Free offers conservation volunteers a chance to help tend the big cats and other rescued animals, such as orphaned oryx, blesbok antelopes and giraffes.

Hidden deep in a grove of trees, the thatch-roofed Eagles Crag lodge is evocative of grand colonial-era bush camps. Amid a canopy of subtropical thicket, the lodge was built on an old elephant route and herds could sometimes be seen wandering by. There are also four exquisitely restored colonial farmhouses. The guide, leading us to our room, told stories about the animals that loitered around the camp, especially a rogue buffalo that had taken up residence near the main lodge: “The other day he was eating roses and we had to move him away. He was pissed off, but he keeps returning.”

Arriving just in time for dinner, we joined our ranger, Matt, and six other guests in a glass-walled dining room, filled with animal sculptures and antlers, for wine-tasting and tales about the day’s wildlife sightings. We ate dinner beside a crackling fire — everyone else had meat but, being vegetarians, we had pumpkin soup and wild mushroom, lemon and saffron risotto. Later we were escorted back to our lodge by an armed guard, there to protect us from any predators.

Monkeys darted across the pathways and terraces, chattering as they went. At our door, the guard reminded us to lock the windows and doors at night as “the monkeys and baboons will swoop in and steal everything”.

Our romantic lodge was lit by paraffin lamps and had all the comforts of a boutique hotel: vintage copper bath, four-poster bed and private sundeck. Beyond the sliding glass doors, the thick swathe of trees and grassland stirred with the rustlings and rumblings of the wild.

Shamwari immerses volunteers in one of South Africa’s last great wilderness areas, where they can do a little of everything, from the exciting and dramatic (helping vets radio-collar predators and nursing the casualties of forest fires) to the practical (maintenance work). When we arrived, there were many young people hard at work with the park staff, clearing scrub and repairing wire fences.

The following morning, we met the so-called Big Cat Doctor, Johan Joubert. The vet, who has featured in a wildlife series on Discovery’s Animal Planet channel, has a fresh scar across his cheek from a close encounter with a lioness that didn’t take kindly to his treatment table. At Shamwari he runs the Born Free Centre, which nurses traumatised captive wild animals that have been rescued. He also oversees an armed unit that acts as a round-the-clock deterrent to would-be poachers.

Working as the resident vet and wildlife manager at Shamwari since the reserve opened in 1995, Joubert has had many scrapes with the wildlife.

“The scariest thing happened when I wasn’t even working,” he said. “I was walking through the bush when this angry black rhino came out of nowhere and pursued me. I scrambled up the nearest tree, which unfortunately was a prickly pear. I was in agony because I was suddenly covered in thorns, but I couldn’t scream as the rhino has very poor eyesight and I didn’t want her to hear me. Then my mobile went off at the worst possible moment and the rhino went mad, repeatedly charging the tree. I fell out of the tree on to her back and she tried to gore me. Fortunately, I got away with a few cuts and bruises.”

After showing us the rare captive-bred blue-eyed white lions sunbathing in their compound, the Big Cat Doctor took us to a favourite hiding place of one of the few free-ranging leopards on the reserve. He spotted this shy, elusive cat lurking in the bushes. “Don’t try this at home,” he whispered, before creeping towards the leopard, clutching the rifle he said he had never used.

The leopard, overcome by curiosity, peered out. Encounters such as this are, he says, one of the thrills of the natural world. “I hope more people realise these beautiful creatures are disappearing and how vital it is to protect them. The human population is growing so fast that it’s shrinking wild animals out of existence. In the future, the biggest danger to wildlife will be the lack of land.”
A vast expanse of looming hills, veld and serpentine rivers, Shamwari teems with zebra, wildebeest, rhino, giraffe, warthog, kudu and buck. But just 18 years ago this land was dried-out and barren ground. Then South African businessman Adrian Gardiner bought it and began filling it with animals brought in from game auctions and other private parks. His intention was to conserve a vanishing way of life and take the land back to what it was before the farmers over-cultivated it and shot all the wildlife.

The next day we were whisked off to Born Free, on the other side of the park, to meet the lions and leopards. Leah, one of the project’s caretakers, recounted their harrowing experiences in the European zoos and circuses from which most were rescued. As we walked past the lion cubs, they thrust their paws through the fence in search of the touch and warmth of another mammal. Two sisters, playful and curious, they were abandoned pets found starving in an empty flat in Romania.

We were introduced to a vivacious baby elephant and his playmate, a sheep named Albert. Eight-month-old elephant orphan Themba, who was saved by rangers when his mother died after falling off a cliff, struck up a friendship with Albert after arriving at Shamwari’s animal hospital. Like humans, baby elephants need constant care, so the sanctuary staff take turns sleeping beside Themba, getting up to feed him when he cries and comfort him when he’s distressed.

In a neighbouring enclosure, a two-month-old giraffe, Melvin, was grazing. In the wild, baby giraffes are looked after in a kind of nursery, where all females look after one another’s calves. Melvin, though, had been abandoned by his mother and left to die. I fed him milk from a large one-litre bottle, though, at more than 2m tall, he towered over me.

“Some day,” volunteer Lyndal said, “Melvin, Themba and the other orphans here will be released into the wild where they belong.” Leaving Born Free, we found ourselves in a gridlock of elephants crossing the road. The sanctuary driver switched off his car engine and we sat in silence, watching these grey ghosts of Africa melting into the dusk.

Back at the lodge, the bush awash with moonlight, we sat on our veranda, listening to the hoots of owls and the howls of hyenas, and watching the late show. A bat-eared fox emerged from his lair, sniffing the air, and silvery springhaas pirouetted across the plains like ghostly dancers beneath a vast, vaulting sky. In the stillness it was possible to sustain the illusion that we were alone with the wild things. —