A hospital for big game

Darting an African elephant is no easy task: its herd will try to revive it. A drugged lion will be killed by its pride. And a furious rhino can simply storm through sedation.

Such situations are all in a day’s work in the South African bush for veterinarian Johan Joubert at the 25 000 hectare luxury private reserve Shamwari, near the World Cup host city Port Elizabeth.

“There’s most probably not one that’s easy,” said Joubert, after overseeing a heavily tranquilised, critically endangered black rhino tear out of an airlifted crate and ram into a metal gate.

Last year, Shamwari opened a specialised rehabilitation centre to nurse animals hurt in man-made problems.

“It’s not wild Africa where animals can migrate any more. A lot of these animals get orphaned or injured because of human-induced problems,” said Joubert, who starred as Animal Planet television’s Big Cat Doctor.

“Sometimes we have to let nature take their course. In some cases we definitely need to interfere.”

The in-patients are eclectic: an outraged male leopard with a broken leg, an orphaned buffalo calf under the watch of a Jersey cow, and a curious bottle-fed zebra. Further up the hill is Albert, the sheep who fostered a baby elephant.

The malaria-free region has undergone a re-wilding boom after centuries of commercial farming, with the two-decade-old Shamwari sparking several big game reserves in the area.

The R6 000 per night reserve also has South Africa’s only Born Free site: a sanctuary for rescued African big cats for 13 years, including jailed Liberian leader Charles Taylor’s lioness which was found starving in a pit.

The rescued cats cannot be set free. Many are stunted, unable to fend for themselves and a genetic sub-species. They are released into giant enclosures, the size of two football fields, with delivered meals.

“A lot of them have never felt grass and never seen the sky so they sometimes are a bit bewildered,” said manager Abagail McNicol.

“It takes them about three months to settle in but once they do they really do enjoy their life with us.”

But the wildlife centre, which treats five to 15 animals a month, wants all its patients back in the wild.

“We don’t accept any animals at the rehabilitation centre that have got no chance of being released. Animals like that we’ll rather put down,” said Joubert who also features in Animal Planet’s Shamwari: A Wild Life.

“The sooner the animals go, the better. The important thing with us is that the animals must go back to the wild. We don’t like to keep them as pets forever.”

An annual game auction, the fate of the angry rhino, provides half the eight million rand needed to run the 60-staff wildlife department, including vets and ecologists.

“It’s really worthwhile to save these animals and get them back into the wild,” said Joubert, pointing to the baby buffalo tottering after its bovine foster parent.

The work can be dangerous, with close escapes from lions and a member of staff who got run down by a rhino.

“He had the horn in his backside and then eventually had his whole lip stripped from jaw as the animal mauled him on the ground,” Joubert said.

“We’ve had quite a few injuries. Sometimes you get interesting situations but so far we didn’t have any fatalities. But you have to be careful if you work with animals.” – AFP

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