How do you get a 650kg buffalo into the back of a pick-up….?
Written by Karongwe Volunteer Rachel Stevens
At eight o’clock on Wednesday morning the GVI team arrived en masse at the buffalo area. We were joined by reserve manager Willie – a large white South African with deep voice and rugby player stature, and his team of reserve workers/poaching patrol – a group of serious black South Africans clad in camo and whose demeanour and garb suggested current or previous military service. The last and most important element of the team joined us not long after…Dr Rogers and his team. Dr Rogers is reportedly the best wildlife vet in the area; apparently he has never given up on an animal in his care and will work until the last hopes fade. I liked him instantly.
Once grouped, strategy was discussed and the reserve personnel and veterinary team drove off to isolate and sedate the first buffalo. While they rounded up the first patient I had time to muse on something that had been niggling away at the back of my brain: once sedated, how the hell were we to move this enormous hulk of dopey steak to the next paddock? The only vehicles to seem even vaguely feasible were the reserve crew’s beaten up pickup and a knackered trailer with a flat tyre. Surely not? Surely a livestock wagon was on its way?
Before I could dwell on ungulate transferal logistics further we received the call that madam had gone bye-byes and we needed to act quickly. Veterinary teams do not like to keep large animals sedated for long periods of time as the animal’s bulk will crush its lungs and other vital organs while it is off its feet. Procedures are therefore managed very carefully but as hastily as possible. We hared across the scrub plain like something out of a Wilbur Smith novel. When we arrived at the felled cow I was hit with a mixture of overwhelming awe at what I was about to take part in and the incredible pathos in seeing such an enormous and powerful beast rendered so helpless and at the mercy of us humans. Two reserve workers clutched her horns, supporting and steadying her head to ensure that her airways stayed open, the reserve manager keeping his hand under one of her nostrils, monitoring her breathing. Her ears twitched at every sound and, to minimise her stress, she had been crudely blindfolded with a navy blue jumper making her look like a condemned prisoner about to face the firing squad. I was embarrassed to find myself welling up but pulled myself together hastily as we were called to action by the vet. Our first task was to help keep the old girl’s body upright while Dr Rogers completed his tests and treatments; if she were to roll onto her side at this point her lungs would rapidly fill with fluid and she would would asphyxiate in a matter of minutes. Her hide was rough, covered with surprisingly course hair similar to a hog’s and skin that was tough and textured like old manuscript. Solid muscle twitched beneath my hand as if my touch were nothing but an irritating fly; I felt very small but put my entire weight to the portion of shoulder to which I had found myself assigned. The second I pushed I caught movement in the periphery of my vision and side stepped just in time to avoid the huge sweeping curve of buffalo horn that was heading slowly but fairly purposefully towards my right thigh. Luckily the progress of the horn had been fairly glacial thanks to the buffalo’s drug-addled reactions; however, had I not been paying attention I would have been pinned to her shoulder like a cumbersome corsage. Once assessment and treatment were complete, Alex, long-serving ranger and patroller, barked the commands to position and lift. Our target? The flat-tyred, rickety trailer. They had to be kidding!?
They weren’t kidding.
As one, we took a deep breath, grasped our portion of stretcher, bent our knees, straightened our backs and one of us, at least, offered up a quick prayer to the god of sedated and dependent ungulates. We lifted. Curses in various languages were muttered as we shuffled, baby steps, treading on each other’s toes, elbowing ribs, clashing knees and bumping elbows. Alex barked at us to “lift higher” – we still needed another few inches of height to clear the trailer bed. I shut my eyes and heaved. Inch by inch Madam Buffalo slid into the back of the trailer and we were there. As I caught my breath I tried to work out how to explain my freshly buggered back muscles to my physio.
The journey to the second pen was short. Once inside, the buffalo was removed from the the trailer; a process far easier than the lift as gravity never fails to oblige and the patient’s transferal was more of a controlled fall than heave. As soon as she was on the ground and her safe recovery position established we were excused duty so the vet could administer the antidote to the sedative. Animals, like humans, are varied in their recovery from anaesthesia. Some are quicker than others, some stay woozier for longer but, generally speaking, they all wake up in a bad mood. We vacated quickly. As soon as the antidote was administered the remaining vets and reserve crew also retreated. The buffalo snorted, sagged and promptly collapsed on her side. Like a flash the reserve team were back with her, heaving with all their might, desperate to regain her recovery position but mindful that, should the antidote finally kick in, they would be faced with 650kg of seriously pissed off buffalo with a hangover. As soon as she was secure they ran. There is a pithy saying in the bush: “You don’t necessarily need to run fast….just faster than one of your colleagues”. It was a close race. The old girl was still struggling though. Old age and failing condition combined with an elderly tenacity that had required a double hit of sedative had slowed her recovery. She needed to get to her feet and walk it off but all verbal encouragement was met with a glare, albeit a slightly cross-eyed one. Finally she heaved herself up but only after the third stone winged off her ample rump. As she weaved into the bush she looked back at the vet with an evil squint that said, “Buddy, I’m not entirely sure what just happened but I see you and I will remember you…and I will certainly remember where you stuck that bloody rubber glove!”.
Buffalo number two was a little harder to isolate. It appeared that the latex glove procedure had not gone unnoticed and this lass was, unsurprisingly, reticent in leaving the security of her herd. When finally darted, the little minx bunked into an area of thick trees and spiky bushes…she was clearly not going to make this easy for us. Her snoring bulk was eventually located and she was stabilised and treated as per number one. Everything was looking settled and pretty standard by this point until I realised that the trailer was not positioned. But the pickup was. I looked at it incredulously and my inner wimp stifled a preemptive squeak of pain. The trailer had been a challenge requiring a lift of approximately two foot; the back of the pickup was considerably higher, and, oh joy, at an angle. It was going to be tough. I mentally made note to book a physio session the second I got home and took a deep breath in preparation. A second before the lift I rested a hand on Miss Buffalo’s back. I felt her coarse hair, the rise and fall of her slow breaths and the humidity exuding from this huge beast that was, at this moment in time, completely reliant on humans not screwing up. Whatever the discomfort, this was a day never to be repeated and I wouldn’t be a weak link. I would take every ache and twinge gladly for this lass.
I shut my eyes and lifted.
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