UC Berkeley isn’t the only university with research presence here; the University of Queensland also has giraffe DNA studies going on – ironically also a University I’ve attended and fell in love with. Their research offices are located in the Etosha Ecological Institute, a small office building located in Okaukuejo shared with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism government staff and scientists. It’s fun to see the daily in and outs of the few people that work here; you get to rub shoulders with very important people in the Ministry and I’ve also taken to becoming friends with the resident vet and his girlfriend who are super nice, laid back, environmentally-minded folk – Michelle is currently researching and lobbying for real recycling programs to be put in place in Okaukuejo and she gets to go dumpster diving every week to sort recyclables from the trash. Its a smelly research project, that’s for sure.
The vet is probably one of the most important, well-paid positions with the coolest job, since his job basically licenses him to capture, drug, and/or handle wild animals. He gets to dissect animals if they die from an unknown, natural cause, and recently a black rhino with suspected enteritis drowned in a water hole and Ortwin had to drag it out before cutting it wide open for dissection. The thickness and roughness of rhino skin would almost make you believe it had an exoskeleton, but since it had already been gutted, made it very accessible to scavengers. We later went back to that mutated rhino carcass after dark and watched a pride of 11 lions feast on the find.
The funnest and most exciting thing we have to do is definitely jackal capture. The vet, Ortwin, came with us one day to dart a specific jackal whose collar needed to be removed, and it was a perfect situation since the scent of the opened rhino lured him right up to our car. Once shot with the drugs, it takes a few minutes for the animal to go down, but once it is, you just blindfold them before handling them like a puppy dog.
They’re tiny up close, usually scruffy to touch, and when they get woken up again, turn back into the growling, biting little jackals that they are. But then they have to sit in a cage, still half dazed, until they’re fully awake to release, and even when you think they’re ready to be released, they sort of hesitantly stumble away, still looking all drugged up. Steve also captures without drug administration; he uses a padded leg trap method and tricks the jackal with a scent trail of some bloody meat to get them to step where he wants. Recently we were using some guts that were a few weeks old , and I cant even begin to explain how foul meat smells after sitting in the heat of the day. *shiver* Its gross.
Anyway, then you have to grab them by the neck using a blanket for distraction, while they’re still totally awake and fiercely vicious, ear muff them, Velcro their mouth shut, blindfold them (with a stinky sock), and bind their legs together. By this point they’re totally obedient, and you can take your samples and measurements without too much trouble. One jackal we caught near Namutoni was seriously psychotic though, and after biting Steve on the leg, had to be released before she was fully sampled because she kept struggling and wiggling her blind fold off.
Even more entertaining than handling jackals is elephant capture. A week ago a caravan of 4 cars and one helicopter went up to the north-eastern edge of the park to collar 5 female elephants, and man oh man is that a mission and a half. The helicopter circles around a few hundred metres above the ground to spot an elephant breeding herd, then it swoops down close enough for Ortwin to shoot one with 2ml of drugs, we wait 8 minutes until it crumbles over, and then drive through thick, prickly bush on the back of an open flat bed truck to where its lying. Then we all run to the elephants side, pull it and poke it in all sorts of places for feces samples, ticks, blood, measurements, age, and finally, a collar fastened around its neck. Im not sure if you can imagine, but an elephant neck is very, very thick, and these collars must have weighed 20 kg each.
At the end of this flurry of activity, and after getting some great photos of each of us cuddling a sleeping elephant, the vet gives it 1ml of drug reversal, and we all get the heck out of there as quick as possible before it stands up, pissed no hell.
Its definitely an adrenaline pumper, and if it wasn’t the elephant who was going to kill someone, I thought for sure our off-road driving with 8 people squished and exposed on the back of the truck driving through thorny acacias certainly would… but we all escaped with minor scratches and ripped clothes.