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His breath gurgled and wheezed all the way down the trunk, then whooshed out the tip, parting the tufts of grass in front of which his flaccid feeding organ lay. He was out for the count and doing just fine. Six breaths per minute was OK, less than three was not OK. My role was to count them and make sure this did not happen. The sense of unease was ridiculous – I felt his fate lay in my ability to count effectively, and all those self doubts from primary school came flooding back. I’ll be the one – the only one in the whole world – to kill an elephant by not counting properly.
Roger Parry tightens the GPS tracking collar on an elephant bull whose big tusks make it a target for poachers. Guests from Musango Safari Camp assist him while lodge owner Steve Edwards keeps a lookout for the elephant’s friend
But Roger was there, dishing out curt instructions with accustomed authority, and boy did all of us tourists listen. He had just felled an elephant – or rather sunk a tranquilising dart filled with Etorphine into its backside. And he did this in order to secure a GPS satellite collar tracking device around its neck.
Roger Parry and Jessica Dawson, wildlife veterinarians and managers of the non-profit organisation Wild Horizon Wildlife Trust, had been dispatched from its headquarters in Victoria Falls to Musango Safari Camp in the Matusadona National Park on the shores of Zimbabwe’s Lake Kariba to collar a bull elephant with particularly large tusks – impressive, but so too to poachers.
The charity, established to protect wildlife in the wider area and rehabilitate orphaned or injured animals, also carries out anti-poaching activities and provides veterinary services to wildlife.
Elephants Without Borders donated the collar, which acts as a deterrent as well as a research tool monitoring a targeted elephant’s whereabouts and behaviour.
Owner of the luxury tented Musango Safari Camp, Steve Edwards, professional guide in the country ‘for as long as he can remember’, spotted the bull and showed it to Larry Norton, Zimbabwean artist, conservationist and Wild Horizons Wildlife trustee. Steve and his wife Wendy therefore hosted the two vets. All eight of the tourists in camp (from nine to 69 years old) wanted to help and so we were assigned various tasks such as data collection and carrying paraphernalia. It meant for us and the Bass family out from England real life action with an edge - helping wildlife in trouble.
Five minutes after the tranquiliser had penetrated the elephant’s tough hide the five-tonner crumpled elegantly to the ground. Its friend disappeared into the scrub as only elephants know how, so the team, having been briefed by Roger earlier, went into action. Someone monitored his up-side ear to check his pulse rate, Roger grappled with folds and flaps of neck and ear to clamp the eight kilogramme collar (containing a GPS unit that gets downloaded daily from a satellite and a VHF radio transmitter) while others cooled the body with water, measured the tusks, took photographs plus pulled, plucked and prodded collecting data, watched over by Timothy Mandi, senior wildlife officer and his team of armed guides from the National Parks Authority Matusadona, just in case the elephant’s friend returned.
After Jessica had extricated the final blood sample and Steve had tried to obtain a faecal one (with only moderate success), an antidote was injected. Within two minutes the elephant was up on his feet, a little bewildered but quite cool about it, possibly wondering if he had been hit by a bus, then casually sauntered off in search of something more edible than what was flattened all around him.
Steve had another issue - wire snares. Poachers continue to set these within the national park. Over the last very difficult years Steve changed from punishing offenders from the nearby village of Msampa, who were simply trying to survive, to educating and working with them. Musango established a borehole, a church, explained self-sufficiency methods and now wants to introduce solar power and an electric fence. But it takes time to break old habits.
One snare was embedded in the mouth and head of a unhealthily thin baby elephant. Both baby and mother had to be tranquilised, and using a wire cutter Roger released the snare and administered first aid and antibiotics into the fleshy and blackened wound.
He tried to dart two more snare laden animals but alas these were too skittish and the sunset was nearly done. An impala still wears one just above its hoof where its built-in tracking device scent gland sits; without this the impala is unable to lay a scent down to find his way back to his herd. A buffalo still carries one which will eventually tighten too much around his upper body, unless help comes his way again. Steve removes as many as he can, but it’s a dangerous and costly task. Musango’s anti-poaching efforts are well supported by the national parks department, which does have its own anti-poaching patrols but is strapped for cash.
Tourism providers in Zimbabwe are welcoming visitors to their country with open arms and optimism, putting the problems of the last decade behind them. Tour operators The Zambezi Safari and Travel Company, which had a presence here throughout the difficult years, knew exactly where to take us when we asked for a safari with a touch of the unexpected.
As Cessna pilot Richie Tshuma veered away from Musango Safari Camp we looked beneath us as the bush and all its inhabitants got smaller and smaller, and felt very privileged to have contributed in a very tiny way to struggling wildlife, Zimbabwe’s greatest asset.