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South African safari: more than the ‘big five’

“I we can’t save our iconic animals, what chance do the other species have?” It is this question, posed during breakfast by Dr William Fowlds — an affable wildlife veterinarian living in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, that I take with me on the first game drive of the day at the Amakhala Game Reserve (AGR), near Port Elizabeth.
He is talking about the two-horned white and black rhino population in the rainbow nation, that could face possible extinction due to intense poaching for their horns. My thoughts are with the big cats back home in India — their numbers pegged at 1706 in the 2010 tiger census.

The plan had been simple that morning. Get a glimpse of the ‘big five’ (the African: lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo); click some images and return to enjoy the luxuries at the Bush Lodge, which offers tent-like accommodation with five-star amenities. Spread over approximately 18,000 acres, the reserve is home to some endangered species and many not-so-famous ones as well, including the kudu and black wildebeest.

As you explore the bush, you realise that at a game reserve, there’s usually more going on behind-the-scenes than in the open. Although poaching must be on top-of-mind, there are fences to mend, rangers to train, roads, rooms and vehicles to maintain, animals to monitor, new species to introduce and births and deaths to record while maintaining a tranquil front for the tourists.

Also, for those who like to get their hands dirty, there’s a volunteer programme with activities like predator monitoring, waterhole surveys and animal identification. On that day, Dr Fowlds and Tracy Weeks, co-owner of AGR, are looking to move a male giraffe to another part of the reserve where a couple of females need company. Culling, capturing, moving and re-introducing species are essential parts of game reserve maintenance. They don’t always go right and may not make for great pictures. “So the debate goes on, on how much we want the visitors to see?” says Weeks.

Incidentally, a giraffe can’t be sedated for too long. It has a sensitive system, so, after an accurate dart, skilled knots, a blindfold and earplugs for noise cancellation, it’s time to wake the animal. Now comes the not-so-easy part — teaching a groggy, agitated giraffe how to walk into a trailer that will take him to his new home. While volunteers holding long ropes coax him along, Dr Fowlds guides him into the vehicle. Some time later, we are ready to set him free, if only he’d allow someone to take his blindfold off. Then, off he goes. In the end, someone asks, “Did anyone see where the lions are?” It is only then we realise that we are in big cat territory.

Back on the safari, we meet Norman, a dominant elephant known to keep an eye on truant youngsters, and try to find the resident lions who favour the part close to their earlier home that is some miles away. As we pull up in front of three rhinos — a mother, her calf and a male looking for a mate — questions on the future of these magnificent beasts return. Dr Fowlds says, “I don’t know the right formula for conservation — should the government own the animals (as in India) or can individuals own them too (as in South Africa)? We’ve reached tipping point. Unless something is done now to curb poaching, it might not be possible to save them.”

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