Wednesday – Collaring (is that even a word?)
Shadrach and I are sitting on our bikes with binoculars glued to our eyes. About 400 metres from us we see the ZCP vehicle drive through a sizeable wildebeest herd. A team of 4 ZCP’ers and 1 vet are looking for a healthy female with calf. When they have picked a target, Daan manoeuvres the car alongside it, the vet takes his gun, aims carefully and then pulls the trigger. With high speed a dart with a sedative is launched into wildebeests flank and the sound of the gun (like the release of a spring but louder) causes a moment of chaos in the herd. Within 2 minutes one of the wildebeest lays down.
The vet gets out first. Carefully he approaches the cow, checks whether she is really ‘down’ and puts her in a good position. As he removes the dart and covers her eyes with a blindfold, the rest of the team gets out and rushes to get materials out and we get a sign to approach.
A brand new collar is fitted around the wildebeests neck, her temperature and heartrate are measured and tooth measurements are done to estimate her age. The team works fast and efficiently and within 14 minutes after darting, the vet administers the reversal drug as we all pack up materials and step back.
For a minute nothing happens. Then the wildebeests raises her head, obviously having a “what the fuck happened to me? Where am I? Why am I on the ground? Everything is blank!!!”, as I’m sure you’ve had 1 or 2 of in your life as well (maybe not after a dart being shot in your bum). She looks behind her and sees us, standing in a line to prevent her from moving any other direction but back to her herd and calf. Our scary faces are enough to make her get up and walk to the herd. She is impressively stable, especially compared to carnivores, that seem like drunks staggering home after a messy night in a dodgy bar after having been darted.
Softly she calls out to her calf. After a few tries she start running and slightly panicked she reaches the herd where she continues calling and running. A calf singles itself out from the rest and calls as well. Like in a movie, calf and cow run to each other and within 10 seconds they are reunited and safe. As a seal of their bond, the calf forcefully headbutts the cow’s flank which motivates her to make space for the calf to drink. A happy ending like it should be. 18 more to go!
Friday – The return of the lost wildebeest
This whole wildebeest re-collaring has become a much bigger challenge than I expected. Today is the last day that the vet is here, and we still need to find 2 females that already have a collar but need a new one because the batteries of the collar are running out. 7 others were already found and successfully recollared. Each team-member has done over 350 km over the past 4 days looking for all the collared wildebeest that need a new collar and I seriously think together we’ve seen Liuwa’s entire wildebeest population… Twice… But WB-14 and WB-20, in these crucial days, seem to have disappeared.
On this last day we divide the areas once more and we each get on our way, in search of the 2 missing wildebeest. I’m going to the west. An area where I’m not confident to find them but obviously we have to make sure they are not sneakily chilling here. So off I go, I ride and ride. 14 km from camp I see a herd, the only one in this area, and with my fingers crossed I get closer (figuratively speaking of course, it’s difficult riding a bike with crossed fingers).
I stop the engine, stand up on the bike and start scanning. I start my scan with the last wildebeest in my receiver (WB-113) to build up the tension for myself (you have to make it fun somehow peeps). I reach WB-20 but hear nothing… No beep… Nothing… Darn it.
The receiver jumps to WB-15 (nothing) to WB-14 and BEEP BEEP BEEP. I can’t believe it! I must be hallucinating. Is that a beep?! YES IT’S A BEEP! I shriek, I jump, I do a victory dance, I call the darting team to tell them the good news, they get on their way. I search the lost WB-14 and don’t lose her out of sight until the darting team comes and we can follow the same procedure as described above. 1 down, 1 missing wildebeest to go.
Eventually, despite the massive search and hard work, we don’t manage to find WB-20 which is a shame. Of course we joke about finding her tomorrow, when it’ll be too late.
Sunday - Reunion
Aaaaaah Sunday… The first real field morning after an entire week dominated by wildebeest work…
Except that everyone is doing wildebeest again…
Now that (almost) all of the wildebeest are (re)collared we have to find them again to check how they and their offspring are doing. I manage to convince D that he should send me Lwakoi clan area. That way I can start by finding my favourite animals before moving on to finding the ones that I’ve seen a bit more of this week (yes that’s an understatement).
To make a long story short: I don’t find the hyenas. But I do, in an area where I’ve been about 5 times this week, find THE lost wildebeest. WB-20 is happily grazing near Lwambi woodland, the core of the Lwakoi clan area. I am not even surprised, we totally knew this would happen, it’s Murphy’s law.