Many of you have heard about the saga that has unfolded in the wildlife industry over the past few months, here in Zimbabwe. To briefly encapsulate the story: Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) entered into a business transaction with an overseas zoo. Zimbabwe was to supply a selection of specimens with which to restock the zoo, in the press this was known as, a “Noah’s Ark” of animals, each species being represented by a minimum of a pair. Whilst it is not uncommon for zoos to occasionally restock their collection from wild caught animals, it has of recent years become a frowned upon practice by many conservation groups and individuals. In fact, it is now supported by research that it is not in the best interest of any animal, to be removed from its natural state to an artificial one, no matter how good the artificial conditions may be. So, when it became public knowledge that this transaction was going to take place, it raised concerns from both local and international organisations alike.
After giving the issue due consideration, the ZPWMA made an executive decision, to cancel the deal and release the captured animals back to wild.
It was at the request of the Director General of ZPWMA, Mr Vitalis Chadenga, that the Tikki Hywood Trust was asked to assist with the release of the animals which had been destined for the overseas zoo.
Before I give an account of what took place I would like to give you two words, with their Oxford English dictionary meanings, and I would like you to give due consideration to those two words, before reading further;
WILD: living or growing in the natural environment, not inhabited or changed by people – uncontrolled.
CAPTURED: to take or get by force – take prisoner.
Having had the privilege to work with wild animals, I can honestly say, that there is nothing more disturbing, than witnessing wild animals that have been captured and then placed in a completely unnatural and therefore hostile environment. Time was of the essence and we had to get those animals released, as soon as possible. After being given the mandate by the Director of Parks, to co-ordinate this release, our journey started earlier morning Friday 25thJune 2010. Thanks to a very generous Zimbabwean, we were able to have the use of his skills as a pilot, as well as his plane. Without this hugely charitable action, the work which lay ahead of us would have been so much more gruelling and stressful. However, flying purposefully over the Zimbabwe landscape made me realised that I am immensely proud to be part of what this country has had to offer. Since we had left very early in the morning the sun was rising as we neared Hwange National Park and as we came in to land, there was a herd of wild elephants, mothers with babies by their sides. For me, seeing this herd was incredibly significant as to what we were about to undertake.
Once, the plane had landed we met up with Gary Cantle of Friends of Hwange Trust, who was our transporter on the ground assisting the release of the animals back to the Park. We drove straight to Main Camp where we met with the Parks personnel to discuss the next two days operations, and to make sure that we were releasing the animals back into areas where they had been captured so that they had the best chance of meeting up with their respective social groups. The co-operation from all parties involved was inspiring, and we all seemed to know what was expected of us and worked together to one common goal which was to get these animals out and released back into their wild home! Once all the meetings and discussion had been completed and assurance was given that all the necessary permitting was in order, we drove to Umtshibi (Capture unit headquarters for National Parks in Hwange). I am not sure if it was excitement or fear that made me unable to sit still whilst driving through the sand veldt of Hwange National Park en route to the holding area where we were to see the animals. When we arrived on site at Umtshibi, my heart was beating an erratic and painful rhythm against my ribs, and my hands were sticky and clammy from sweat. Nothing ever prepares me for seeing animals who are miserable within their environments, but even more soul destroying is seeing the long distance stare, that wild caught animals develop, wondering what on earth happened and how did they end up behind bars!?
As we entered the area there was a heaviness which prevailed – we walked, slowly towards the Samango monkey’s cage. In the corner of the cage huddled together and staring outside we found the three Samango monkeys, who had been captured in the Vumba which is in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. There was a male, who was a lot bigger than I had expected and two smaller females – one of which had a very sore arm, perhaps even broken. Attached to the back of their cage was another cage with two young warthogs in. From the scars on their faces it was evident that these two young warthog were terrified, and no sooner had you looked at them, than they started running into the fence and around and around the cage! Wanting desperately not to heighten the stress for these two animals, we backed away to check on the hyenas who had only been caught within the last two weeks. Both of these hyenas were young. Mercifully, the hyaena’s clan where still in the area close to the holding bomas, where they had been captured, and we knew this by the fresh spoor which was sighted, around Umtshibi from the previous night. Next were the two rock hyraxes that were together and thankfully had hiding places inside their portable cage. They would be the first to move as they had to be transported to where other rock hyraxes occur in Hwange. We could just transport them in the cage that had been their home for the past couple of months, without having to stress them further.
The two elephants were the next to visit. The two little innocent animals had been named after the pans where they were captured, Makwa and Kennedy. Fortunately both elephants were in good condition thanks to the input of both Varden Safaris, a specialist horseback tour operator based at Umtshibi, and the Parks personnel on the ground. Taking care of juvenile elephants is no mean feat. There is a daily requirement of cutting excessive amounts of browse as well as hay and cubes. Apart from the feeding side of juvenile elephants being in captivity, they also get very bored and stressed and require constant company because they are so young. Both elephants had bonded with their handlers and you could see a rapport with handler and elephant. Makwa and Kennedy are bound for Wild Horizons Wildlife Trust (WHWT) based in Victoria Falls to be integrated and rehabilitated with a herd of elephants that are ultimately to be released. WHWT, had brought one of their handlers who would be working with the Parks handlers to help with the cross over from one group of handlers to the next. National Parks have further aided this transition by allowing their staff to accompany the elephants to WHWT in Victoria Falls, and staying with them until they were adjusted to their new family. WHWT, will be feeding the two elephants at Umtshibi until they can be safely moved to their new home.
It was midday when we loaded the rock hyraxes into the vehicle and off we went to release them where there were other hyraxes in the Park. It was the first time I had been to Hwange National Park, so if it had not been for Friends of Hwange who knew the Park intimately, we would have struggled to find the suitable environment, rocky outcrops and other hyraxes for these two hyraxes to join up with. 102.6 kms later the vehicle stopped at what must have been the first rocky outcrop we had seen since leaving Umtshibi. Gary Cantle stated that this was the area where he had seen other hyraxes. It looked perfect, rocks boulders and still pools of water in the rocks. Quickly we removed the cage and carried it to the rocks. Christine Shields (from ZNSPCA) and I each carried one of the hyraxes out within the tube that they had been hiding in for the journey. Once facing the rocky outcrops the female hyrax (braver of the two) very slowly inched her way out of the tube. In a blur of fur, she was off not looking back running into the bush! Once the female was out, she straight away ran up into the rocks, jumping from boulder to boulder – she was back in her natural environment and you could see it. The male on the other hand, did not want any of it, and remain tucked up inside of where he had been hiding for the journey. I wanted them to stick together, so quickly I moved him in his hiding box of safety to where the female was and kindly helped him out. Once out into the sunlight and with soil and rock beneath his paws – he seemed to know that this was freedom. We watch both hyraxes leaping from rock to rock, a feeling of achievement came over all of us as we stood watching them for awhile. Time was of an essence though so we had to return before dusk in order to release the hyena in the hope that they could met up with their own clans that evening.
Climbing up onto the top of the crates where the hyenas had been kept was very emotional. This was a moment when I felt ashamed to be part of the human race. These two young hyenas had been separated from their families and put into the darkness of these crates, for what was meant to be for their protection until leaving, and for the safety of the staff that were to take care of them. Due to the myth of how dangerous these animals are, I fear that the conditions they were in were totally unnecessary, especially in light of the fact that no wild animal should be caught for captivity – I hope a lesson was learnt to all mankind involved with this incident and that it will never happen again. To see the panic of these two animals as we tried to gently move them out from the crates was heart wrenching. No animal should have their dignity taken from them to the point of total terror, of not being able to move. Slowly as their eyes adjusted to the light, and they realised that they could leave the crates, one by one they bolted out of the crates running to the furthest point from where us humans stood. After being released and having joined up, they moved towards the area where the Hyaena spoor had been spotted. Whether it was, scent, sound or sight, somehow they knew that they were back in the zone which had been home before they had been captured.
Warthogs and monkeys would be released the following day, as the sun set on an emotional and physical rollercoaster of events that marked 25thJune 2010. But, work was not finished as we did have a small problem; the two wooden crates for the monkeys did not seem strong enough after having physically inspected the animals. So mending and strengthen of these crates were paramount, before the next days capture. A half sedated, confused and terrified monkey loose in a small plane did not appeal to anyone of us who were to be passengers or pilot! Roger Parry of Wild Horizons Wildlife Trust was to be doing the necessary darting of the monkeys the following day. Working with primates is not something that many of us get the opportunity to do in Zimbabwe, so we discussed the many options and drug choices which were at our disposal. Having never done primates, I think both Roger and I, wanted to make sure we approached this correctly as we would not have many chances with the darting and the last thing either one of us wanted to do was resort to netting them and stressing them even further. As the crow flies the Vumba Mountains are approximately, 600 kms from Hwange, so there was also a time factor against us, as we had to make sure we were airborne no later than 10 am the following morning.
The Hide (a well-known tour operator with a concession within Hwange National Park), very kindly put us up for the night together with a warm fire and hot water bottles in our beds! Over dinner we discussed the day’s events, and there was a feeling of great satisfaction that some of the animals were back in the wild and by the end of the following day another five would be home! That night, as I went to bed my thoughts, however, were solely on the Samango monkeys, this would be their last night in captivity, the last night in an environment which is so alien to each one of them. Why do we as man, believe that it is our right to decide the fate of what is to become of so many of these animals?
At 4.30 am we awoke to get to the bomas, which were at least 40 minutes away. A cup of hot tea and we were off. It was dark and very, very cold. The warthogs were the first to be released this morning. I could not watch them being put into the crate for transport, after having seen them yesterday and their fear when we just looked at them. I could not face the terror with humans chasing them into the crate, but I knew this was the quickest and least “stressful” method. Roger and the Parks capture team managed to get the petrified animals into the crates, whilst I silently willed them to know that this would be the last act of terror visited on them by humans. I accompanied the Parks rangers to the site where we had decided to release the two warthogs. As the colour of the sunrise started to touch the horizon, the door to the crate of the warthogs was lifted and both warthogs were like bullets leaving the chamber of a gun. They were not hanging around, they knew that what lay outside of the crate was home!
With regards to the monkeys capture, we decided to follow the system that Parks had been doing over the past couple of months. The male, due to his dominance over the females, would be crated to be fed, so that the two females got some food before him. Whilst in the management crate it would be easy to pole syringe him, and then dart the two females in the main cage. Such sound planning, but how we waited! The monkeys knew something was up, and with the movement of animals yesterday and the addition of so many people today, they were wary. We waiting until 7.30 am for the male to get into the management crate as was habit, but realising that this was not going to happen, Roger Parry together with Esta Van der Meer (a researcher based in Hwange), agreed that darting all the monkeys was necessary. Both Roger and Esta had nerves of steel and before long the male was down and Roger was about to dart the first female who had the injured arm. A few minutes later, we got the thumbs up from Roger, a signal that Esta and I could go in and get to work on the first monkey. I have not had any experience with monkeys, and in fact have always been rather nervous of them. However sedated and lying there helplessly on the blanket were two of these monkeys and it was immediately apparent that Hwange bushveldt was not their natural habitat. Just a simple comparison, Hwange National Park is approximately 1080 meters above sea-level, whilst the Vumba, mountains, where the monkeys came from is approximately 1900 meters above sea level! After reading about them in guide books, nothing compared to the up close and personal inspection of the Samangos, their coats were thick with a rainbow of colours, perfect for blending into the canopies of the Vumba forests. Due to using ketamine, the drug used to knock them down, we had to put eye drops into the monkey’s eyes so that they did not dry out. As I drop the eye drops, into, the male’s eyes, I saw these two eyes looking up at me and blink once and then again, as if he knew it was to help him. The first female to be darted was the one with the injured arm, which had been infected due to a bite. We lanced the wound and irrigated it; thankfully her arm was not broken! After, a penicillin and a vitamin B complex injection to help with the infection, she was placed into the crate that would take her to the Vumba. The male was given the largest of the crates and the most secure. The second female was a little more difficult to dart, however Roger managed to get her and before 8.45 am all three monkeys were in their independent crates and we were once again in the vehicle and moving toward the airport and then on to the city of Mutare, the nearest airport to the Vumba botanical gardens. After our goodbyes were said, we loaded the crates into the plane and set off for a three and half hour flight to the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe.
The flight went very well with all the monkeys, none of them panicked and all remained calm throughout the journey. Just after 1 pm the plane came into landing, where we were to be met by Ian Campbell-Morrison, from Leopard Rock Hotel, together with the Warden of the Vumba Botanical Gardens, who would be accompanying us to the site where these three Samango monkeys had originally been captured from. Once the crates had been loaded into the vehicle we jumped in, and began the final leg of this journey. Half way up into the mountains of the Vumba you could feel that the air was different with the damp scent of forest, the terrain heavily dense with mountain acacias. I took the blanket off the crates so that the monkeys could smell where we were going. Quietly, the male Samango started looking out of the crate and sniffing the air. Did he know that he was home? We travelled higher up into the mountains and then past the sign saying we had arrived at the Vumba Botanical Gardens. Everything happened so quickly, we moved the crates to the area where we were going to release the three monkeys. I thought we would have to wait awhile for them to get their bearing before releasing them. There was no need, the tree canopies, suddenly became alive, we looked up and there was the troop of wild Samangos, a welcoming committee second to none. Without delay – we opened up the crates, the male first then the two females. Home! Each one of those monkeys knew they were home! They ran towards where the wild Samango, troop were. Silence was all that could be heard, and perhaps the odd thump of our hearts beating! We stood there, watching the forest dwellers melting into the forest – this was the perfect ending for these three monkeys.
To achieve the results with any wildlife rescue, such as this, it would not have been possible, with out the involvement of multiple organisations both local and international. We at the Tikki Hywood Trust would like to thank the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, and in particular Mr Vitalis Chadenga, for understanding the moral stand point of how important it is that wild animals should remain in the wild. In no particular order, we sincerely thank and acknowledge the following local and international organisations, without whom this rescue would not have become a reality.
ESTA VAN DER MEER
SEBOA TRUST – Mr. Darren Lança