The Kalahari is an exceptionally beautiful place and one of my favourite places in South Africa. The rolling dunes go on and on forever. The soft sand is scattered with thorn trees, thick bushes, shrubs and stretches of golden grass that ripple in the wind like the mane of a giant lion. The air has a dry taste that leaves your lips chapped and your throat parched. The sun pelts down on the earth with a raging heat. The night, in stark contrast, is unforgivingly cold. Life here is a struggle. Food is scarce. Water even scarcer. The animals that live here face extreme fluctuations in air temperature on a daily basis. I find it incredible that this place, with its harsh terrain and extreme climate, is full of life! That, of course, makes the Kalahari the perfect place to study wildlife physiology.
Recently, I was invited to assist on a research trip to the Kalahari River Reserve (or KRR). KRR is a research site just outside Van Zyl’s Rus, where researchers study meerkats, mole rats, ground squirrels, bat-eared foxes, various bird species and, now, also wildebeest.
On our first day we went out to capture wildebeest. We drove around for quite a while with no sign of any wildebeest. We had some nice game viewing: springbok, steenbok, gemsbok, red hartebeest, eland, but no wildebeest.
Finally, we found a large herd of wildebeest. We approached them slowly with the vehicle so that Leith Meyer, our head veterinarian for the trip, could get a good shot. Once darted, the wildebeest sped off. Now the real chase began: The tranquilisers take about three to five minutes to take effect and it is difficult to keep an eye on one while the whole herd is running.
The wildebeest gave in to the effect of the drugs, decided to lie down on the soft sand and was soon fully sedated. Everyone jumped off the vehicle carrying boxes of surgical equipment to the anaesthetised animal. Field surgery has its challenges, but our veterinarians and support team are experienced and the surgery went smoothly.
The wildebeest was implanted with temperature, heart rate and activity loggers and fitted with ear tags and a collar. After the surgery was completed, the wildebeest was given the antidote to the tranquiliser and he soon got up and ran off to join the rest of his herd.
We drove back to the road through the Kalahari bush, optimistic after our first success and ready to catch our next wildebeest. Suddenly a gushing of air stopped us in our tracks. We all got out to see a huge splinter in our right front tyre.
After changing the tyre we drove to the workshop to get the punctured tyre patched up. While we were there we took the chance see the mole rat laboratory, which contained multiple Damaraland mole rat colonies living in see-through tunnels. It was fascinating to watch them working, cleaning out their tunnels and digging through saw dust “obstacles” to get to food. What happens when two mole rats meet each other head on in a tunnel? Easy – they simply climb over each other. Or, if they are too big to pass each other, the biggest one simply pushes the smaller one backwards. Unfortunately, the hiccup with the tyre meant that we could not capture another wildebeest that day, so we went back to our camp and ended the day with a pleasant braai. Tomorrow is another day.
The next day was indeed successful: we got two more wildebeest, and the day after that, three more! We were overjoyed with our increasing success. However, the wildebeest soon caught on to what we were up to. By the fourth day, the wildebeest recognised our vehicle and we could not get close to them. We spent the last day driving around, following wildebeest along the road, off road and over dunes: All in vain. We had a few short moments of hope, but each time the wildebeest would speed away just as Leith got within darting range. As the sun reached the horizon we decided that our luck was out and that six wildebeest for the week could still be considered a success.
Since it was our last night we had some sundowners on the Big Dune. As we watched the sunset, we talked and laughed about our week’s successes, disappointments and surprises. From our view on top of the dune we looked out over the Kalahari with its soft sand and its thorns. The rolling dunes went up and down, and up and down…. The Kalahari sky seemed to stretch on forever. We watched the blazing sun go down. The horizon was all aflame. We felt the cold of night slowly creeping in. As the last rays of sunlight disappeared, the first star appeared in the sky.
The harsh beauty of the Kalahari reminds us why we love wildlife research, despite all the ups and downs.