2010 could hardly be labelled as a run-of-the-mill year for the SANParks Veterinary Wildlife Services (VWS) unit, especially with more than 120 rhinos killed for their horn in the Kruger National Park (KNP).
Dr Markus Hofmeyr, head of the department, and his team are on standby to give veterinary support to the rangers in pursuit of poaching suspects and to do post mortems and investigate the seriousness of wounded rhinos "We perform post mortems on these animals and, while not a situation we wish for, we can also collect samples for our research of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in rhino. To date we have found no indication that rhinos are susceptible to bTB."
In another research project, Dr Peter Buss and operations coordinator, Marius Kruger, have been keeping an eye on the stress levels of rhino in bomas and correlate stress factors with adaptation of rhino in the bomas. This project is ongoing.
In Kruger, large mammal ecologist, Dr Sam Ferreira, is heading a lion research project in which the vet team has assisted with the capture and collaring of more than 120 lions this year. The aim is to collar 10 prides across three zones in the park.
"We have finished the southern and northern parts and will do the central section next year," says Markus. The research is being funded by the A Jubatus Foundation for the next five years.
The main objective is to understand the dynamics of lion prides across different zones in Kruger. Various researchers are working with scientific services and VWS to maximise sampling opportunities during captures for disease diagnostic research on feline Aids and also to try and develop a blood-based TB test for lion.
The only diagnostic test for bTB in lions is the comparative skin test, which requires two immobilisations three days apart, making it impractical for free ranging lions over such a large geographic range. Hence the emphasis on developing a blood based TB test that can be done from a single blood sample. Alongside testing for bTB, screening for feline aids (FIV) is being done by Dr Danny Govender of Kruger's scientific services.
The drug combination (butorphanol, medetomidine and midazolam) tested last year on lions in Kruger by Dr Sandra Wagener and Dr Buss was used extensively in the captures this year and greatly facilitated the time required to process and to wake up the lions.
Historically, the drugs used had no reversal agents and it sometimes took four hours for lions to recover during which time they had to be observed and protected against other predators. By having a reversible drug combination lions are awake within 30 minutes after the reversal injections, which reduces the time needed for a specific operation. The combination shows similar promise in hippopotamus as observed in 25 captures over the last three years.
However, Markus had a very public scare in October when a colleague plucked him away from a sedated hippo which awoke unexpectedly. The story made headlines across the world. According to Markus the hippo was the 20th one drugged with the new combination and 'we had no problems before then." He believes the dart may not have penetrated deep enough through the hide of the hippo, and the animal may also have got water up its nose, which acted as a strong stimulant. "We learnt a lot from the incident and have put safety mechanisms in place to avoid a tragedy in future," he said.
In Marakele, the team removed collars from elephant, lion and rhino that were used in a study of how these animals interact with their landscape over time. The findings will be published in 2011. Further south, Dr David Zimmerman attended a number of workshops and strategies to investigate and mitigate the demise of the penguin population on the islands in the marine section of Addo National Park. In Bontebok National Park, the team immobilised all the mountain zebra there to establish which animals had sarcoids.
Sarcoids are cancerous growths that can affect breathing and may lead to the death of the zebra. The disease is transmissible. The infected animals were put down and of the remaining healthy group, 18 were translocated to the Oorlogskloof Game Reserve in the northern Cape near Calvinia to boost the small mountain zebra population there.
This year, SANParks sold less rhino (130) than in the previous year. "Mainly because we have a new sales policy that requires buyers of more than 20 rhino to provide ecological and provincial conservation agency approval for the purchase," says Markus.
"We have also sold less buffalo than in previous years." The buffalo were sourced from Graspan and Camdeboo National Park and sold on tender and auction respectively. Mountain zebra, black wildebeest, eland and red hartebeest were sold on auction. About 200 animals - gemsbok, oryx and red hartebeest - were translocated from Mokala National Park, near Kimberley, to Namakwa National Park.
The team also moved eland, zebra and red hartebeest from Bergkwagga Mountain Zebra National Park to the newly acquired Colchester area of Addo. It was, however, the predators in South Africa's smaller fenced parks that devoured more of the unit's time than in recent years, and "will continue to do so in 2011." Markus says each park's population will be managed as a social group.
In Bergkwagga Mountain Zebra National Park, the cheetah and mountain zebra populations are doing extremely well. Of the 30 cheetah, half are in bomas awaiting translocation to other suitable habitats.
Eight lions have been translocated from Addo to bomas in the Karoo National Park in September. They were released in November this year, marking the return of lion to area since the last wild lion was shot near Leeu-Gamka in 1842.
No animals were translocated to the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique, but plans are being made to move game to Zinave in the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area in 2011.
The team assisted with the collaring of buffalo in the region where Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe meet. Samples were collected to establish a disease profile. These animals' movement will be recorded across the landscape and over time.
Game translocations are earmarked for the Richterveld, Augrabies and Namakwa National Parks, while a number of giraffe will find a new home in the northern parts of the Kgalagadi.
By Lynette Strauss