Sep 25, 2008

The long awaited release of Agatha!

It is with great excitement we write this post with regards to the release of Agatha the leopard. After a long haul down ‘recovery lane’ Agatha has finally been released. As many of you recall she was the young leopard caught in a snare in the Agatha Plantations near Tzaneen in the Limpopo Province, about 100 km West of Moholoholo. She arrived in a terrible state, and was monitored with bated breath to see if she would pull through. 

Initially we had problems getting her to eat, mainly due to the injuries to her mouth from biting on what ever she felt was hindering her from ‘trap’ she was in. but after much perseverance from our students and staff she slowly began to eat and her wounds began to heal.  Agatha adapted well, fed well and in general recovered well for the final decision to release her which was noted by Brian who would check on her from time to time which became a game between the two of them as Agatha would play the game of Hide & Seek to the amusement and joy of Brian.

The Rehab Centre was bustling with activity with a very busy itinerary on Thursday, 18th September. The atmosphere was filled with anticipation as well as concern.  Darting any wild animal carries with it a risk of overdose, overheating and stress.  All of which can be fatal.  The battle was not over yet, and this day was as crucial to her as the weeks of treatment and attention she had received at the centre.   

The final decision had been made to release her in a Private Nature Reserve near Hoedspruit.  It is a vast area bordering the Kruger Park, where a number of different farmers have agreed to lower their fences in an attempt to provide as large, and as natural an environment as possible for Africa’s wildlife.  As such, we know the area and we monitor the safety of all animals where possible.  It would also mean that we would be able to keep track of our patient on the next leg of her journey back to the wild, and would provide her with a large area to roam and establish a suitable territory. 

 On the day of release she was no more accommodating than during her stay. Leopards are not inclined to ‘tame down’ during rehabilitation such as this, and we can be confident when we release Agatha that she will thrive back in her natural environment, and pose no immediate threat to people.

She proved this statement while we were trying to attract her attention towards the metal bars of the enclosure so that the vet could dart her from the other side. Corrie, one of the staff, played the decoy by standing close to the bars. All she had to do was stand up, but she had other plans. She jumped up the bars and was able to fit her paw through the top bars of the enclosure and deliver a nasty smack to Corrie’s left ear. Her claws left 2 scratches and one small hole around his ear.

The wounds being in a heavy veined spot caused blood to flow everywhere, which made it look much worse than it actually was. Corrie commented later that the wounds were minor, and that the actual power of the smack did the most damage. It was so hard that it gave him “whiplash”, ending up in a neck spasm and a huge headache. He survived the ordeal but maybe just a little less pretty…

The vet darted her with Zoletil (a drug used for sedating birds and mammals) and we set our watches to see how long it took for the drug to take full effect.  Experience has taught Brian, the manager that between seven and eight minutes should be sufficient to ‘knock out’ a leopard after being darted with Zoletil.  Sure enough after about eight minutes we were able to enter the enclosure and begin sampling before she starts waking up.

To monitor her movements as part of our ongoing Leopard Monitoring Project in conjunction with the Mpumalanga Leopard Foundation and Limpopo Environmental Affairs, we also fitted her with a GPS/GPRS collar. This will enable us, like with all our other leopards, to monitor her movements over the space of about 18 months to 2 years. Having access to her movements we may even be able to see when and what she kills along the way. Other samples taken to aid the project are blood and hair which provide DNA fingerprints of each leopard released.

Agatha only weighed in at 25 kg which is on the lower scale end of the scale female leopard, but after experiencing her fiery temperament during her recovery, we had no doubt she would do fine in her new bush home.  

Her collar fitted and samples taken; she was loaded onto the vehicle to be moved to her release site (with an anxious and excited gang of students as her chaperones).  The journey was not uneventful however, we had a rather nerve wracking encounter with a Breeding herd of elephants which slightly delayed our journey.  But, as always, every ‘bush encounter’ like this makes these days even more special memorable, highlighting the incredible nature of the African Bush that our international guests experience! 

By the time we reached our release site the drug had sufficiently worn off, making her awake enough to be able to move to cover quickly to avoid any lion or hyena which may be in the area that could advantage of her state.

Vehicles are positioned to enable staff and students to have a better vantage point as she takes her next steps to freedom!, yet far enough to ensure everyone’s safety…with windows closed!!
Opening the box is always the nerve wracking stage of the release.  But for once its not the animal that we worry about, it’s the manger Brian, upon whom it always falls to open up the box and release the growling leopard.  Brian on the other hand, must rely on his experience and agility to time the opening of the box and sprint to his vehicle (and as the years pass and he reaches pensioner age, the staff hold their breaths for longer).

As we all sat watching, Agatha came shooting out of the box, stumbled slightly as the drug was still busy wearing off, and headed for cover, as we predicted.  Luckily she was still in view and we were able to monitor her as she fully recovered from the sedative.  As she regained control of her body and found her bearings we watched as she slowly moved off into the bush to start her new life!!

This day was a success!  As the extent of her injuries, and her battle back to health have made this day even more of a triumph for her and for us all! Good Luck Agatha!
We will update you on her progress and movements so watch this space…

Sep 19, 2008

When To Help or When Not To Help...

There are times that people rescue animals with the intension of helping the animal, but in the end it does not always end that way.

Take this Verreauxs’ Eagle or Black eagle for an example. He was found by farmers on the ground trying to get through a fence on a game farm near Louis Trichardt. It was not able to fly and was moving by running and walking on the ground. It did not seem to have any injuries other than being thin and weak, thus not able to fly. The farmers once home placed it in a cage that was in fact far too small for its size. During the 2 months that it was kept in this enclosure its condition picked up quite well but due to the size of the enclosure the bird broke all his primary feathers.

Unfortunately these feathers don’t repair themselves once they have been broken and are only replaced when they molt their feathers which is done 1 or 2 at a time over one year. This is a slow process and we needed to speed things up. This meant that we had to stimulate the new growth and actually pull the feathers out. This had to be done in stages as it is quite painful to the bird. But at least the feathers could re-grow without hindrance.

From the blotched feather coat we estimate that it is in its 2nd year. Under normal circumstances around ¾’s of the Birds of Prey don’t even reach 1 year old, only around 5% of them reach adulthood at about 7-8 years old. So in fact this bird would have fallen in the “unfit” group of the Verreauxs’ eagle population. .

Cases like this are not uncommon, Large Birds of Prey are often “rescued” and put into an environment that is not suitable for them, resulting in injury. The rescuers mean well but the lack of knowledge and experience can have disastrous effects on the birds.

The future for this bird is unsure at the moment seeing that the chances of him being released back into the wild are slight. Although it will be able to hunt well for itself the problem will be finding the right territory which it will only be able to occupy when he is adult. If it is released into the wrong territory such as one where there is already a territorial pair of Verreauxs Eagles, you will find the biggest risk factor will be, being killed by a territorial pair within a short while after its release.

This eagle’s new career may include being an educational ambassador here at our centre and on our educational talks off site along side our Cheetahs and Bateleur Eagle.  One can only wait and see what will be its destiny; one can only hope for it to be released some where, where it can roam the skies where eagles belong.