Did you know?
Wildlife immobilisation drugs were first used in South Africa to capture white rhinos in the 1960s.
It’s late afternoon and the stage is set. Suddenly, the outraged squeals of a warthog rend the bushveld air.
Enter a quartet of lions who stride up as if summoned by a dinner bell in a boarding school. Their ears are pricked forward, their eyes are alight and focused, and their noses lifted to pick up the scent of a surprise evening snack.
The audience, a dozen foreign businessmen on a bush break, sit in their vehicles, cameras poised. The wildlife veterinarian with the dart gun waits for the right moment.
Everyone is here for a wildlife conservation safari.
Visitors on wildlife conservation safaris are funding essential work (blood tests, for example, or the removal of a radio collar, insertion of transmitters into rhino horns, or a dozen other tasks that are costly but necessary for conservation work).
In return, they are privy to a look behind the scenes. Wildlife conservation safaris are thus a win-win situation.
The park ecologist hits the stop button on the tape recorder, and two large speakers that had filled the plains with the unmistakable squeals of a hog in distress go silent.
The wildlife vet shoots a dart with pink feathering into the rump of the first unsuspecting lioness. After a few minutes, she sits down suddenly, in the manner of one who has overindulged somewhat in tequila, her eyes stargazing.
Once the lions are all completely under the influence of veterinary drugs, the work starts.
The businessmen, all equipped with rubber gloves to guard against any parasites, are following orders.
After the blood tests, they help load the lions onto a small truck via tarpaulins, and the predators are taken back out onto the open plains before the antidote is administered.
Everyone watches from a safe distance as the lions come to, and weave gently off into the sunset.
It might equally well have been an elephant that needed dental work, or a collar removed, or contraceptives to be administered. In that case, the wildlife veterinarian will be up in a helicopter to administer the dart from above while everyone waits for the OK to move on the ground.
To be close to a sleeping elephant is a marvel. You can hear it breathing in great, slow gusts through its trunk. You can feel its 20kg heart thumping in a steady drumroll.
Rhinos often need work, much of it related to anti-poaching measures. Visitors watch as vets work on the sleeping rhino, its eyes covered with cloth, its lips trembling in deep sleep.
Generally they are immobilised so that horns can be measured and microchipped, then ears are notched for easy identification.
Once the conservation work is done, the visitors return with cameras full of pictures and heads full of unforgettable memories.
As a wildlife vet put it: 'Not a lot of guys do this, but I see this as being helpful all round. It’s good for people to experience what happens behind the scenes in conservation. And game reserves benefit from the funding.'
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
The following operators offer wildlife conservation experiences:
Tel: +27 (0)82 990 1168
Dr Peter Brothers
Tel: +27 (0)46 622 7633
Cell: +27 (0)82 756 3503
Wildcon Safaris and Events
Tel: +27 (0)31 762 3017
Cell: +27 (0)83 560 0555
How to get here
Wildlife conservation safaris can take place anywhere in the country. Generally, they are only feasible for groups of between 10 and 20 people. Contact the operators to enquire about opportunities.
Best time to visit
Most conservation work is done during the cool winter months (May to September) to minimise heat stress to the animals.
Once at the reserve you're staying at, you will be driven around in a game-viewing vehicle.
What will it cost
Costs depend on the conservation work that needs to be done, the size of the group, and the game reserve itself.
Length of stay
Two nights or more are ideal. Sometimes several tasks need to be done.
What to pack
Bring a hat, warm clothing for chilly night air, camera, and binoculars for game viewing.
Where to stay
Wildlife conservation safaris generally take place where there is decent accommodation.