Looking back to my boyhood I have no real regrets. In hindsight there is only one thing I wish had done earlier in my life, visit KwaZulu Natal. However if I had visited earlier circumstances may not have led me to where I am now and all those places I have been lucky enough to visit. During our long summer school holidays I used to watch a TV programme called ‘Why Don’t You’. It was all about getting young people to be imaginative and out and about exploring their surroundings. If that programme were on now it would be suggesting that youngsters get themselves on volunteer programmes such as the one I have just spent time with: Wildlife ACT
As I soon discovered Wildlife ACT is not just for people young in years. When I arrived at their camp I was met by Axel, twenty years old, monitor of endangered species and working for the organisation and overseeing my visit. I was soon greeted by his team of five newly arrived volunteers. An all female group made up by Alicia, Jenny and Frances from England, Clare from France and Adilla from Malaysia, varying in age from twentyish to fortyish. Most had already been to at least one other reserve to volunteer and one was on her third visit.
I knew little of the organisation as I had only seen their vehicle in Imfolozi Game Reserve a couple of times. What I did know is that they attracted tourists, like vultures to a carcass, due to their monitoring success. So here I was, back in Imfolozi, keen to learn of their work and day to day activities. I am generally excited on arrival at all reserves and had already passed many plains game and a feeding bull elephant en route to camp. What added to the sense of excitement was learning that the house next to our camp was once home to Dr Ian Player. The once game ranger, officer in charge and now legend of rhino conservation. But our task with Axel and the group for the next couple of days was to track down a pack of wild dogs that had not been seen for seven weeks.
We headed out in the back of the uncovered WACT bakkie (that’s a pick up truck outside of SA slang) in late afternoon. There was rain in the air and the sky looked laden with the stuff. Axel drove us to a high point and the team knew the drill. Two dogs from this particular pack are fitted with radio collars. These dogs are named and are the alpha male and alpha female. The monitoring equipment was passed into the back of the truck and a pre-nominated volunteer, Jenny on this occasion, takes the tracking device and aerial and stands on her seat. Axel nominates a tracking channel and calls out a dog’s name. In this instance he starts with “Mosses”. Jenny rotates moves the aerial slowly through 360o two or three times. All we hear is the crackle like interference from the hand held device. “OK, lets try Ryder” Axel asks Jenny. A faint pip at two-o-clock! Wow, just like that we are going to see wild dogs now, I thought to myself. Jenny then searches for two more dogs, Aladin and Raqui, from another pack with no further pips.
We move from place to place using the reserves open dirt roads and ‘no entry’ management tracks. The tracking process is repeated and forms are filled out, by Claire, recording all information including any faint pips. We are trying to narrow the search area down and Axel has found recent dog tracks on the road. By now the radio equipment is being held by Jenny in a clear plastic bag as the rain closes in. Once more there are faint pips as we study the tracks. The loudest noise here though is that of elephants trumpeting and crashing through the nearby bush. Axel declares, “rain stops search” and we head back to camp. I realise a few things at this point. This is patient and dedicated work where things just do not happen. More so than just game viewing as we are looking for one specific species and not stopping to view general game. Lastly, I wish to I had bought a waterproof coat!
Arriving back after dark the team get to work on preparing dinner. It is all about team work here. I had bought along some groceries and after a debate about cooking boerewors I offered to pan fry it in the kitchen as the rain prevented an open fire. We sat and ate under the tin roofed shelter and talked about our African travels, experiences and plans. I probably come across as inquisitive as I am always asking where people have been and what they have done in South Africa. Axel and the team, from very mixed backgrounds, all shared a passion for wildlife that was clear. All too soon Axel reminded us that we would be having a 4.30am start. Time to wash up the pans and hit the sack.
In typically English fashion we have a start delayed due to rain. Even the bakkie resembles a mobile Jacuzzi with the back section nearly full of rain water. At 6am we head out. I opted to wear my lucky Teesav safari shirt and told Axel of the great sightings I had enjoyed when wearing it. He laughed and leant me his spare waterproof to cover it up with.
The day starts off as yesterday had finished. Rain, driving dirt roads, scanning, dog’s names called out and faint pips. Then a breakthrough and even I notice a change in the sound of the pips. At 7.15am we are crawling in tractor mode along a deserted track. We have river to our left and open bushveld to our right. The whole team including me is peering left and right and the pips tell the team there are dogs within meters of us. At 7.20am there is an impala alarm call from the river bank to our left. “Dogs to the right at one-o-clock” Axel declares and the whole team shifts their focus of sight. One by one in single file and only a few seconds apart the pack appears. After seven weeks of near misses and faint pips here was the Sokhezela pack of Imfolozi, all sixteen of them.
Once the dogs give up on the hunt they regroup within a few meters of the bakkie and head up the road in front of us. We spend the whole morning tracking and following the pack. Sometimes we can only see an individual dog as they head away from where can safely drive. Within the pack there are six eight month old puppies, who, occasionally stop on the road and feed on a beetle. They do this with a lot of scuffling and yelping broadening the smiles of the watching team. Occasionally the wind blows their pungent odour though our nostrils. I have to say it is not a pleasant smell. Axel explains he needs to radio in now the pack has been located. The plan is to call in the EKZN Wildlife vet and upgrade the collars of the collard dogs. The batteries are worrying low on the current collars. It is also an opportunity to upgrade to anti snare satellite tracking collars rather than the standard VHF collar. This is an expensive upgrade, up from £500.00 to £4500.00 per collar.
We are again left with only one dog in sight. The team use the WACT ID charts and determine this is Mickey. Mickey amazes us by taking off at high speed in pursuit of two impalas. The animals snort and sprint but as the animal at the back attempts a sharp right turn and slips. Mickey is on her in a flash and the impala is killed instantly. I did not expect to see my first kill and as it happened I awaited the final screams before death. There were none and when Mickey rose from the grass her head and neck soaked in blood. She fed then ran the road and called the pack. After four or five calls the pack came and devoured the impala in less than ten minutes. I had forgotten about the rain and by now it was pouring, cat & dog like! The dogs made their way to open short grass where most laid and slept. Three of the pups entertained us for an hour fighting over the impalas, now earless, head. One lucky dog was in possession and would not give it up despite the constant bites to his ears and rear end. Even an opportunist hyena was not quick enough to take the head from the young dog.
The volunteers listened to Axel as he pointed out individual dogs and explained their behaviour as we sat and observed. On the arrival of Zarman, from EKZN Wildlife and vet, Dave Cooper we manoeuvred our vehicle to form a road block. Tourists who had arrived through the morning were requested to leave the area as it was time to dart the dogs. Dave took aim and a flash of fluorescent pink struck the first dog on its rump. A high pitch yelp and a leap in the air followed. After walking in circles for a few minutes the dog flopped down and seemed to go back to sleep. I could see Dave glancing from his watch to the dog and back. Eventually he approached the dog on foot and threw a towel over its head. He beckoned Zarman, who had the new collar in hand, and within minutes it was securely in place. An antidote was injected and as Dave got back to his vehicle the dog was back on his feet. He looked unsteady but was soon rejoined by the pack who like us, had been watching events unfold.
Over the course of my short stay I had been introduced to over thirty wild dogs. I had met a dedicated and enthusiastic team led and instructed by a knowledgeable and committed young Axel. I had witnessed the behavioural habits of a wild dog pack and even had the incredible luck of seeing a kill. I also now have a much greater understanding of the priceless work that Wildlife ACT carry out in the name of conservation. I have tried to tell you my story without bombarding you with all the facts behind the organisations work. It is not only about wild dogs and Imfolozi. If you are interested in the many opportunities that the organisation offers, please make contact with them. I am considering spending a holiday volunteering with them on my next safari.