Monitor Diaries
September 25, 2020

Tales of a Wildlife Vet - Episode 1: Neni from the Bhejie Pack Gets a Collar

In the past year alone Dr Rowan Leeming has darted several Wild Dogs in the name of conservation work done in order to preserve the species. He has relocated individuals to different reserves by plane and by car, and has collared many individual animals to enable effective tracking and monitoring of populations. He has also treated and rescued dozens of wounded individuals from snares.

Working to immobilise Wild Dogs is no small feat and it has taken determination, ingenuity and a LOT of creativity on Rowan’s part over the last 5 years. He has even had to hide in trees, bushes and underneath logs in order to “outsmart” certain tricky individuals. He has some extraordinary stories to tell from the hours he has spent working with Wild Dogs, but this is one of his favourites.

Full story below as told by Rowan Leeming

We were in the process of fitting collars to a big pack of Wild Dogs in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park called the Bhejie Pack. This was a pack of 30 individuals, so we needed to fit at least 3 males and 3 females with collars. We had managed to get collars onto five of the six and just had one left to collar, a young female called Neni. So off we went to collar the last dog.

The Wildlife ACT team managed to track the pack down and so we set up a call-up site. Now, to dart a Wild Dog is easy but to dart one specific Wild Dog is not that easy, especially when it is part of a pack of 30 individuals who all look very similar to the untrained eye. Most of the pack came in. With the help of the monitor, who knew the pack well, we scanned through all the individuals carefully trying to pick out Neni, but unfortunately she wasn’t there. We carried on with trying to call her in but still, she didn’t reveal herself. Eventually it got too late and we decided to pack everything up and try again the following day.

As we drove from the site to head back, the dogs started trotting along the road in the same direction that we were going in. Low and behold, who do we see? Neni. So desperate times call for desperate measures. I grip the steering wheel with my thighs while grabbing the dart gun. Then, telling the passenger to hold the steering wheel, we followed her slowly down the road.

With my feet still on the pedals and co-driver steering, I lean out the window with my dart gun. It was a chaotic moment, I must just tell you. Anyway, she stops briefly, and miraculously, I get a dart in! After the dart hit Neni, she ran off… Now it's already late - very late - as it was an afternoon call-up and starting to approach last light. However, we were desperate, so it is a good thing that the dart went in.

We begin tracking on foot ...

The next step was to find her. As Ezemvelo and Wildlife ACT’s partner in the KZN Wild Dog Advisory Group, Cole du Plessis from the Endangered Wildlife Trust was with us, so he and I headed into the bushes to search for Neni. Cole had been complaining of an ear infection in his right ear - something which we hadn’t acknowledged too well. Anyway, he was walking on my left side when he probably should have been walking on my right so that he could hear my instructions. The bush had started to get really thick as we had walked quite far from the vehicle. I started delivering instructions saying, “Ok, we can’t lose each other, it’s getting dark and we need to figure out where this dog is. Let’s discuss a plan.”

After getting no response, I look next to me all I see is bush and no Cole. I can’t find him, he can’t hear properly, and we couldn’t talk too loudly because it’s the bush! Finding the dog was a bit more important than finding Cole at that point, so I decided that we must just go our separate ways for the moment.

Luckily, we managed to join up somehow in a clearing. We then decided to continue looking for Neni down a rhino path that lead away from the open area and further into the bushes. We were very relieved to find her laying in the pathway and we rushed over.

We decided to collar and wake her up in that spot because of how late it was getting. So we got to work. While at it I hear this heavy breathing. I say “Cole, we didn’t run that far? Why are you breathing like that?” Cole replies, saying “It’s not me?”. We stop working on the Neni to look up to find a Black Rhino bull standing no more than 10m away...

Luckily it was dim and the wind was in our favour so he hadn’t detected us yet. Hardly believing our luck, we swiftly (and quietly) moved Neni out the way and successfully managed to get the collar on and wake her up with out any more hiccups. We headed back to the vehicle with our hearts pounding but feeling relieved that we had successfully collared the final dog of the Bhejie Pack.”

Here is what Rowan had to say about the incident:

Why collaring Wild Dogs is important

Putting collars on Wild Dog packs is an important part of conserving the species. The collars are designated to particular individuals - first and foremost one of the two alpha dogs. This is so the main pack can be tracked. If the pack starts to den it becomes easy to identify where the den site is and how long the dogs have been denning for.

Secondly, the alpha male (or in some cases the beta male) gets a collar so that if the collared alpha female stays behind to look after puppies, monitors are still able to track the individuals on the hunt. Then last but not least, precocious young adults are given collars in light of the fact that they have shown signs of possible dispersal away from the pack.

It is important for monitoring teams to be able to track these individuals once they have left their natal pack, as dispersers are known to travel over large distances to find new territories, thus leaving the confines of protected areas. So being able to locate these individuals is paramount to the successful management of these creatures. Ideally a collar should be fitted to each sub-adult in Wild Dog packs.

Neni with her newly-fitted collar.

Rowan has been working closely with Wildlife ACT since 2016. At that time, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife approached Wildlife ACT and WWF to form a partnership to secure funds for a full-time wildlife veterinarian position within the provincial conservation authority. With escalating rhino poaching placing an immense burden onto the game capture and veterinary resources, additional vet support was required to support and carry out other conservation initiatives and operations throughout the Ezemvelo protected areas in Northern KwaZulu-Natal.

>> Tales of a Wildlife Vet – Episode 2: Lions on a Plane