Tales of a Wildlife Vet – Episode 2: Lions on a Plane
Since 2016, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife vet, Dr Rowan Leeming, has worked on many projects involving lions. Here, Rowan tells us about his very first lion translocation by air. During this mission Rowan was sent to fetch three male lions from Tswalu Private Game Reserve and bring them to the uMkhuze Section of iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
Dr Dave Cooper: “There are some lions that need to come up from the Kalahari to Zululand”
Me: “That’s cool, when are you going?”
Dr Dave Cooper: “No no, I want you to do it”
Me: “That’s quite far, how are we going to do that?”
Dr Dave Cooper: “We are going to fly them down”
It was September of 2016, my first year working as an Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife vet. I had already had a whirlwind of a year. It was the best year ever. I was getting thrown into my dream job with Dave Cooper as my mentor. I had already done so much. I’d even started darting out of the helicopter. I thought I had done it all. That is until Dave came to tell me that I needed to bring lions down to Zululand from the Kalahari in a plane. I love flying and I love aviation. If I wasn’t a vet I would probably be a pilot. To be told that I need to translocate lions, on a plane, was a dream come true.
Dave told me that I would be using the drug Zoletil for the journey. We used to use it routinely, but because there is no reversal for it we don’t use it so much on the ground anymore, but for long translocations it is useful because the animals wake up slowly and are somewhat somnolent during the initial recovery from sedation.
So, armed with confidence from Dave and a cooler box full of Zoletil, I drove from Spionkop to Joburg to meet the Pilot, Ryan, from The Bateleurs to get to Rand Airport. From there we climbed into the Bateleurs’ 6-seater Cessna 402 to fly to Tswalu. Tswalu Private Game reserve is the biggest private game reserve in South Africa. It is in the Kalahari and is so different from the hilly, humid climate of Zululand. The Kalahari is flat, dry and so vast. As soon as we landed I met Gus and Dylan from Tswalu, jumped straight into the vehicle and to drove to the boma.
The boma had a double gate system and as soon as we were through the second gate the lions were right there, so we managed to get the first dart in quickly. After the first dart the other two lions knew what was happening and were a bit more challenging, but we got them eventually.
Then we loaded them onto the vehicle and rushed them to the plane where the pilots had been prepping the fuselage floor with plastic and getting the plane ready for the lions. When we got there, their eyes went as wide as saucers. They were not expecting the lions to be that enormous.
After playing a bit of real life Tetris with the lions we managed to safely pack them into the fuselage – like sardines with their heads facing the front and each with a blindfold on to protect their eyes and dull the senses. Once ready, we roared down the runway and away we went on the way to uMkhuze.
Once we had taken off, it was time to carefully monitor dosage and top-ups of Zoletil. I had done everything to the book and as Dave told me to. Now there is one thing you have to understand about this job, the animals don’t read the same textbooks that we do. You can have a plan but, as much as you follow that plan, things almost never go to plan.
So in the middle of the flight, the lions started to show signs of what we call “getting light”. The minor signs are leg twitches or their ears start to twitch. As they started getting light I began drawing my top-up doses and gave them each one. I carried on monitoring them and about 15 minutes later they started to show stronger signs of getting light, but I was not worried at all. All because Dave said it would all be alright.
By the end of the flight the middle lion started licking his brother next to him and the lion under my feet started lightly gnawing on the seat post. All I could think to do at this point was put my hand over the blindfold and just keep doing what I was doing – injecting more top-up and just knowing it was going to be okay because Dave said ”Everything will be fine”. The pilot even looked around and asked if that was normal. I reassured him, with my Dave-induced confidence, that everything was fine.
As we started to approach uMkhuze we started to hit bad weather and turbulence. We were so close I could recognise all the landmarks – the Lebombo mountains, Jozini Dam. The last leg to uMkhuze felt like hours even though it was probably much shorter than that. I’m not normally one to get air sick but, oh my goodness, the turbulence was so bad and I was facing backwards. All I could think of was why we weren’t going down yet.
I was at a stage where I even put the Zoletil away as I couldn’t look down anymore. I thought if I look down I’d be to be sick, but the lions still needed one last top-up. Ultimately, I managed to scrape the last bit of good feeling together and draw up one last top-up before we landed. So you can imagine, even though these lions had been topped-up and I continued to do exactly what I had been briefed to do, they were still very lightly sedated. “Everything is fine” I told myself.
At last we circled the runway, approaching the end of the flight. By this time I was feeling as sick as a dog. These lions are one step away from drowsily sitting up and out of the window. I could see my good friend Joel Alves waiting by my vehicle at the Mkuze Airstrip. I’ve never been happier to see someone. We landed, and before the engines had even shut off, I burst the door open and called out to Joel saying “Joel! I’m so glad to see you! Bring the vehicle!” As the door opened, my air sickness went away, and a level of calm came over me. I was back on familiar turf with the familiar faces of my colleagues who I’m lucky enough to call friends: Eduard Goosen, Brigitte Church, PJ Roberts and Joel, who were there to help support. We then got ready for the last leg of the journey.
We swiftly got the lions off the plane – onto the vehicles and transported them to the boma. We put them in the bomas, placed tracking collars on them and took some final blood samples. When they started waking up, I looked down at my watch. It was 19:00! I hadn’t acknowledged a single minute of the day. It was just like one continuous and incredible moment. There were no pauses or breaks, it was just one awesome thing. When last did you do something that kept your mind occupied for a whole day and you never even realised it?
After checking on the lions one more time later that evening, we ended the night off with a beer on the water tower and “everything was fine.”
Lion translocations are a vital tool in the management of lion populations across Africa. Lions have vanished from over 90% of their historic range, with the biggest decline occurring in the last 2 decades. They are now extinct in 26 African countries. Increasingly, populations of lion are becoming isolated or (like in South Africa) are confined to protected areas that have restricted gene flow. Managing these populations is critical to minimising the loss of genetic variability. The translocation of lions helps to spread the genetic diversity of lion populations thus ensuring the long-term health of the species.