We watched with growing anticipation as the Cessna 402C, carrying 3 male lions, dropped out of the heavy cloud cover and into the evening twilight. It had been a long day, and working with the Wildlife ACT staff, it had begun at 3.30am searching for an elusive pack of wild dog towards the edge of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park.
The Forever Wild Foundation had become involved with Wildlife ACT and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife in June 2013 with financing the re-introduction of a pack of wild dog into the uMkhuze Game Reserve. Cole du Plessis, the Wildlife ACT monitor, had asked if on this occasion if I would help in locating a small pack of wild dog that, due to a weak signal from its collar, had been eluding the monitoring team for days.
Two hours later, criss-crossing dirt tracks and stopping frequently to check the signal strength and direction, we finally found the Alfa male Enanela and his pack alarmingly close to the boundary fence. Cole kept hard on their trail, needing 20 minutes of close proximity in order for his hand held monitor to download Enanela’s invaluable information stored in his collar’s transmitter. This information would later be scrutinized.
Every day teams of volunteers track down various endangered species within certain Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife protected areas. Wild dog, lion and cheetah are prioritized and any abnormality in their behaviour acted upon immediately. On many occasions animals have been saved from snares or injuries because of this close monitoring. It is a tiring and expensive routine carried out twice - daily and which Wildlife ACT is committed to totally.
By mid-morning we made our way to the park’s lion ‘boma’ which would be home to 3 brothers for the next few weeks. The Forever Wild Foundation has helped finance the construction of the enclosure and I was intrigued and impressed with the knowledge, research and equipment the Ezemvelo staff had poured into the project. From solar powered electrified wiring to elephant proofing the water tank to ensuring adequate shade and the construction of a ‘feeding platform’. Every effort was being made to protect the lion from human interaction. Everywhere was a frenzy of activity. Fortunately the plane had been delayed having to refuel at Lanseria Airport, as all personnel were busy with finishing touches. Finally, with a last check we left in a small convoy for the dirt air strip in Hluhluwe town.
With a final spurt of its throttle, the ridiculously small-looking aircraft rumbled to a halt. The rear door opened and a very tired Dr. Rowan Leeming, the Ezemvelo veterinarian, climbed down. For the two pilots, Ryan Beeton and Steve Beck of The Bateleurs, and Rowan, it was the final leg of a very long journey. The day before they had transported 5 drugged wild dogs north from Zimanga Private Game Reserve in Zululand to Tswalu Kalahari Private Game Reserve in the Northern Cape, there they collected 3 adult lions and delivered them to Khamab Kalahari Private Game Reserve in the North West Province. From there, they then up-lifted the three lion brothers (donated by Khamab Kalahari Private Game Reserve) to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. It is very humbling to know that these pilots give their time and skills freely and voluntarily.
I peered in the rear and saw the three enormous three and a half year-old lions’ sound asleep and blissfully unaware of the enormous impact that they were to make on Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. Due to the man-made restrictions in creating wildlife reserves, predator populations cannot introduce fresh gene pools naturally by nomadic animals. Therefore, to ensure the health of lion, cheetah and wild dog populations, the authorities have to introduce ‘new blood’ from distant regions. These programs are vital to these species but require funding, knowledge, experience and great dedication. Fortunately all are in abundance, except the funding.
By the time we had managed to remove the three lions from their confines, load them onto the pick-ups and drive to the boma within the park, it was well after dark and a light rain had begun falling. We drove inside the enclosure, off loaded the cats and, by the light of our head lamps the team consisting of the veterinarian, park ecologist, section rangers and staff of Ezemvelo and Wildlife ACT went about the vital business of health checks, blood-taking and fitting monitoring collars and chips.
As the exhaustive work began drawing to a close, two of the brothers began showing signs of their sedative wearing off. Rowan gave the third an anti-dote to ensure the three would regain consciousness at about the same time. From the safety of the feeding platform we were rewarded with the sight of all three lions sitting up and becoming aware of the fresh scent of the Zululand bush that would be their new home.
In a matter of weeks, once the brothers have shown no ill-effects of their ordeal and received a clean bill of health, they will once again be sedated and taken to the middle of the park and introduced to a pride of lioness. Our reward for all the hard work and planning bringing these three strong young lion from the desert of the Kalahari to the traditional hunting ground of King Shaka, will be future generations of healthy lions.
In conclusion, on behalf of the Forever Wild Foundation, I would like to commend the staff of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and Wildlife ACT for their outstanding work, untiring dedication and total professionalism in protecting the wildlife and natural resources of KZN.