veterinary work

Zambia. The real Africa [1]

Victoria Falls. Eastern cataract and rainbows.

Luckily for me after Ethiopia FAO had a vacancy in a regional tick and tickborne disease control programme in Zambia as the former Project Manager became the coordinator of the whole programme and was moving off to Harare.

I had visited the country in the early eighties to see the work that the tick component of the FAO programme in Zambia was doing as it was similar to what I was starting in Kenya. So, I knew one of the areas where I was going to work. Luckily, I also knew George, the Director of Veterinary Services and I was aware that he was a good man and committed to the work that FAO was doing in the country. So, I did not expect a difficult start.

I would be in charge of two earlier projects that were now combined into one. These had been part of a rather large programme that, for several years, had supported the veterinary department in several aspects of animal disease control. One component was the study of the impact of tick infestation on cattle in Central Province, both weight gain and milk production while the other involved the immunization of cattle against theileriosis in Southern Province.

The tick project was based at Lutale, a locality near Mumbwa, a town 160 km from Lusaka, in the Central Province of Zambia, on the Great West Road that runs 590 km from Lusaka to Mongu, capital of Western Province. Originally the place was devoted to research and training on the control tsetse and trypanosomiasis but activities, although still going, had shrunk to training of medium level technical personnel, also run by FAO.

At Lutale we had an agreement with Chief Chibuluma to have our own herd of native Sanga (Bos taurus africanus) cattle that were the subjects of the study. Our job was to continue the work for about two additional years, introducing a new group of cattle to which a new “strategic” [2] tick control method would be applied, and their performance compared with undipped and dipped cattle to obtain figures on the economics of tick control under the conditions of the trial.

The project office at Lutale.

Theileriosis was endemic in Southern Province and successful immunization against this disease had been going on for several years by the earlier programme, on the lines developed by FAO in Muguga (under the leadership of my ex boss Matt). By request of the Government, FAO was tasked with the expansion of this procedure to a larger number of animals in an effort to reduce the heavy losses that were being experienced there.

Gathering cattle for immunization against theileriosis.

As I needed to commute between Lutale and Monze, a town located 196 km south from Lusaka (in Southern Province) and in the direction of Livingstone and the Victoria Falls [3], I would be based in Lusaka, more exactly at the Central Veterinary Research Institute (CVRI) located in Chilanga District, 25km southwest of Lusaka, off the Kafue road in an area known as Balmoral. As we would reside in Lusaka, that meant a daily drive through a rather rough road. I realized that it was not the ideal place to be but I was in no condition to change anythingat the timeapart from getting on with the work.

It was an ambitious project that gave me the responsibility for work that had been done earlier by two specialists and I was stretched to the limit. Luckily, after discussions with FAO and the Government, I managed to persuade them that I needed help, particularly with the immunization part of the project and the post of Protozoologist was created for Southern Province. This was a relief but it would still take some time to find and recruit a suitable candidate. In addition, I applied to FAO to be allocated a couple of Associate Professional Officers [4], one for each component of the project. In the meantime and for a few months I was alone to do and/or supervise all the work.

Mabel and I arrived at Lusaka via Nairobi and stayed at Andrews Motel for a few days until we managed to find a suitable house in town. We moved there as soon as our first shipment with essential household stuff arrived, hoping that the rest of our personal effects would come from Ethiopia in a couple of weeks. So we camped at another house, again.

A view of our Lusaka house and Emmanuel, our cook,unblocking the gutters.

As usual, we were wrong estimating that our belongings would arrive soon. Well, some of them did but they were not very useful as, for example, the bed boards arrived but not the rest of the bed or the top of my desk came but not its drawers or legs! When we complained to the shipping agency they apologized profusely and promised to follow up the issue. In the meantime, we needed to buy a number of items for the house that we already had but we had no other choice.

Our first consignment of personal effects.

A couple of weeks later the shipping agency informed us that there was a problem with our shipment (oh surprise!): it had been crated in boxes larger than the door of the plane that flew between Addis and Lusaka! But they told us that they would be a larger plane coming soon and that they would place the remaining of our items on it. So it was that another part of our consignment came two weeks later and we waited for about a month for the final third with which we could finally assemble all our furniture and appliances! By that time we had succeeded in buying almost everything again!

It was during that agitated time that Mabel got pregnant so our life changed as we went through gestation to the birth of our children. As medical facilities were very basic in Lusaka, we needed to travel to Harare for periodic check-ups and the eventual birth of our first child: Florencia. Our son Julio Junior followed 15 months later so we had little time for safaris, apart from those we could accommodate with the on going work.

Searching for pictures to illustrate the Zambia posts I found that most of the ones I could find include our children so my Zambia posts would be rather poor in that respect, made even worse by not being able to move towards my picture “bank” in Harare because of the Covid 19 pandemic! So I will do with what I have and prepare a picture library for the various posts later if I find the relevant pictures. I hope that you still enjoy reading them!

[1] This was Zambia’s motto at the time to promote tourism.

[2] The application of acaricides was done according to tick infestation levels and seasonality to reduce its cost without losses.

[3] At the time, different donors operated in different areas of Zambia, the Dutch in Western Province, the Belgians in Eastern Province, etc.

[4] The Associate Professional Officer’s programme would fund young graduates through FAO with funds from a number of European countries such as The Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Italy, etc

Wild rodeo

I mentioned earlier that our friend Paul was working on animal diseases at various places, including the Maasai Mara Game Reserve where he was investigating the epidemiology of Malignant Catarrh fever. Apart from collecting placentas [1] he was also collecting blood samples to ascertain the presence of antibodies against this disease among the wildebeest population.

When I had time on my way to Intona ranch via the Maasai Mara or over weekends we joined him to spend time together enjoying the bush, which also included enjoying helping him with his work!

Taking a blood sample while Mabel looks on.

Clearly, to bleed the animals there was the need to immobilize them and this was done by firing a dart that in fact was a flying metal syringe that, on impact with the animal, would have a tiny detonation that would push the anesthetic into the animal. Although interesting, the procedure had risks as an accidental inoculation to a human was life-threatening and a syringe loaded with the antidote was prepared every time we went out.

The effect of the immobilizing drug was very fast and the animal would lie down within a few minutes. During that time, we needed to follow the animal until it started to slow down and finally stopped and became recumbent. Then, there was no need for much holding, as it did not struggle.

After finishing the work and removing the dart, we would apply a gentian violet spray to help with the healing of the small wound as well as to alert us that the animal had already been captured. Then we would inject the antidote intravenously and we literally jumped back as the animal will immediately recover, stand-up and move off as if nothing had happened! This was essential when darting animals in a place notorious for its large predators that were always on the prowl.

Although I had a chance to dart a few animals, I mostly drove as the work needed a two-person team to be performed. I needed to learn how to drive in order to come within “shooting” distance of the animals. You needed to come obliquely as not to start them and then stop the car to allow the shooter to do the job. Breaking a branch or even a twig was sufficient to have to start all over again!

A dart placed at the right spot.

The shoulder was your target. Being in the centre of the animal you would still hit the neck if it went back or the flank if it happened to go forward. Although this sounds simple, sometimes the dart would go over or under the animal or it would jump and the dart would miss it. A missed shot meant an interruption of the work until the dart -usually half-buried in the grass- was recovered. Project resources were limited and a dart was costly. Luckily they had a coloured flight stabilizers that helped locating them.

Although the work proceeded smoothly, there was one instance when things did not go as planned.

At a time that most of the wildebeest had traveled to the Serengeti, there was a need to get some samples despite the low number of animals present. The work involved a lot of searching until individual animals were found and then approached for them to be darted.

After a lot of hard work we managed to dart one adult male that we processed fast to continue looking for others. We covered a lot of bush but found that the animals were particularly jittery and difficult to approach. Eventually we got a female and continued trying to the last one for the day.

During mid-afternoon we found another male, we darted it and started to follow it waiting for it to go down. After a while -surprised- we saw that it would not go down as expected. We followed it and then when it turned we saw the gentian violet spray we had left on it when we had darted earlier!

Clearly, the animal was still under the influence of the antidote and the new dose of tranquilizer would only slow it down but it was not enough for it to lie down. We were in a fix as we could not leave it in that condition and more tranquilizing drug was not advisable.

Desperate situations demand desperate solutions so I volunteer to ambush it by hiding behind a bush while Paul drove it towards me. I thought it would require the same effort as holding a young steer, something I had done this before so I estimated it doable. After all, I only needed to hold it for a sufficiently long time to allow Paul to come and help me, overpower it and remove the dart.

We found a suitable area with woodlands on both sides and I hid behind some bushes with some rocks behind me (to prevent unwanted visitors surprising me) and waited. Although I did not see the car, I heard it coming closer so I got ready for the animal to walk in front of me and then jump to get it.

To my surprise, before I could move, quite a large head (much larger than I expected) was sniffing me! Despite my surprise I reacted by grabbing the animal’s neck hoping to keep it still. As I started being dragged over the plains of the Maasai Mara I realized that I had underestimated the strength of a male wildebeest, even a drugged one!

I soon lost my footing and remained hanging from my embrace of its rather muscular neck. The neck of a wildebeest from a car window is one thing but to actually try to span it with your arms while the creature runs, although groggy, is another one.  

After about three leaps, my grip slackened and I ended up grabbing one of its front legs. My hold was rather short-lived as I was now under the beast being dragged, stepped on and knocking me against all ground irregularities. I let it go and stayedlying on the ground recovering from the ill treatment received.

I was not really hurt but a bit knocked and soon recovered and sat-up to wait for Paul while removing a few thorns from my arms and legs. Paul took a while to come as he was laughing so much at the scene! I understood his mirth as it must have been quite a funny act to watch!

Despite what I thought it was a brave attempt, the problem remained. The wildebeest was still groggy and vulnerable and it carried a valuable dart! We needed another plan as the animal was trotting just a few metres from us. So, plan B was hatched that would involve my cattle-lassoing skills I had acquired in Uruguay.

With the car’s towing rope I improvised my lasso and placed myself between the front of the car and the bull bar where I could keep in place while I could use both hands as I could not use a lasso with only one. I was a bit unstable on my perch but decided that it will have to do. As a precaution I tied the end of the improvised lasso to the bull bar.

As soon as the car approached the beast I threw my improvised lasso until, after the third or fourth try, I managed to get it from the horns. That was not my idea as I aimed for the neck but it will have to do. Seen that the lasso was firm I signalled Paul to slow down and stop. The animal continued trotting as far as the rope allowed it and then, gradually, we pulled it to bring it close and finally managed to extricate the dart, spray it again (this time on the other side as well) and, with some difficulty but with the aid of a wire, remove the lasso from its horns.

A rather dishevelled bushsnob posing with the exhausted wildebeest, waiting until it recovered fully.

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/09/01/learning-to-camp-among-the-wildebeest/