03 May A day in the life of a WIL student
Hi, my name is Armstrong Maluleke. I come from Mooinooi, a small platinum and palladium mining town situated in the North West Province of South Africa. I am currently doing my practical year at Welgevonden Game Reserve. This practical year, or “Work Integrated Learning” year, forms part of my National Diploma in Nature Conservation of which I am currently enrolled at Tshwane University of Technology.
No day is the same at Welgevonden and each new day brings exciting challenges that our conservation team overcomes together. There may be a number of standout experiences here on the Reserve, but the best by far was the day we had to remove three GPS collars from a group of eland that had escaped from our breeding camp.
I woke up that morning to the warm rays of sunshine peeping through my tent and the sounds of grazing ungulates not 150m from where I lay. We had nothing particularly interesting planned for the day and Craig (my fellow conservation student) and myself were compiling various reports for University when our boss, Sam, called us to his office.
“Awesome, see you then!” Sam put down his cell and turned to us. “Right guys, the eland have been spotted grazing on Fig Tree Plains. Now is our best chance of capturing these animals so I’ve arranged a helicopter and vet to conduct the procedure. I need you both to get all the necessary tools to assist in removing these collars and head straight for Fig Tree Plains in the Landcruiser.”
Time was of the essence, and Craig and I hurried to the Workshop where we scrambled all the tools together, dumped them at the back of our Student “bakkie” and raced through to the plains where we would monitor the animals and wait for the helicopter to arrive.
On our way, I took note of the relationships between biotic and abiotic elements that make up the various micro-habitats within the protected wildlife area. While some of the larger mammals scampered away at our arrival, the older, less phased animals barely battered an eye as we dashed passed. Birds chirped from the safety of the trees and a gentle breeze caressed the long, thin grass, keeping the heat of the day at bay.
Although I have been based here for 4 months, and spend almost every day on the Reserve, I could never tire of this. Living in the wild is far better than I had ever imagined- a peaceful, clean and healthy environment filled with an abundance of wild animals. Could one ask for a better backyard?
We finally arrived at the Plains where we immediately spotted the “odd-ones-out”. Although the three eland were placidly grazing amongst the many other animals, the large GPS animal collars around their necks were a dead giveaway that they did not belong here.
The eland had previously been collared and released into Welgevonden’s 1,200ha breeding camp area for monitoring purposes. However, these rebellious three had somehow realised that sometimes the grass IS greener on the other side and managed to escape from their designated area.
We didn’t have to wait long before the vet arrived in the helicopter. From a higher vantage point, the vet was able to dart all three animals with a concoction of anaesthetic drugs, rendering the three eland unconscious for the purposes of the procedure.
All seemed to be going to plan- until all three animals turned away from the open grassy area and headed straight for the Taaibos River. Worried that the animals might fall unconscious in the water, the management team rushed around the Plains towards the river. By this time, the eland had darted in different directions and the team was forced to split up. While one group went towards the river, Craig and I headed towards the two eland on the upper bank.
Once we were close enough, we jumped out the vehicle and ran as quickly as possible through the bush to where one of the eland had fallen. After re-positioning the animal into a secure resting position, we loosened the bolts and removed the collar. Hereafter, the vet was able to administer the reversal drugs which allowed the animal to come to and return to its herd.
With all the eland uncollared and up and about once more, Craig and I headed back to the vehicle where the remainder of the team had congregated. A number of “Congratulations” and “Thank You’s” were exchanged before everyone readied themselves to depart back to Main Gate.
“Craig! Armstrong”, Sam called. “How would you like to return home in the helicopter?”
Craig and I looked at one another in disbelief. Surely Sam couldn’t be serious?
Turns out he was, and 5 minutes later we found ourselves seated inside a helicopter, headsets on and ready for lift off- or should I say an attempted lift off? Unfortunately we were too heavy for a safe departure from the bushy area and after two attempts Craig was forced to jump out and sprint towards the Plains where we would then pick him up and try lift off from an open area.
Once again, we found ourselves ready for lift off except this time we were all holding thumbs that the helicopter would be able to take to the air. Blades blaring and dust blowing all around the aircraft, the pilot used all of the helicopter’s available power to slowly lift off the ground, gain momentum and…
We were up in the air and off to Main Gate! The Reserve looked completely different from this bird’s eye view, and I was amazed by the way the landscape and topography looked from the sky.
Later that evening, once all the excitement had died down, I lay on my bed looking up at the roof of my tent with a hint of a smile on my face.
Living in the wild has this way of turning an ordinary day into something extraordinary.
So far I’ve had the opportunity to track lions, release game, assist with bushwalks and our Wildlife Protection Project, fertilise 11 different plains, and so much more. Now, as I lie here, listening to a nearby nightjar singing into the night and the distant cry of a jackal, I can’t help but think…
“I wonder what surprises tomorrow will have in store for me?”