Stepping out into the warm winter air of Johannesburg, South Africa, I had no idea what to expect. I had traveled there with a group of complete strangers to research African elephant social behavior and vegetation damage for our senior theses and that was the extent of our knowledge about our upcoming adventure. The nine of us piled into a van and traveled eight hours to the Pongola Game Reserve where we would be staying for the next six weeks. Heike, the head researcher, met us at the campsite and showed us to our surprisingly nice accommodations where we began to unpack and become acquainted with each other.
Before long, we had gone from eager, doe-eyed students to enthusiastic, knowledgeable researchers. We would wake up and be ready to go into the field by 6:30am every day and come back around 4pm ready to make dinner and do data entry/analysis. Just as the days would become predictable and routine, something unexpected and dramatic would happen, sparking excitement and sometimes grief. One week we assisted Heike in the investigation of three giraffes that were struck by a train that runs through the reserve, which subsequently killed them. It was a huge loss for the reserve. However this wasn’t the worst thing that happened during our stay. We also were there when a poaching incident was discovered although we were unable to assist seeing as it was a dangerous and highly secretive investigation.
Contrary to how it may seem, not all of the exciting events had sad endings. Towards the end of our stay we encountered a young juvenile female who had a tire rim stuck around her front right foot; every step she took was accompanied by an echoing clunk. This in turn frightened the rest of the herd and caused a normally social and family centered species to turn against the poor female. They tried to push her away and threatened her by charging when she came near, but she was relentless in trying to stay connected with her family. All of us were hoping that it would somehow fall off by getting stuck in the mud or on a log but no such luck, it came to the point where we had to step in, resulting in the most amazing day I have ever experienced.
A week after discovering her injury we were prepared to take action with two veterinarians, a helicopter, and plenty of excitement. The individual known as Bee, or more affectionately as Clunkers, was separated from the herd easily, darted with extremely potent medication, and sleeping on the ground in minutes. We then moved in and quickly got to work. The nine of us students were over the moon just to be standing near a live elephant and watching as the veterinarians worked their magic but then they asked for our assistance! They let us inject her with penicillin and electrolytes to fight infection. We sprayed water on the back of her ears to make sure she did not overheat, counted her breaths to ensure she was in stable condition, and slathered antiseptic ointment on the wound after the tire rim had been removed. Once all of the veterinary work was complete it was decided to fit Bee with a telemetry collar so that Heike could accurately locate the herds position, she then became the first female member of the A&B herd to be fitted with a collar! It was an exciting and exhilarating day even though all of the Clunkers excitement only lasted for about a half an hour.
After the Clunkers fiasco, the elephants were tentative to leave the thicket for the rest of our stay but it was worth it to be able help the little elephant. We spent the majority of our time left waiting for the elephants and reminiscing on the past few weeks we had spent together. Traveling to South Africa with no idea what to expect was by far the best way I could have spent the summer before my senior year. I discovered a new country, was amazed by the majesty of elephants, and made some amazing life long friends. Anyone looking for their next adventure should consider exploring the thrills of the South African bush.
~ Colleen Boyce '15
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