Kate on Conservation

Shamwari Diaries: Act 2, Scene 3 – The trouble with water

Shamwari Diaries - Act 2 Scene 3 title card

In this week’s Shamwari series we discover two white rhinos drowned in a river and are left with the task of figuring out what happened. We also go on a rescue mission to try and save a stranded gemsbok and I end up with a botfly larvae in my leg! Another unwelcomed parasite I get to play host to, after catching fleas from a dead warthog in the last Shamwari Diaries post, which you can read here if you missed it: Act 2, Scene 2 – Learning to let go.

In case you missed the beginning of this series, you can start from the beginning and discover why I’m revisiting this time here.

When I see a rhinoceros fly…

Tuesday 26th August 2008

An interesting first day for the new guys! It started out with a sad revelation; our baby pigeon George, who Steph had been nursing for the last 4 days, died during the night.

We started the working day chopping down alien vegetation, which I’ve definitely grown to be very good at, and rather enjoy. After cutting down 13 reasonably sized pine trees, our guide Julius received a phone call to say that two white rhinoceros had been found dead in a river and the Shamwari film crew were on their way to film the action for their new Animal Planet seriesShamwari: A Wild Life’. 

We went over to see what was going on, and watched as the team paddled a boat out to drag one of the rhinoceros to the shore, then lift it with a crane onto an awaiting vehicle.

It was moved to a clearing and prepared for autopsy — to see whether it was carrying any illnesses, or whether it had any internal injuries, which may shed some light on the cause of death.

In the interim, we returned to see the second rhinoceros being removed from the river while we waited for the vet, Johan, to arrive and carry out the autopsy. This second carcass was moved to a different part of the reserve for scavengers to feed from.

On return to the first rhinoceros, we found it had already attracted the interest of a brown hyena! We watched with morbid curiosity as the vet performed the autopsy, finding that the rhino’s stomach had swelled a huge amount because of the pressure from the gases inside, and that some of its organs had already decomposed, suggesting it had been dead for a few days with the water helping the process along. 

A smell and sight I won’t forget in a hurry, as the built-up gases literally caused a fountain of rotten stomach contents to explode over us. 

We found no evidence of poaching, and it was decided that both rhinoceros must have been fighting, and during this fight fallen over a cliff into the water; drowning due to their inability to swim.

Wednesday 27th August 2008

We had an introductory game drive today for the student volunteers who have just arrived. We saw giraffes, warthogs, bushbuck, kudu, buffalo, impala, zebra and the northern pride of lions. But for the second day in a row, we got a phone call from the Shamwari vet team, which instantly changed all plans.

Zebra photography by Kate on Conservation

This time, a gemsbok had been found stranded on a riverbank and Murray the vet was looking for some assistance in moving it. It’s thought that it had gone down to drink from the river and was unable to climb back up again. 

Arriving at the action, we watched as Murray and one of his team rowed a boat over to the bank near the gemsbok and dart it with a tranquilliser dart.

They then struggled to lift the animal onto the boat (requiring extra assistance from our student guide, Julius), and in order to reach the opposite bank that we were standing by on, Murray had to get into the filthy, snake and leech infested waters and push the boat along!

When they did reach our side of the river, we all helped to lift the gemsbok to dry land, narrowly avoiding its huge horns. We carried it half way up the bank, then quickly climbed to the top ourselves, so that only the vet team would be present when it awoke — to avoid being in the firing line should it get spooked.

Unfortunately, when it did wake up, instead of following us up the hill; it ran straight back down into the water and — still dopey from the tranquilliser — it drowned! Given the circumstance, all we could do is collect the poor thing and witness the second autopsy in two days!

Another deceased gemsbok (otherwise known as an oryx) was already awaiting an autopsy after being found two days ago, so this provided an opportunity to compare the stomach contents of animals that lived on different sides of the reserve. It seemed that dietary change was responsible for the demise of the earlier discovered oryx.

After a well-earned lunch (only slightly affected by the grisly sight of dead dismembered gemsbok), we went to the Shamwari Rescue Centre again to see Themba the elephant calf and Melvin the giraffe being fed again. 

Thursday 28th August 2008

A tiring day today, starting with us finishing up a man-made watering hole near to one of the guest lodges. The hole had already been dug, soil cleared and water introduced; leaving us the job of planting grasses around the area. This meant digging up plants from other parts of the reserve, moving them to the water hole and re-planting them in a way that looks natural. 

We planted one section along the water’s edge while Julius took the other half of our volunteer group to dig up more plants. When they returned, he told us the whole section we’d just completed was wrong — as the soil there was too wet for that type of plant! We had to dig the whole section up again, and re-plant it higher up the bank.

Some of the plants and grasses had to be planted in the actual water, but myself, Steph (pictured above) and three of the others were the only ones who would actually get in and do the job!

[2019 note: I ended up with botfly larvae in my leg for my troubles. Botflies are known for laying their eggs inside open wounds, which heal over and create the perfect condition for the eggs to grow and maggots to hatch out under the skin — painfully burrowing out, with the help of the ‘host’ scratching the irritated skin and breaking the surface for them. They are also noted for their presence on the surface of water].

Join me next time for a close encounter with an elephant and my first time whale watching! Or read the series from the very beginning here.


HAVE YOU HEARD?! This first post of my Shamwari Series features in a new book, The Wildlife Blog Collection: a compilation of 70 amazing stories celebrating some of the most memorable, entrancing and exciting wildlife moments as told by top nature writers from across the globe. Order your copy here

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