My African childhood was shaken by scenes of widespread wildlife poaching. Kenya’s untamed Tsavo National Park was once my second home and its spectacular wildlife — particularly its elephants and rhinos — shaped me and inspired me to pursue a career as a wildlife vet. Tsavo became a killing field in the 1970s, a landscape littered with rotting elephant and rhino carcases to fuel demand for ivory and rhino horn. At seven, I remember pinning enormous labels on my clothes imploring humanity to stop killing rhinos.
Today, the situation is even more dire. Rhinos face extinction at current poaching intensities, with a quarter of Africa’s remnant slaughtered between 2008 and 2015 (and no let-up since). Only three northern white rhinos remain, the Vietnamese rhino has officially been declared extinct and the Sumatran species, numbering perhaps fifty, faces the same fate. Elephants are in population freefall as Asian affluence fuels rising demand for ivory. Tanzania lost 65,000 elephants between 2011 and 2015, two thirds of its population. Because of all this, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which advocates for elephants and has a longstanding presence in Tsavo, is close to my heart.
I once saw myself putting together the jigsaw puzzle of ivory trade dynamics in the forests, market stalls and bustling urban sprawls of West and Central Africa. My most vivid veterinary recollections are of the ‘taxi service’ translocating wild bull elephants by road in South Africa. Little can match the awesome presence of these magnificent animals.
I have survived many close shaves in Africa. Once, I had to swarm up an acacia tree with vicious thorns to escape a charging buffalo. I’ve found myself inches from the enormous gape of an irate hippopotamus after becoming interposed between her and her calf. I escaped by a leaping down a muddy bank into a crocodile-infested river.
In the midst of Southern Sudan’s war, this cow was the only possession of the two surviving members of this family
I’ve been spared flying shrapnel in the midst of a civil war in Southern Sudan, where I once foolishly drove into an area marked off-limits due to land mines. I’ve stumbled upon spitting cobras (poised to strike) and faced ambush from a pride of lions. The closest call of all was to have barely escaped an imploding Sudanese long-drop — a deep latrine! I’m pretty sure no-one would have heard my fading calls for help had I fallen in…
Perhaps most memorable are the bush tucker offerings I’ve tried, including a squirming palm-oil grub with ferocious jaws. Watched by an amused audience as I tried to avoid an involuntary lip-piercing, this was what it took to get behind the scenes and assess the ivory trade in one area.
Lion cub in Somalia captured (after the killing of his pride) for speculative sale to one of the private zoological collections now in vogue in the Middle East
Veterinary and zoological ‘passports’ have also taken me to the Middle East, the Amazon, Australia’s Outback, New Zealand, Thailand and the rich, rapidly disappearing biodiversity of Borneo. I have released rehabilitated New Zealand owls back into the wild (left). I once helped catch and radio-collar wild desert foxes, in a project (headed by Professor David Macdonald of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit WildCRU) to study how they survive in Saudi Arabia. Caught off-guard one morning, a fox bit me, necessitating a rabies vaccination course using horse serum to which my body reacted severely.
Learning about elephant medicine at the National Elephant Hospital in Thailand, I discovered the thrill of being close to such gargantuan patients. Read them wrongly and it might be the last mistake you ever make.
It is my family that has provided me with much of the drive, companionship and understanding to enable such an extended walkabout. A real force to be reckoned with, my wife Karin gave up life as a lawyer to juggle jobs, earning a living as an airline stewardess in order to fund and run a novel approach to wild dog conservation in Africa’s Great Rift Valley. Truly a champion for the cause of these critically endangered creatures, Karin has facilitated local community-led conservation efforts, and the model has since been adopted more widely in regional predator conservation.
Nigel Dougherty is undertaking a scholarship in zoo animal and wildlife health at Massey University in New Zealand to move from general mixed veterinary practice to full-time work with wildlife. His book Wild Vet Walkabout recounts his adventures and experiences, with half the proceeds going to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
All images courtesy of Nigel Dougherty except portrait of an African elephant by Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH via Shutterstock.