Monday, 5 August 2013

The Lion at the Sperm Bank.

                                           The Lion at the Sperm Bank.

As with everything else, techniques and drugs for handling wild animals are refined

and improved upon all the time.

These days things mostly go according to plan - in the early days they sometimes


The techniques for darting lions vary according to the purpose.   Enticing the lions

requires bait, coupled with a sound track of lions and hyenas in a feeding frenzy.  This

usually brings them to within range of the dart gun.

Standard procedure is to shoot a large animal like a zebra.  The carcass should

preferably be left out in the sun for a couple of hours to start ripening.  It is then

transported to the lions’ territory, where the belly is cut open, allowing the entrails to

hang out.  It would then be tied behind a 4x4 and dragged for several kilometres,

laying down a scent trail leading to a carefully selected spot where the operation is to

take place.

The ideal spot would have a big solitary tree with some dense vegetation at its base,

and as little other cover as possible for quite some distance.  The vegetation is cleared

on one side of the tree, and the carcass chained to the tree to stop the lions from

dragging it off and consuming it elsewhere.  More branches are cut and stacked

densely on the opposite side of the tree, making it impossible for the lions to approach

the carcass from behind the tree.    A caravan is then backed up to within fifteen

metres of the carcass, and the large rear window propped open as wide as it can go. 

The caravan is usually stocked with spare batteries for the spotlights, coffee and

sundry snacks – these operations can sometimes become all-night vigils, during which

the lions never show up.  The spotlights are equipped with red filters, making the light

invisible to carnivores.

Next to the caravan is the “sound truck”, with a giant loudspeaker on the roof. 

Amongst all the sophisticated darting equipment there will invariably be either an air

rifle, or a slingshot with enough smooth round pebbles.  Hyenas often beat the lions to

the bait, and keeping them at bay without scaring off the approaching lions can be


Once the lions settle down to feed one should allow enough time for any stragglers to

join in, and then the diners are counted carefully.  Every member of a pride must be

darted and accounted for.  Once everyone starts wandering around, preoccupied with

whatever it is they are doing with the sleeping lions, a loose canon lurking out there in

the darkness can have catastrophic consequences.

Some fifteen years ago Dr. Cobus Raath was involved in a project concerning feline

AIDS.  The Kruger Park lions were to be tested.

All went well until one night, when a pride of some twenty five animals showed up

for the feast.  This was rather overwhelming, but the team proceeded with the darting,

counting with great care. 

When the dart hits a feeding lion, most of the time it would snarl and take a retaliatory

swipe at its closest neighbour, associating it with the incident, and then carry on

feeding.  But sometimes it would jump up and disappear into the darkness.  This is not

a good scenario, but there is nothing one can do about it.  It should, however, be noted

in no uncertain terms.

All twenty five animals were duly darted and accounted for.  Cobus, his veterinary

assistant Hoepel, and the game ranger, armed with a .375 Magnum rifle, ventured out

first, to make sure the area was safe.  Most of the lions were at the carcass, but here

and there strays were sleeping a little further out.  Everything seemed OK, and the rest

of the team left the caravan and they all got to work. 

Cobus was testing a new cocktail of drugs at the time, and he kept a very close watch

on the vital signs of the animals.  Some fifteen minutes into the operation, he realised

that the new drug appeared to be wearing off faster than anticipated.  Here and there

lions were showing signs of recovering.  This was not a serious problem, as Cobus

and Hoepel started roaming around with syringes, selectively injecting lions with

more anaesthetic.  As a rule, it would take up to ten minutes before an animal would

have recovered to an extent where it would become dangerous, so no-one was really

worried – it was no more than an inconvenience.

Until Hoepel spotted a lioness that must have been overlooked in the hectic activity. 

She had already started feeding again, albeit groggily.  Not thinking much of it,

Hoepel grabbed her by the tail to give her another shot.  She declined in no uncertain

terms – this lioness wasn’t nearly as groggy as she should have been.  She spun

around with a snarl, swiping at Hoepel.  But by this time Hoepel was already

accelerating in the direction of the caravan, and so was everyone else.  Being the

furthest away, Hoepel knew he wasn’t going to make it through the narrow door of

the caravan with everybody ahead of him heading that way.  With the lioness hard on

his heels he changed direction for the sound truck.  Had the lioness not been severely

slowed down by the drug, she would have caught up with Hoepel within the first five

yards.  She was, however, giving it her best, staggering from side to side drunkenly,

but coming on with determination.

Reaching the truck with the lioness hard on his heels Hoepel knew there would be no

time to open the door.  Fortunately the window was open, and he dived straight into

the cab.  Taking a swipe at the disappearing Hoepel, the lioness nicked his boot and

took the side mirror clean off the vehicle.  Hoepel had a severely sprained ankle, and

the mirror was later picked up some fifteen feet away.


Something similar happened when Cobus was testing a new drug in the Crocodile

Bridge area.    

It was a smaller operation, and only Cobus, myself, the local game ranger and one of

his assistants were present.

Cobus darted a solitary lioness, and we took measurements and blood samples.  Once

the work was done, he administered the antidote.  Cobus had not even pulled out the

syringe, when someone accidentally stepped on the lion’s tail.  The antidote was

supposed to take ten minutes – in reality, the effect was immediate.  We departed for

the caravan post haste.  This time the assistant ranger had drawn the short straw – he

had the most distance to cover.  He also realised that, under duress, three big guys

may manage to get through the narrow door of the caravan simultaneously, but four

won’t make it – and he was going to be the last one in line.  He jumped onto the back

of the truck, then onto the roof, and then onto the giant speaker that was strapped to

the roof.

The lioness vented her anger on the closest object, in this instance the front tyre of the

truck.  Accompanying the hiss of the deflating tyre, we could hear the assistant’s

dismayed comment “hau, puncture.”  We did not find it funny at the time, but later on

we thought it was hilarious.


One night Cobus had to dart a solitary male to have a radio collar fitted.  The lion was

a magnificent specimen, and known to be a loner.  This was strange behaviour, and

researchers wanted to keep a close eye on it.  Cobus and the researcher laid out the

bait.  The terrain was not good, with clusters of dense mopani thickets, but the lion

was known to be in the immediate vicinity.  

The lion arrived on cue, and Cobus darted it with a perfect shot.  There was no room

for error, so Cobus used his tried and tested cocktail of drugs.  For this reason he was

not really worried when the lion jumped up and disappeared into a thicket, growling

fiercely.  They gave it ten minutes, and then went in search of the animal, armed with

high powered torches and the dart gun.

Cobus was baffled when the lion suddenly lifted its head from the thicket and snarled

at them threateningly.  “*%£$”*+%~#,” Cobus said.  There was no way this lion

could be a threat – not with a full dose of M99 in it.  “Keep the light on him, I’ll circle

around and give him another one.”  He circled around the thicket, trying to get a side-

shot at the lion.  As he got closer, the lion let out a deafening roar and loped off in the

direction of the next thicket.  Cobus ran after it full tilt, trying to get another shot in. 

The lion let out another deafening roar and accelerated. Running flat-out, Cobus

stumbled over something in the grass and fell flat on his face.  He got up and retrieved

the gun and torch, mumbling all sorts of comment about the drug.  When he shone his

torch on the object over which he had tripped, it proved to be his darted lion, sleeping

peacefully in the tall grass…….


The basic technique is sometimes modified, depending on circumstances.          

A visiting professor from the USA needed lion sperm for a project “on genome

resource banking and biodiversity preservation.”  For this he needed fresh lion sperm.

Obviously, no respectable free-ranging lion of stature would be convinced to visit a

sperm bank for this noble purpose.  These gentlemen tended to have their own ideas

on what they wanted to do with their genetic material.

So Cobus had to improvise.

A warthog was shot and left in the sun for the best part of the day.  Post-graduate

research students supplied information on the whereabouts of roaming males, and

prides with patriarchal males.  After dark, when the tourists were confined to the rest

camps, the team would set out in two or three 4x4 trucks, dragging the carcass and

broadcasting the song of death.  This was carefully planned to happen in the South

African winter, which did make things easier.  Once the sun sets, the tarred roads

retained their heat for some time, so in the early evening lions tended to take a pre-

prandial break, basking on the warm roads and socializing. 

Some nights there were no hits, but on a good night up to three males could be

motivated to donate to the project. 

It was tough going on the researchers, as there was no such luxury as a caravan.  The

warthog would be left tied to the tow-hitch of one vehicle, while the second vehicle

was parked sideways to afford a shot through the window.  Hyenas and unwanted

females were a nightmare.

A male would be darted, and all unwanted guests chased away.  The lion would then

be loaded on to the back of one of the trucks, and taken back to the lab at Skukuza. 

The rest of the team would go off in search of the next donor. 

This sometimes entailed a round trip of up to a hundred kilometres.

On arrival at the veterinary facility, the truck would be backed into the lab, and the

lion subjected to one of those wild dreams young men sometimes have..

A tailor-made lubricated probe would be inserted into the anus, to a depth where it

was in close proximity to the prostate gland.  A couple of millivolt would produce a

spasm in the sleeping lion – it would arch its back, and make a handsome donation

accompanied by a satisfied grunt.

When lions mate, they do this every fifteen minutes or so for up to three days.  So

multiple orgasms come naturally (pun intended).  Thus the sleeping lions were treated

accordingly, and they donated generously.

The lion would then be returned to its territory.  My job was reviving them, and

guarding them against hyenas until they were capable of fending for themselves. 

Hyenas being accomplished opportunists, would attack anything showing the least

sign of vulnerability – even a drunkenly staggering male lion would be attacked

without hesitation.  This was a boring and tedious task.  At one stage I thought it a

good idea to leave the gentlemen with a memento for their magnanimous donation –

after all, if we contribute to a worthy cause on a street corner, we get a sticker on our

lapel to proclaim our benevolence.

So I tied a small raffia bow to the tail of every recovering lion as a memento.  I often

wonder what a tourist would have made of it, if one had ever been spotted.  In my

mind’s eye I could imagine the furore it would have caused on 50/50’s Veldfokus at

the time.

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