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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Ester: Alpha female of the Kutanga pack

“Jealous I’m tired. I’m actually falling asleep. I need you to drive, my friend.”
Our day had started 17 hours earlier at 4am. We were now driving the 300km from Hwange to Bulawayo with Ester, the alpha female of the Kutanga pack, in the back of my Land Rover. Her leg was broken and we were taking her to Dr. Stevenage, the veterinarian in Bulawayo. It was 9pm.

The story really started three weeks ago on May 18th, when Jealous located the den of the Kutanga pack. He came to my office that morning with news that Ester had denned on the fringes of Dete Township.  I looked at him with a mixture of disbelief and dismay.. I did not doubt Jealous for one second, why would I? My disbelief and dismay stemmed from the fact that the location was perhaps as poor a location as any painted dog could select to den.  Dete is the main centre of human population in our core operating area and anywhere within five kilometres is often riddled with snares on any given day, despite the best efforts of Forestry Commission and our anti-poaching units.

Jealous and I drove out together that afternoon. We stopped first at the Forestry Commission office. I wanted to inform them that we would be active in the area for the next two months and also make plans for joint anti-poaching patrols with them. After this we drove the short distance towards the Kutanga den. The road network allowed us toget approximately 500m from the den. We sat listening to the beep, beep, beep of the protective collars fitted on all four adults. Jealous and I discussed the situation with the same mix of disbelief and dismay. The den was no more than two kilometres from the centre of Dete. The chances of them surviving unscathed in this area, hunting day after day to feed rapidly growing pups, was slim indeed. There was nothing we could do now though.

Jealous monitored the pack daily, counting them out and counting them in as they hunted. On Monday June 3rd, sixteen days after locating the den, he saw Ester with a broken leg. The knee jerk response was obvious and we all talked about poachers and snares. Jealous worked around the clock to locate the dogs. On Thursday June 6th he detected the adults back at the den and that same evening he watched as the two males, Surf and BT, hunted down a kudu, feeding on it frantically as only painted dogs do, before the bigger more powerful predators can muscle in. With bulging stomachs they raced back to the den to feed Ester and her pups.

Ester joined the two males on Friday afternoon as they hunted again. This was the first opportunity we had had to take a good look at her since the initial incident and we were horrified by what we saw. She did the best she could to keep up with the males, her right hind leg terribly deformed with the bone exposed, and swinging loosely as she held it off the ground. She was terribly thin even by painted dog standards and I knew I had to get her to a veterinarian, and quickly. We called Dr. Stevenage who agreed to be on standby.
Surf and BT failed to make a kill that evening and we located them again at 4am on Saturday morning. The males soon gave chase, racing into thick bush with Ester trailing far behind. I looked at Jealous; no words were needed as I drove my Land Rover off the road into the thick bush. Only four punctured tyres could stop us; physical damage to the car was of no concern. We located the dogs approximately 800 metres from the road. They had killed a duiker and were busily consuming the remaining morsels.

We were close and it would have been an easy shot to dart Ester with immobilizing drugs, but her distended stomach indicated that she was already very full of meat. Immobilizing her in such a condition was not an option, it is too dangerous for her, and so we simply watched them melt away into the bush. Our concern now switched to the pups.  Painted Dogs with pups feed as quickly as they can and then race back to the den to feed the pups. Instead, Ester, Surf and BT walked slowly away before settling down to sleep beneath the leafy shade of a teak tree. With alarm bells ringing we raced to the den. After extensive searching our worst fears were confirmed.

We walked away speculating on what fate had befallen the pups after finding only a few small pieces of fur.
We prepared ourselves for the evening, knowing that Ester, Surf and BT would visit the nearby waterhole. They did, and chased a herd of Kudu before separating out a sub adult female, who promptly took refuge in the waterhole. Ester eventually caught up and lay down as Surf and BT circled around and around the waterhole. As Ester had now digested her morning meal, I took aim and darted her. She hardly moved and quickly succumbed to the immobilizing drugs. As we got out of my Land Rover to get Ester, the kudu made a break for freedom but was caught by Surf and BT. We were happy that they would feed well and thus not move far away, making it easy for us to locate them again in the morning when we would return with Ester, who was now our absolute priority.

I phoned Dr. Stevenage to alert him and predicted that we would arrive in Bulawayo at 10pm.  Thus we set off on the road to Bulawayo. At 9pm I pulled over to the side of the road, feeling tired. Mary Phiri sat in the back of my Land Rover keeping a watchful eye on Ester, while Jealous and I swopped places and he drove us towards Bulawayo, handling the Land Rover well when we got a puncture! We quickly changed the wheel while Ester slept in the back of the Land Rover.

We arrived at Dr. Stevenage’s surgery at 11pm. He was equally shocked by Ester’s condition. Her broken leg was rotten, the flesh decomposing, septicaemia had set in and she was little more than skin and bone. Her body displayed all the signs of her brutally tough life in the wild. He estimated that she only had a day or so left to live and that her only chance of survival was if he amputated her leg, adding that she may not survive the operation. I looked at him and nodded, giving him my consent and so we took her life into our hands.

We watched him work, as tired and exhausted as we were. Drinking coffee and talking of the drive back and how we would care for Ester. Dr Stevenage worked quickly and professionally, removing Ester’s leg and sewing her up. The surgery took a little more than two hours and we started to prepare the Land Rover and ourselves for the drive back.

Jealous and I talked about putting the collar back on Ester so that we would be able to monitor her once she was released back into the wild.  We knew of an alpha female in Mana Pools, who had survived for three years after losing a leg, and we hoped Ester would survive as long.

As I fitted the collar and Dr. Stevenage began cleaning up, Ester stopped breathing. Emergency procedures, CPR and an adrenaline injection brought her around briefly, but she died on the operating table. Subsequent efforts could not bring her back. We looked at each other, what could we say? After all of that effort we had failed to save her. With heavy hearts we placed her body into the transport box and left the surgery with quiet words of thanks and condolences exchanged.

It was 2 am; there was no need to make the long, dangerous drive back to Hwange now so we drove the short distance to Mary’s home.  I lay awake thinking about the drama of the day and our failure to save

Ester, gaining a little comfort from the effort we had made. I thought about the dogs whose lives had intersected with mine over the years.