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The Cheetah Chronicles – A Whirlwind Week

From the Field

The alarm beeps at 6:00 AM, joined by a howling chorus of distant jackals. I whip back the covers and hop out of bed, already dressed in scrubs. Grabbing my knapsack and walkie-talkie off the counter, I exit my quaint, thatched-roof hut and start pedaling away on my bike, my path illuminated by the glowing moon overhead. The clinic is located 5 km away, and we have quite the extensive agenda this week.

Meet Sam, an 8-year-old male cheetah who enjoys running around with his companions. These rescue cheetahs are candidates for rehabilitation and release and all received comprehensive health exams during our “Vet Checks” week.

Although the terrain was physically challenging and signs were sparse in the African bushveld, you couldn’t beat this type of morning commute. The general path was hilly and mountainous, interspersed with sections of resistant, soft sand. At first it was hard to identify certain landmarks, but eventually I got the lay of the land and developed my own system of navigational descriptors. My daily directions would consist of turning right at the 3rd termite mound, making a sharp left at the scraggly wooden log, and veering off the path once I spotted the distinctive trio of white rocks on the roadside—esoteric landmarks that reflected the unique topography of Namibia. Not to mention being greeted by dik-diks, warthogs, and impalas along the way!

This week was especially jam-packed, as it was our designated “Vet Checks” period, during which visiting veterinarians (from both Namibia and overseas) collaborated to perform annual health exams on all the resident big cats. Boarded dentists, ophthalmologists, anesthesiologists, and other specialists were in attendance, and I was eager to work with and learn from all these renowned professionals. As a student, I was able to assist in conducting these comprehensive health procedures on wild felids from start to finish. From darting and transporting the cats to anesthetic monitoring once the patients were fully sedated, from performing root canal procedures on fractured canine teeth to ocular ultrasounds and tonometry to assess for glaucoma, from practicing urine catheterization and jugular venipuncture to endoscopies to collect gastric biopsy samples for gastritis evaluation. The endoscope was connected to a separate TV screen, which would display the interior of the cheetahs’ gastrointestinal tracts. It was mesmerizing to explore the various regions where we would pluck tissue samples from. As we ventured down, we would note patches of reddened, irritated mucosa, “white nodules” suggestive of inflammatory infiltrate, or areas of sand or grass impaction.

Sniper and Spitfire, both 8-year-old male cheetahs, were released back into the reserve after we performed our annual health exams on them. They are currently on the prowl, hunting for their next meal.

Clearly, each day presented its own excited itinerary. Whether it was darting and collaring a lioness to obtain GPS data or examining a leopard with an advanced cataract, no two days were ever the same. And my experiences weren’t limited to just the big cats! One day, I was assigned to track a Cape pangolin and found myself ascending a wobbly-rocked mountainside in pursuit of his signal. This was before I became truly acquainted with the flora of the African bush and knew about the wonders of ankle leather chaps. My radiotelemetry wire would constantly get hooked on thorny branches that I subsequently got thwacked by, and my feet amassed dozens of prickly burrs that required a painstaking amount of time and effort to remove afterwards, much like pesky lint. On a different occasion, I was tasked with assisting on a sable darting so we could treat a bacterial hoof infection. And yet another day, I had to climb atop a holding truck to help perform surgery on a kudu with traumatic oral injury, all against the stunning backdrop of a setting sun.

On my orientation day, my supervisor forewarned me that wildlife fieldwork is very unpredictable and definitely messy. By virtue of being a vet student, I had already encountered a fair share of such work and felt up to the challenge. However, the intensive “Vet Checks” period was filled with numerous scenarios in which I needed to exercise flexibility, adapt on the spot, think creatively, and establish an ease with the fact that plans often change. In essence, I learned to get comfortable with being uncomfortable—a required skill for the fledgling wildlife veterinarian.

This post is written by Elvina Yau and was originally published on her WordPress blog, Elvina the Explorer, on August 31, 2018.