The LitFest Blog
Festival author Julia Johnson was in Namibia to volunteer with Biosphere Expeditions, a group safeguarding big cats and elephants
So Tuesday morning, under Vera’s guidance, we set a leopard trap! It’s quite a procedure, and we need shirt sleeves and gardening gloves to protect ourselves from the vicious thorn bushes. A particularly large and mean looking thorn goes right through Mary’s boot and punctures her foot. “So much for those expensive boots,” she mutters!
First off we clear a space for the trap and level the area, and then the big cage is maneuvered into position. There’s a metal plate inside, and when an animal steps on it the gates back and front will close. We disguise the plate and interior with sand and grasses and a sprinkling of antelope droppings! The exterior is also well camouflaged with thorny branches. Then the mechanisms are aligned and the pin very carefully released.
Saturday is a day off, but not for long! I am on the phone to Brian when Mary rushes in full of excitement – a leopard has been caught in the mountain trap at Bergposten! We’re all set to go! After all, this is what we were hoping for, but it will be a while before the vet comes to sedate it.
At last we get the green light – the vet has arrived – and we set off! When we reach the site I hear a deep rumbling growl! As the vet approaches the trap with the scientists the leopard snarls and roars. It’s angry and aggressive. The vet assesses the quantity of sedative required for its size and darts it, and we all wait quietly for about 10 minutes whilst the drug takes effect. She goes back to check the creature’s reflexes, and it’s not fully asleep yet so she administers a little more sedative.
Mary and I are in team 1, and we get to be stretcher bearers, carrying the leopard from the trap to the makeshift camp, which has been set up. It’s an overwhelming experience being so close to such a powerful, beautiful muscular wild animal. I can reach out and touch his fur. Yes our leopard, number L052, is a male. We lay him gently down on the ground, and stand back, but we are allowed close enough to watch the entire procedure.
First he’s dusted down and photographed on both sides. Each leopard has its own unique pattern of spots. He weighs in at a magnificent 67.5kgs! Because his eyes stay open, they are covered with a flight mask to protect them from the bright light and dust and dryness. He’s lifted onto the operating table. There’s a drip ready to insert in case of dehydration. His mouth is kept open by means of a tube over his top and bottom incisors on one side, and his temperature and blood pressure are constantly monitored through a device attached to his tongue.
He’s showing signs of coming round too soon and the vet administers more sedative!
The leather collar has to be cut to size, and Vera tries it on him several times before she gets it just right. The collar has to fit sufficiently snugly so that it can’t be pulled over his ears and head, but it mustn’t fit so tightly that it causes discomfort. It’s quite a sizeable contraption anyway, containing the radio and a large battery pack, and unfortunately this collar will not drop off when the batteries run out, so he’s going to be saddled with it for life.
He’s measured from nose to tail and chipped, and then all the volunteers are invited to come closer and touch him. I test his claws like I saw one of the assistants do, and sure enough when I press a pad a fierce looking talon emerges! He is utterly magnificent, and I feel privileged to be this close, but I also feel slightly guilty that we’re doing these things to him. Hopefully his contribution to scientific research will help to lessen the conflict between farmers and predators and assist in the preservation of his species. The GPS signals will be collected by aerial telemetry, and the territory he covers plotted on a map.
Finally team 2 stretcher him to a shady spot. After we leave the vet will administer an antidote, and watch from a concealed place until he’s woken up. Apparently leopards are vindictive and will hold a grudge! What a day!