Call of the wild: Dr Dave Cooper

All photos with permission from Wild Vet

On 11 April, Dr Dave Cooper posted the following to his Wild Vet Facebook page:

Today was pretty surreal. I had a call out and had to drive through Hluhluwe – iMfolozi Park (HiP) from south to north. There was not another car in sight. As I drove, it was clear that during the past two weeks of mandatory coronavirus lock down, the animals have taken over. In 25 years of working there, I have never seen such an abundance of game. The tar is absolutely littered with dung of every description, and the road has become a wildlife highway. My passage was blocked on numerous occasions – by a herd of elephant, buffalo, three separate rhino, a pride of lions and more – all chilling in the middle of the road. They even checked me out a bietjie skeef (for non-South Africans – they looked at me oddly) as if to say, 
“What are YOU doing here, human?”

HiP is the flagship state reserve in KwaZulu Natal, and contrary to the doom and gloom the general public reads in the news, South Africa’s state parks with high rhino populations (HiP and Kruger) are actually getting a break during the pandemic. Aside from the restrictions of movement put in place, the obvious game changer to someone like me is that there is a lot less corruption – there is a lot less information going out due to only essential workers being allowed in the parks. That means less leaks at the gates, through hospitality, and so forth. 

For someone like Dr Dave Cooper, who has the horrifying responsibility of having to conduct poached rhino autopsies, the month of April gave him the gift of peaceful sleep. And, in our dreams, the world will wake up when this pandemic is over and enforce a permanent ban on the illegal wildlife trade – the cause of the virus perpetuated by despicable humans treating innocent animals worse than they would death row prisoners.  

For now, in this present day, Saving the Wild is celebrating the life of an extraordinary man who continues to answer the call of the wild, against all odds. In the seventies, Dr Dave Cooper was a student working in Kruger National Park, and he saw the challenges and the heartfelt rewards of following the unbeaten track of a wildlife veterinarian. The industry was to grow leaps and bounds, and he would become an integral cog in the wheel of progress. I call Dave up and remind him of a story he told me once, something about a lion relocation, and having a lion in a neck lock while up in the air…

“Oh yes, the lion started waking up with the acceleration of the plane taking off,” he says with a chuckle. “I had already given him an injection and it was a question of waiting for this lion to go back to sleep. I had to prevent him from crawling up the fuselage, and by the time he started relaxing we were sitting behind the pilot, and he looked over his shoulder and saw me holding this lion in a neck lock.”

“That was it,” I laugh. “Okay, so the lion woke up because of stimulation of movement?”

“Yes, the extra noise coupled with the acceleration and the upwards movement. We found if large predators are stimulated, they get an adrenalin rush, and that adrenalin can override some of the drugs.”

Over decades, vets have learned how to manage these drugs better so that they are able to prevent close calls with lions from happening. But things still happen. A few years ago, after Dave had darted a lion, he got out of his vehicle and approached the big cat, and gently patted him on the backside, commenting on what good condition the lion was in.

“And then he suddenly stood up and I had a face to face confrontation with this lion,” Dave continues with an instant pace in his words. “Fortunately, he backed off and went to sleep somewhere else. You have to believe these drugs are circulating and will take effect, but there have been situations when vets have been badly mauled.”

Taking nothing away from the rangers, I think vets take a beating just as much as our frontline soldiers. I float that comparison to Dave who has shared many life and death campfire stories with his peers. 

I guess it’s down to the environment we are working in,” Dave muses. “Vets have lost their lives in aircraft flying low level and fallen off trucks in a chase and broken their backs. And so, it’s not just the animals, it’s the process it takes to catch them and move them. We tend to take chances when we have an injured animal and are doing everything to help them as quickly as possible. It’s the balance of experience and knowing your own limitations.”

When Dave raises the point of flying, I ask after retired pilot Vere van Heerden, Dave’s partner in the sky who hung up his wings and retired in December. Dave had written with much admiration on his Wild Vet page, a dedication to his friend, “Flying as we did in dead man’s curve where every second is critical, if it wasn’t for his incredible skills, I would certainly be dead.” 

Dave describes Vere’s retirement as an end of an era; Vere has probably flown for the darting of more rhino than anybody else, and it’s a vacuum they will need to fill. 

“I can think of two occasions when we were in dead man’s curve and there is a split second to react. There is not a lot you can do because you can’t put the aircraft into auto rotation. You’re going to hit the ground, and it’s a question of how hard are you going to hit the ground? And what are you going to hit on the way down? Each time we’ve managed to get into a little gap and between the trees and land quite comfortably,” says Dave as his mind continues to turn. “I only realize later how close it is when Vere gets questioned by the Aviation Authorities and technical experts, and they are baffled how he managed to get the aircraft down. There is nothing written about it in the manuals.”

My mind suddenly jolts back a few years, to a day when I bumped into Dave on a road in Zululand. He was physically rattled after just seeing an elephant stomp a young pilot’s brother; he had approached the elephant before the drugs had properly taken effect. 

“I remember it so clearly,” says Dave taking a breath. “The pilot dropped down on top of the elephant, I could almost knock the ele on the head with my dart gun, we were that close. He was a young, very fit guy and he did the right thing and grabbed onto the tusks, and so he was being battered only by the forehead of the ele and the knees – which is bad enough – but fortunately he didn’t get a tusk in him. He took a pounding before the elephant was shot down, and we had to fly him to hospital.”

Through some miracle, the young man was not too badly injured, and he checked out of hospital the next day. Dave knows of a vet that played dead in a different situation. He has half a lung and no spleen, but he survived. 

The conversation circles back to rhinos. Saving the Wild has been supporting African Wildlife Vets for a couple years now, since Dave co-founded the non profit in 2018 as a way to support his full-time job with the state. Over time budgets kept getting cut, to the point that he didn’t have enough to operate efficiently, whether buying pharmaceuticals, or putting fuel in his vehicle, or feeding the rhino orphans. There is the uncertainty that looms of not being able to provide for these animals in desperate need. 

For example, if a rhino survived a poaching where its face was hacked off by an axe and is still alive but bleeding to death, there is no specific budget to save or treat that animal. Saving the Wild has donated to a survivor in the past, and for future survivors we have also donated Comvita manuka honey – which has incredible antibacterial wound healing properties. We are down to the last of the rhinos, and if it’s a cow it’s even more devastating, because we lose all future calves. We have to save what we can.

The reality of the need to save the individual is what motivated Saving the Wild’s mandate to protect black rhino individuals and the gene pool throughout Africa – as we have done in Kenya. There are less than 5000 black rhinos left on the continent, and what we are really protecting is one of the most fascinating species on earth. Dave and I are both enthralled by the black rhino, up there as one of our absolute favourite species. For me it is their bad ass, bold and commanding attitude, the unforgettable profile of an icon. But for Dave, it’s even more than that. It’s the challenge of working with these intelligent and unpredictable animals. 

“The black rhinos are thinkers, and they work things out for themselves,” says Dave of this beloved animal that continues to test him. “They are very inquisitive, and this is sometimes their undoing. Each one is a different character, and because they are so different, as a vet we need to try and understand how to deal with each animal, as an individual. A routine capture with a simple operation like a collaring, or horn transmitter, or dehorning, whatever it is, the challenge is trying to pre-empt bad things from happening.” 

Ithala Game Reserve located within the rugged, mountainous thornveld of northern KwaZulu-Natal is an example where veterinary risk is embedded in the landscape; pitfalls and steep precipices, and water – potential traps that black rhinos have an affinity for.

“Ithala was the primary reason why I changed my whole drug regime in an attempt to get an animal down really quickly,” explains Dave. “In five minutes, they can get themselves into a lot of trouble, but I managed to get it down to just over two minutes, and that was purely out of necessity.”

Dave tells me of another situation where he had to jump into the Lesotho river on the Mozambique border, full of crocodiles. “I prayed there were no crocodiles and I prayed that someone would help me quickly. We managed to get some logs under the rhino’s head and pull him up.” Dave pauses and leans into the memory. “You put your heart in your mouth after you’ve pulled the trigger.”

Dave has lived a brave life full of wild adventures, and I hope one day these thrills and spills and his future endeavours will end up in a book – his wife Debbie is a passionate conservationist and an excellent writer, so there is hope. But, for now, I bring us back to our shared story; for more than a year Saving the Wild and SsangYong RHINO have been supporting African Wildlife Vets through providing feed for the four black rhino orphans under Dave’s care. The orphans are housed at a boma (enclosed area) at Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park until they are old enough to be moved. 

The bond between a mother and calf is very deep and emotional. And I cannot think of anything more traumatizing than a baby rhino witnessing her mother being hacked to death – which is often the case – and worse, the poachers often turn on the calf trying to defend the mother. These savages won’t waste another bullet if the calf has no horn, but they will slash, again and again, this already tormented creature with axes and pangas (knives).

Dave takes a hands-off approach to raising rhino orphans. As much as we are all tempted to give them a cuddle, Saving the Wild has huge respect for this low-key approach, even if it means far fewer donations coming in. Ultimately, we want to see well-adjusted rhinos released back into the wild.

“The first black rhino orphan to come in was given a goat for company,” explains Dave of his preferred method. “And then the next black rhino orphan, just by being side by side in their pens and being able to see each other and talk to each other made a big difference. The one would start to play, and then the other would start to play.”

Saving the Wild does not support the fostering of habituated rhino orphans, because then they won’t thrive in the wild – and we are ‘Saving the Wild’ not ‘Saving the Tame’. We feel it is important to try and create distance.

“Bottle feeding for instance, no, it’s too close,” concurs Dave. “You need to get the calf onto a bucket. It doesn’t always work; if you have to resort to a bottle, then so be it, but then get the calf onto a bucket as soon as possible. Teaming them up with other rhino orphans of a similar age also works, and then just leave them alone. Put down a bucket of milk, or fill the tray with food, and then walk away. Animals do get habituated to a degree, but to the point where they want to lick your hands because they expect you to give them a bottle of milk, it’s a serious problem.”

I’ve spent time observing the young blackies. It’s really unusual to see four black rhinos together in a pen – currently two males and two females – but they are four happy black rhino orphans, living together with minimal human interaction, testament to the process.

Dave and I have spoken at length about the future for these black rhino orphans. He would like to keep them together as a unit. They will have to go into a bigger area where they will need to fend for themselves, find their own browse and get used to the environment. They need to get to a point where they don’t need supplementary feeding. And then onto a bigger area where they may not be seen for a week at a time, but they will have a monitoring system in place, such as a foot collar or horn transmitter. It is undecided if they will be moved out of South Africa, but wherever they go, providing them with a safe home is paramount. 

Our deepest appreciation to Dave for always putting his heart and soul into everything he does. If you would like to donate towards the wellbeing of these precious black rhino orphans, you will be contributing towards an extraordinary species that survived the ice age and can survive almost anything but the savagery of human greed. These poachers have no right to amputate evolution.