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Dr Jacques Flamand has treated about 3000 rhinos so far. He's truly lived a life of adventure. His other patients have included lions, buffalo, monkeys, aardvarks and even an eagle.
Flamand has spent his career as a wildlife vet working on species whose ecological footprints are in danger of disappearing altogether – and in the past decade or so that has been as leader of WWF’s Black Rhino Range Expansion Project (BRREP).
Throughout his career, treating dogs and cats has been pretty unusual.
Flamand’s patients have ranged from a Gaboon adder, which had been cut down to the spinal cord with a spade, through to an injured Bengal tiger which he darted from the back of an elephant. He’s treated lions, buffalo, monkeys, aardvarks. He’s fixed the broken wing of an eagle.
Though he cares deeply about the welfare of his wild patients, Flamand is under no illusions about their feelings towards him.
One: They’d bite him, given the chance.
Although Flamand says he has only been bitten once, and that on the shoe by a wild dog he was vaccinating.
“The fangs went straight through the leather and between two toes. After that, I realised that the process as we were doing it was too stressful for the wild dogs, so we starting tranquillising them first.”
Two: They break his bones.
He once had an arm broken by an elephant – he believes on purpose. Young elephants were being released into Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve and before letting them go, Flamand was cutting off the identification bracelets around their ankles.
“The last one put his back foot down on my arm. I couldn’t move it. I realised then that with their protruding eyes elephants can see what’s going on at their feet – that’s why they walk so quietly. He knew what he was doing; he was looking at me. Eventually he stopped and I could withdraw my arm.”
Three: They can’t wait to run away from you.
“Sometimes an animal that has been caught and put into captivity is not happy and won’t eat. So you let it go, and it runs out and you can almost see it perking up. It’s one of the most satisfying things to watch.”
Spreading the love
Flamand worked for many years as wildlife vet with the then Natal Parks Board (now Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife) and has also worked in Saudi Arabia and Nepal. In Saudi Arabia, he and his team achieved a world first when they successfully eradicated TB from a herd of critically endangered Arabian oryx. “Normal protocol to get rid of TB is to destroy the animals but in Saudi money was no problem so we basically treated the animals like human patients for nine months."
In Nepal, he set up a veterinary programme in and around Chitwan National Park as part of a drive to improve relations with people in the park’s buffer zones. “In Nepal parks are not fenced, and animals including rhinos and tigers were leaving the park and eating crops or livestock. So they were getting shot or poisoned or even electrocuted by farmers. People used to bring down wires from overhead powerlines into their paddy fields to kill deer that came in and ate the rice. Quite a few people got killed too.”
One of his toughest tasks in Nepal was judging a pet competition, Flamand said. A host of children arrived clutching their pet goat or dog or chicken, and he was supposed to choose “the best”. Not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings he started off choosing the pet of the most sensitive-looking child and ended up making sure that every animal won a prize.
With the then Natal Parks Board, Flamand was involved with the organisation’s highly-successful white rhino translocation programme which was responsible for the down listing of white rhino from “critically endangered” to “vulnerable”.
He estimates that he has personally handled about 3000 rhino so far. In the earlier days of capture, they used to drive after the animals in Landrovers or even chase them on foot to dart them. (Today helicopters are normally used.) “It was quite like a rodeo,” Flamand said. “Sometimes we’d drive into a hole at speed and get thrown from the vehicle.”
This experience, however, has stood him in good stead in his current role as leader of the black rhino project which is showing excellent results.
Black rhino numbers in KZN have increased by 21% during the lifetime of the project which was established in 2003. Improvements have also been made to the “flying rhino” translocation technique through which rhinos are airlifted out of difficult terrain.
BRREP works to increase numbers of the critically endangered animals by increasing the land available on which they can breed by moving up to 20 animals at a time to create new populations. To date, 10 such translocations have taken place.
Says Flamand: “Rhino are a primitive sort of design: big lumbering beasts with horns of the sort that went out with the dinosaurs. But I would hate for them to go extinct through human greed and ignorance.
“Perhaps as little conservationists we’re beating against thunder…but we do what we can with the means at our disposal in the hope that future generations can find other solutions which leave space in the world for all things wild and wonderful.”
By Pam Sherriffs