Swallows swoop and dive steeply over the South African savannah. They share the air with a cool breeze that moves gently across the flat landscape. It is just after 6 am and, a few minutes from now, the sun will rise. Suddenly, the birdsong is drowned out by the roar of a diesel engine.
In a cloud of red dust, a sand-coloured Volvo FM thunders towards a group of people with pick-up trucks who have gathered at the gates to the Koppies Dam Nature Reserve, 150 kilometres southwest of Johannesburg. This is the first day of the season. Today, the game capture team is going to capture and move the African buffalo, which is one of the ‘Big Five’, a term coined by hunters to describe the most difficult and dangerous animals to track and hunt in Africa.
“We often work with buffaloes, but it always involves a risk. The buffalo is a powerful animal and, when it attacks, it does so with a vengeance. If it gets hold of you, you are done for. It will kill you,” says Petrus Motsoane, the team foreman and driver of the Volvo truck-tractor that is going to transport these aggressive animals.
Capturing and transporting wild animals is an important operation in South Africa’s many nature reserves. It is done first and foremost to maintain a balance between different animal species in the reserves but also to avoid inbreeding.
The buffalo is a powerful animal and, when it attacks, it does so with a vengeance.
The captures are carried out during the winter season between March and October when the weather is at its coolest. The team captures and transports several different species of wild animal – from zebras and rhinoceroses to buffalo and lions.
The nature reserves in Free State Province in South Africa have been Petrus Motsoane’s workplace for more than 20 years. With surgical precision, he manoeuvres the 24-tonne, 22-metre-long truck across the savannah to the herd of animals that are going to be moved. The work imposes rigorous demands on vehicle and driver alike.
“Your body gets tired from driving across the savannah. It feels as though your ribs are breaking! But I have been driving this truck for 10 years and I have never had any problems. It’s strong and resilient enough to do everything that’s needed,” says Petrus.
The game capture team in Free State is made up of 25 people, plus a veterinary surgeon and a helicopter pilot. The helicopter looks for and chases the buffalo into the open so that the veterinary surgeon can shoot it from the air with a tranquilliser dart.
Once the buffalo has been stunned, the team on the ground drive their pick-up trucks and hoist the animal, which weighs more than a tonne, onto the back of the pick-up. The buffalo is then transported to Pertus’ Volvo truck where a crane truck lifts the sleeping animal onto the trailer, where a reversal drug will be administered to wake the animal.
“When the buffalo wakes up, he gets a little aggressive but, by then, we have already got out and closed the door. If he wakes up before you have had a chance to leave the trailer, you have to be quick as lightning before he gets hold of you,” says Petrus.
He laughs and the gold tooth in his lower jaw and gold ring in his left ear glitter, as he recounts the story of a stunned zebra that woke up in the middle of a loading procedure and ran away across the savannah wearing a blindfold.
Three ostriches with bobbing tail feathers trot through the high grass to the right of the truck and the rattling noise from the helicopter causes a family of two adult rhinoceroses with a rhino calf to race away in terror. The truck bounces along, over grass and bushes, down into a ravine and across a bridge that is so narrow that it is a miracle that the vehicle fleet is able to cross it. Petrus’ face is frozen in concentration.
“When I drive across the rough terrain, the truck bounces and sounds completely differently to when I am driving on a normal road. I need to drive really, really slowly across dangerous terrain until it’s safe again. I have to keep a close eye on the road ahead to make sure that there aren’t any stones or other obstacles in my way. But I can’t see everything so I sometimes have to take chances,” he says.
The day gets off to a bad start. The first two buffaloes the vet immobilises run into a grove and down into a ravine, dangerously near the river. With their engines roaring, the pick-ups get stuck in the high bush leading to the spot and, when they arrive, they are unable to get down into the marshy area where one of the buffalo is now asleep. The trees make it difficult for the helicopter to chase away other buffaloes that may be nearby and that could attack.
Reinforcements are called in and then everything moves very quickly: the buffalo is pushed onto a green stretcher and winched up the slope to the jeep where ten people lift the sleeping animal onto the back of the pick-up truck with their bare hands.
Apart from driving the truck, Petrus’ job as foreman also includes monitoring work on the animals and helping to get them loaded on the trailer. The trailer is divided into five compartments with steel doors that can be opened and closed from the outside. At most, the truck is able to transport as many as 15 buffaloes, depending on their size.
“Buffaloes don’t like standing on their own. It makes them crazy and they injure themselves. So two or three buffaloes always travel in one compartment,” explains Kees Lawrence, who heads the game-capture team, as he measures out the correct dose of vitamin B for the four-year-old buffalo cow that the ground team has just brought to the truck.
Each buffalo that is captured is tested for various diseases, marked with a microchip and given a shot of vitamin B to strengthen its immune system. While Kees gives the sleeping buffalo an injection, a queue of buffaloes with white blindfolds and cotton wool in their ears forms between the Volvo tractor-trailer and the crane truck. The blindfolds and cotton wool help them to stay calm.
When I tell other driver's what I'm carrying, they say ‘Man, one day, those animals are going to kill you’. But I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years and I’m still alive.
The work of drawing blood tests, transferring and waking the buffaloes involved in animal transport goes quickly. Using a long iron bar, Petrus opens the doors between the compartments. Fourteen animals quickly crowd onto the trailer. The buffaloes are not that happy about suddenly finding themselves shuttered into a small metal box.
“They’ll calm down when I start driving,” says Petrus, as he climbs into the driver’s cab.
The truck drives back through the reserve towards the enclosure in which the buffaloes are going to remain in quarantine before they are sold at auction to other nature reserves. Today’s cargo is worth more than 2.2 million rand, approximately EUR 170,000. After they are sold, Petrus Motsoane will transport the animals to their new homes.
“The best part of the job is driving my truck on the road. When I tell other driver's what I'm carrying, they say ‘Man, one day, those animals are going to kill you’. But I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years and I’m still alive.”
Volvo FM from 2003 with a 380 bhp, 13-litre diesel engine and a South-African trailer from SA Trucks. The tractor-trailer is 22 metres long and weighs 24 tonnes. The vehicle is used every day during the game capture season, between March and October, to transport wild animals out on the savannah and on normal roads.