We had the great pleasure of chatting to Johan, a vet at The Wildlife Centre Shamwari Game Reserve in the East Cape of South Africa. Shamwari, which first opened in 1992, is one of the most successful private conservation initiatives in Southern Africa. Due to hunting and over-farming, wildlife numbers in the Eastern Cape had been dramatically reduced, but Shamwari’s relentless conservation and rehabilitation efforts over the last 25 years is going a long way to rectify that. Shamwari also has six separate 5-star lodges, an Explorer Camp, three different education and rehabilitation facilities – the ideal environment for discerning guests to enjoy a sublime pocket of South Africa, flourishing with free-roaming wildlife.
Where do you operate your conservation programme from?
The Wildlife Centre at Shamwari Game Reserve.
How long have you been a vet?
34 years and a wildlife vet for the past 20 years.
What led you to become a vet?
I grew up on a farm and always had a passion for animals. Initially I practiced as a veterinarian for domestic animals, but eventually changed career to wildlife.
Describe your typical day?
It varies a lot. Normally I would have a quick visit to the animals in our rehab centre and any other animals that might be in the bomas*. Then a brief discussion with our veterinary nurse, wildlife manager and Born Free personnel to prioritise the programme for the day.
That will be followed by working on the main reserve; that varies from veterinary procedures to other conservation work such as animal translocations, rhino security and visits to the Born Free Sanctuary. Late morning a meeting with ecologists, hospitality personnel or guests.
After lunch some dreaded administration and by late afternoon any excuse to get out of the office and back onto the reserve again.
*A bomas is a livestock enclosure, used in many parts of the African Great Lakes region, as well as Central and Southern Africa.
What experience has scared you the most?
Close encounters with black rhino, especially if I were to be on foot and surprise one of them in dense thicket. Black rhino are very aggressive animals and are likely to attack even with the slightest provocation.
What experience has made you happiest?
It was very special when the first high profile species such as elephant, lion and rhino started to reproduce. It is wonderful to see how a rhino cow will protect her latest calf or how elephant calves enjoy waterholes and mud baths.
If you hadn't have become a vet, what other profession would you have followed?
The vet’s assistant!
What is the most amusing experience you have had as a vet?
When I got a lioness’ anaesthetic wrong and she jumped up while everybody was on foot around her. The team were running each other over in their attempts to get out of the way and the biggest guy climbed onto the bonnet of the closest vehicle.
What makes you sad?
Poachers after rhino, leaving them dead or often still alive but badly mutilated.
What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?
To get qualified as soon as possible to be able to work closer to nature.
What are your conservation plans for the future?
To enlarge Shamwari Game Reserve and to create more protected areas to accommodate the large variety of wildlife in South Africa.
Where in the world would you like to travel?
African countries close to the Tropics. It is my dream to go down the Congo river by boat.
What inspires you?
Real conservationists who are able to debate the complexities of wildlife management, able to compromise and make a difference.