Wildlife rescue can be both uplifting and devastating – sometimes in the space of a single day. The team in our Wildlife Emergency Response Unit (WERU) know this all too well. 

A joint partnership between the Department of National Parks and Wildlife and Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT), WERU works on the frontline of conservation. Run by LWT’s Head Vet, Dr. Amanda Salb, the unit is on call 24/7 to provide emergency support for wild animals across Malawi. It aims to save as many animals as possible from threats such as poaching and human-wildlife conflict. The unit also supports wider park management efforts to safeguard Malawi’s increasingly threatened populations of wild animals through more strategic interventions such as animal relocations. 

A few weeks ago we reported over social media that the unit was called out to rescue a zebra caught with a poacher’s snare wrapped tight around its leg at Kuti Wildlife Reserve. Although the reserve is protected by fencing, poaching for bushmeat is still a daily threat to the herds of zebra, antelope and other wild animals that call it home. Poachers set snares made of barbed wire to trap animals by the leg or neck. The snare is set in such a way that the more an animal attempts to free itself, the tighter it is pulled, inflicting wounds which can be fatal. If a snare is caught around an animal’s neck or head, for example, it can cause the animal to suffocate to death. Research has shown that in addition to destroying individual lives, poaching also costs Malawi in the region of $8.4 million each year in terms of lost conservation value. 

A few days after successfully anaesthetising the injured zebra and removing the snare, Amanda received a call from reserve scouts reporting that the animal was struggling to walk. She returned to Kuti with vet student Laston Chimaliro and darted the animal with an anaesthetic so that she could add a splint to its leg to help it heal. However, a few days later, it became clear that the injury was too severe. The zebra’s extensor tendon was badly damaged and clearly causing a lot of pain. With no prospect of recovery, Amanda took the difficult decision to euthanise the animal. 

She said: “It’s always terrible to be confronted with a situation like this. Our job is to save animals and we truly believe that every individual counts. But I knew we’d done everything we could to give the zebra a second chance at life. The reality is that, no matter how hard we try, we simply can’t save every animal.”

But that wasn’t the end of the day for Amanda and Laston. 

As they were leaving the reserve they received another call – this time about a sable that had been spotted caught in another snare. They quickly turned back. After traversing an area of wetland in the pitch dark with scouts they managed to locate the sable, lying trapped in thick undergrowth. Luckily the snare had only caught around one of its horns. It was tethered to a tree but didn’t appear to be hurt. After Amanda darted the animal with an anaesthetic by torchlight, the team cut the snare from the horn and set the sable free. Although exhausted by the ordeal, it was able to walk away. As always, scouts will keep a close eye out for any further signs of injury.

Amanda said: 

"It was great to be able to rescue the sable, especially after such a tough day. It was also a testament to the power of teamwork. Scouts do such an important job, working tirelessly to keep animals safe. I am grateful for the opportunity to support their work."

Our thanks go to the Born Free Foundation and Olsen Animal Trust for their generous support of the Wildlife Emergency Response Unit.

You can see WERU in action by watching Malawi Wildlife Rescue, which is currently airing in the UK on Sky Nature (Fridays 8pm until 3rd July 2020) or in Malawi via StarTimes or Zuku (until 26 June 2020).