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From game counting and darting, to capturing and relocating wildlife on horseback, the annual game census safari serves to keep the private reserve and its wild residents thriving.

While having traditionally been carried out from a helicopter, conducting a game census on horseback continues to be more accurate than a helicopter count and, perhaps most importantly, significantly minimises disturbance to the wildlife. Each year, guests join us for several nights, and each day is spent heading out into the reserve – either on horseback or in a vehicle – to count, dart and relocate game animals.

Ant puts his riders into place around, but out of sight of the animal, so that if it runs, we can keep track of its movements. Once the dart is in, everyone stays in their position, and everything is done quietly to keep the animal calm to stop it wanting to run away. Once the animal is down and completely sedated, the radio calls through for guests to come and observe while the vet, Paul, is working on the animal.

game census safari, Riding South Africa, Waterberg game reserve, wildlife conservationThis year, we had an exciting five-day game census safari jam-packed with incredible wildlife encounters that were all part of caring for the many game species that call the reserve home. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a safari at The Ant Collection without many exhilarating horseback rides, bushveld views, and those all-important sundowners.

Day 1: All about the antelopes

Every day of the game census is exciting, but there is always an extra buzz in the air amongst our staff and guests on the first day. This year, we started off by darting two sable bulls, five young Roan bulls, and two oryx bulls. The young sable and Roan bulls were relocated to a separate area where they will form their own bachelor groups.

Once these are firmly established and the rainy season arrives, they will then be released onto the main reserve. For the two oryx bulls, this was their day of release into the main reserve. The day ended with some long canters to the sundowner spot where we watched the sun go down with a drink in hand.

Day 2: It’s all hands on deck!

We got up close with two buffalo bulls that were darted for relocation. It was all hands on deck with these very big, very heavy boys that needed to be loaded into the game trailers. After much huffing and puffing, that job was done and the next was tracking down a female giraffe with a nasty abscess on her buttocks.

game census safari, wildlife conservation, buffalo and conservationThe group cantered to the area where she had been spotted and wound through the bush quietly to get to her. The vet couldn’t dart her in the thickets, so the horses worked hard in trying to push her out into an open area to make darting and treating her easier and safer. Unfortunately, she was very elusive and so we were unable to complete this job successfully. Nevertheless, it was a good second day and well-deserved gin and tonics awaited the guests for sundowners.

Day 3: How to outsmart a buffalo herd

The day started with darting another two buffalo bulls. We have to space out buffalo darting over two days because the herd is very clever and quickly realises what we’re up to, often running off before Paul can dart them. Once the animal is lying down and sedated, the vet will check its condition, give it medication if necessary, and dip it for ticks. A staff member holds the animal’s head in a comfortable position, ensuring it can breathe comfortably and continually monitoring its breathing.

game census safari, Riding South Africa, Waterberg game reserve, wildlife conservationNext up was darting a Roan bull that was in poor condition because of it being winter. The vet gave the bull medication to build up his immune and make him strong again for the next few harsh months. We are happy to report that after several days of monitoring, the Roan bull has taken well to the medication.

In the afternoon, the helicopter assisted us in darting three kudu bulls and one eland bull, which were released onto the main reserve. The team of riders were divided into two, each having a recovery vehicle to load the animals into. The riders and horses love this because it involves following the chopper and cantering through the bush after the animals.

With the sun beginning to set, it was a race to sundowners, where we ended the day sharing stories of everyone’s experience of the captures so far.

Day 4: Second time lucky?

Our aim for this day was to locate sable and Roan bulls in the main reserve for relocating. The riders were divided up into teams and given areas to look for the animals – it can be quite tricky to find one specific animal in an area of 5000 hectares! Later in the morning, everyone cantered to where a sable bull was located, and Ant put everyone at specific point around the animal in case it decided to run. Fortunately, the darting went smoothly, and the vet did all he needed to in good time.

game census safari, Riding South Africa, Waterberg game reserve, wildlife conservationAfter a morning filled with riding and excitement, we cantered to bush lunch at our biggest dam where we were met with the smell of food cooking on the open flame. The guests relaxed under a shady tree, with a drink in hand overlooking the dam and spotting some beautiful birds.

We then tried to dart the same female giraffe from Day 2, but she was once again in thick bush. So we called upon the riders and the trusty horses to try their best to push her out and into an area where the vet could work with her. Like the first time we met her, she had other plans and evaded us once more before daylight ran out. It was time to call it a day and enjoy sundowners.

Day 5: That’s a wrap!

We started the morning on horseback looking for wildebeest. Capturing wildebeest is very difficult so we were all thrilled when we managed to do so successfully. We located two different groups and darted two wildebeest cows and one bull from one group, and two wildebeest cows from the second that were safely transported by game trailer to another reserve.

After several days of early mornings, being on horseback before the suns up, lots of cantering and heavy lifting of animals, we wrapped up Day 5 in the afternoon. Ant took the guests out for a ride to see the reserve from a different perspective for sundowners, a well-earned treat after all the hard days of riding. Everyone was in high spirts on the ride home because it was time for the game census party.

Dinner was amazing! We cooked a hearty potjie – a traditional South African dish – and once everyone was full and happy, it was time to party. It was a great way to end another successful game census safari.