This all happened on our family farm that was situated on the Lundi (Runde) River, back in the days when Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia, when we bottle reared an orphaned kudu calf.
We had a big flock of sheep on the farm in those days, which were looked after by a shepherd. He took them out in the morning and brought the home at night. During the heat of the day the shepherd would take the flock down to the river to drink, along one of the few game paths that wound themselves through the dense riverine bush to the water’s edge. The shepherd would be careful to avoid the pools where the crocodiles lurked and find a place where the river flowed over rocky areas between the pools, where it would be safe for the sheep to drink.
On one occasion the shepherd came across a kudu cow that had been caught in a snare along one of these paths. Her calf, which was only a few days old, lay curled up next to her and leapt up and bolted into the bush, as he drew alongside her. The calf did not get very far, when she too was caught in a snare.
Fortunately the shepherd was not alone that day and while he restrained the calf from threshing about and injuring itself, his sidekick ran back to our farmhouse a few kilometres away tell my folks.
I was not in on the rescue, because I was at boarding school at the time.
It was not long before the calf was rescued and safely ensconced in a pen. The surrounding bush along the river was swept by a team of labourers and was cleared of snares.
At the first opportunity my mother set about the task of bottle rearing her latest charge. We had plenty of cow’s milk but she knew that it was probably too rich for a kudu. After a few telephone calls around the country, she managed to track down a formula for blending kudu’s milk from cow’s milk. Making a few telephone calls was easier said than done in those days. We were on a party line, which was shared with about five other users, so if you wanted to make a call; you had to wait your turn if someone was on talking. To make a trunk call you would have to dial the exchange, ask for the number you wanted and then wait anything for up to an hour for the call to come through. But mother was determined and eventually got what she wanted.
And so the task of bottle rearing an orphaned kudu calf began.
To start with my step father would have to hold her down while mother force fed her, but it was not long until she grasped the concept and would voluntarily take the bottle. This developed into something of a ritual. Before taking the bottle, she would launch herself across the pen and give her benefactor a few good thumps, before eagerly latching on to the teat. This earned her the name of Thump-Thump, or Thumpy for short.
When I finished school and returned home, I immediately volunteered to look after her and this was readily accepted by my folks. My folks who knew all about her idiosyncrasies and watched with bemused smiles while their unsuspecting son climbed into the pen, bottle in hand. My feet had no sooner touched the ground when she shot across the pen and gave me a few good thumps and then started drinking. It is quite intimidating when what seems to be a docile, but nervous antelope suddenly “attacks” you. Let’s just say I was shaken not stirred, much to the amusement of the onlookers.
I then set about capturing the heart and mind of Thumpy. The way to do that was through her stomach. This was done with a variety of treats. He absolute favourite was a particular bush, with whitish berries, that grew along the river bank. I was told that kudus were particularly fond of this bush and every day I would bring her a few branches and it was not long when she would come running when I called her name. She became very affectionate and would nuzzle me and loved having her neck and ears scratched.
This is the only photo of I have Thumpy. It was scanned from an old colour slide and was taken inside the turkey run, with her buddy the goat.
When she was over her nervousness she was moved into a large turkey run, where she had a lot more space to move about and soon had a goat for a friend. Unfortunately the goat died quite suddenly one day and Thumpy was left with only the turkeys for company.
One of the daily rituals on the farm was to release the turkeys to free range in the lands. This was always a moment of great excitement. The turkeys would gather at the gate at the right time of the day and as soon as it was opened, they would charge out and run full tilt into the fields with wings flapping and a lot of noise, before settling down to their foraging.
Thumpy would usually stand by and nonchalantly look at the daily spectacle, until she too was suddenly infected by all the excitement and also made a break for freedom. In her case she did not exit through the gate, but managed to break a hole through the wire mesh fence, with the full force of her charge and kept running until she disappeared in the bush.
I immediately went looking for her but she was nowhere to be found. It was a devastating time for us as she had become such a part of the family. I thought that being a wild animal she would go back to her roots. How wrong I was.
Thumpy was gone for several weeks and during that time we received more than one report about a mad kudu that kept chasing the people from the communal lands, who used to take shortcuts through our farm. Thumpy saw people as friends and a source of food. They only saw her as a kudu that was doing what no wild kudu had done before and so when she approached then, they assumed she was mad and fled in terror.
Then came the day when our shepherd arrived out of breath to let me know Thumpy had joined the flock of sheep. I rounded up some help and quickly collected some of the branches of her favourite berries and headed out in the Land Rover to hopefully bring her home.
Sure enough, she had joined the sheep, but she was already very thin and extremely nervous and it was only after a lot of coaxing and bribery with the berries that she came to me. Looking at the state she was in, I knew she would never survive on her own in the bush and as soon as she was sufficiently calm I quickly tackled her around the front legs and brought her down. The labourers and I loaded her into the back of the Land Rover and returned her to her original pen.
She was never the same after that experience but I am sure that given enough time she would have overcome her new found nervousness, but that would have meant keeping her in a small fenced off area. As a family we decided that would not be right, wild animals are meant to be free. We had given her life and it was now time to give her freedom.
We gave her to a neighbour who had developed a small game park that was well fenced and where we knew there was plenty of space she would be safe. I made sure that her new owner knew which treats to give her and the last time I heard she had become a firm favourite with him and had returned to her affectionate ways.