Chipangali: Can this Wildlife Orphan Be Saved?
A Car Killed the Mother. Is the Baby Steenbok Doomed Also?
The old man on the rusty bicycle showed up when the six volunteers were eating lunch on the patio of the Big House. Dust covered his ragged clothes and permeated the creases in his dark face, making him look like a pail of cinders had been emptied over him.
“Doctor,” he said, anxiously looking around as if someone with a stethoscope around his neck would appear out of nowhere. “Is the Doctor here?”
Kevin, the big, burly, blonde manager of Chipangali Wildlife Orphanage, walked around the table and stood in front of the man, opening his arms and giving him an encouraging smile. “No doctor here. Can I help you?”
Resignedly, the man reached up and took off his backpack, a sorry thing that had faded Power Rangers characters across the front. Wordlessly, he opened the top flap. Peeking over Kevin’s shoulder, I looked into the dark recesses of the backpack and saw two large black eyes staring at me. I couldn’t visualize the body, but my heart stuttered as I got the impression of violent quivering, fear and pain.
Kevin quickly closed the flap and set it down on a chair. After what appeared to be some quick negotiations in a language I don’t know and some money changing hands, the man got on his bicycle and left, disappearing quickly down the dirt road that led to the compound, leaving his backpack with us.
Kevin did not watch him go, but picked up the backpack and started walking to the gate that led to the main part of the Wildlife Orphanage. Nikki, his wife, pushed back her long blonde hair and sighed. “Another one,” she said as she turned towards us. “Who’s working in the hospital today?”
“Me!” I said, anxious to solve the mystery of the unknown contents of the backpack and to help in some way. Jackie, the Australian nurse, also raised her hand.
“Finish your lunch and let’s go,” Nikki said. “We have a new orphan.”
We were pretty much finished with lunch anyway, just lingering and enjoying the warm African sunshine after working all morning with our machetes gathering leafy branches to feed the antelopes and goats.They have to eat 20% of their body weight a day, which is a lot of leaves. Luckily, the wildlife orphanage covers 20 acres of bush, so we could alternate the trees we cut from without devastating the whole place. Dragging those 6–12 foot “branches” back to the corrals was probably the hardest part and we felt we deserved a break.
Most of the animals at the orphanage found their way to us because a lion or car had killed their mothers. They were past needing the animal hospital but growing up in the protected environment had rendered them unable to fend for themselves in the wild. They depended on us for food, water, and clean cages and corrals. Our charges included 25 lions plus several cheetahs, leopards, mongooses, jackals, antelopes, snakes, turtles, crocodiles, monkeys and birds. We also had domestic cats, dogs, goats and rabbits.
Jackie and I followed Nikki to the hospital like little chicks following their mother, winding past the shelters holding the three baby lions and the mongooses till we got to the hospital building. Nikki opened the door carefully to make sure no loose animals could escape. We had been caring for some motherless kittens and bunnies found on the property, feeding them with small needleless syringes filled with milk. The kittens now had free reign and the bunnies had a new home in a large wire cage. We entered and found Kevin in the corner staring into a cardboard box.
“It’s a baby steenbok,” he said, pointing to the small antelope’s fawn colored skin, white belly, white rings around the eyes, and black rings inside the pointy ears. “The man saw its mother get hit by a car and he knew to bring it here.”
Chipangali has been around since 1973, when it was established by Kevin’s father, a former park ranger and head of the Natural History Museum in nearby Bulawayo. It was well known in the area and even internationally, having been the subject of a TV show in the 1970’s. Funding was a constant problem so sympathetic neighbors called when they had extra food or when they were putting animals down so Kevin could get fresh meat for the carnivores. Otherwise they depended on admission fees to see the complex and donations from animal lovers around the world.
“Steenboks are very shy,” Kevin said. “Being around people can make them die from fright, so be very quiet. Fill the box with straw and we’ll lay a blanket over the top so he can hide.”
Jackie and I did what he asked, putting a few small branches of fresh leaves and a glass dish of water in the box before covering it. We checked every two hours but he did not move from his corner, just sat rolled up in a ball with his face hidden, quivering silently.
I checked the box once more after dinner that night. The sun was going down, and the white concrete walls of the room made it cooler and darker. I lifted the blanket and the tiny face looked up at me, eyes big and black and holding questions I could not answer. I put the dish of water closer and whispered some encouraging words about life, hope, and not giving up. I replaced the blanket, not sure whether the dark would be reassuring, as Kevin said, or frightening, as I felt. The eyes were now covered and I could not look to them for an answer.
The next morning, the box was gone. My heart sank. I rushed to Nikki to find out what had happened.
“Poor thing was literally scared to death,” she said. “It just couldn’t cope being away from its mother in a strange environment.”
I felt anger at the driver of the car that killed the innocent baby’s mother, despite knowing that it was just further proof that “progress” and “wild” are incompatible and wild animal populations were being decimated all over Africa. I remembered the baby steenbok’s big sad eyes and for a moment thought wistfully of my own long dead mother and faraway home.
Just then Nikki came in and announced that a new baby goat had just been born and the mother was too weak to help it. Any lingering thoughts disappeared as I went to meet the next challenge.
“Chipangali” is an excerpt from Lioness Unbound, a memoir of a year volunteering in Africa, coming in 2021.