Meet ‘the protector’, a KZN vet who’s helped 2,500 rhino
Now Dr Dave Cooper will receive lifetime achievement award for his dedication to Africa’s wildlife
An SA wildlife vet who has helped to treat, protect and spread out more than 2,500 rhinos to game reserves across the country and the continent will be honoured in New York next week for a lifetime of dedication to the care and conservation of Africa’s wildlife.
Dr Dave Cooper of KwaZulu-Natal conservation agency Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has been named the 2018 winner of the uMvikeli Wildlife Award by US wildlife conservation charity the Wildlife Tomorrow Fund.
uMvikeli is Zulu for “the protector”.
During his 23-year career with Ezemvelo Cooper has cared for thousands of injured, sick or orphaned animals and also immobilised endangered species such as wild dogs and rhinos so that they can be translocated to restock depleted conservation parks, mainly in Southern Africa.
Cooper says he has lost count of all the animals he has treated over the years – from elephants to lions or tiny antelopes – “but almost every day has been a fantastic journey”.
Yet, despite his role in many wildlife conservation triumphs, there is a very sad side that has seared his soul.
Last year alone he had to examine the corpses of 167 poached rhinos during autopsies in KZN wildlife reserves.
In an interview with Farmers Weekly magazine last year Cooper said: “Dealing with this cruelty on an almost weekly basis is now getting to me. I’m increasingly struggling to deal with it. I try to put up psychological defences to protect myself, but it’s becoming impossible for these defences to remain effective with case after case. A person’s subconscious doesn’t forget the terrible things that it experiences.
“My wife Debbie has noticed that I’m mumbling, and tossing and turning in my sleep. What I’ve noticed is that my emotions are very close to the surface nowadays. For example, I can be telling Debbie or my father, Tim, about my rhino poaching work and I’ll suddenly burst into tears. I think that I’ve shed more tears in the past five years than in all the years of my life combined.”
This week, Cooper recalled that “everything changed in about 2012 when the poaching onslaught really hit the wildlife reserves in this province”.
“Tomorrow [Wednesday] there is another examination I have to do ... digging into a carcass to find bullets and other forensic evidence.
“But there are still moments which make up for all this.
“I still remember the early days when I darted my first 200 rhinos, to notch-mark their ears. There were no helicopters available then. That time was among the best experiences, getting up so close to them on foot.”
Cooper has also travelled to India, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast and South America to train other wildlife vets in capture techniques for antelope, buffalo and other species.
On November 16 he will honoured at the Manhattan Penthouse in New York for “his lifetime of dedication to the care, management and conservation of African rhinoceros and other wild animals in Africa”.
The Wildlife Tomorrow Fund says Cooper is regarded as one of the leading experts in rhino immobilisation, capture and transport, having relocated more than 2,500.
He has been the principal vet involved in the Rhinos Without Borders project from its inception. The project has moved 87 white rhinos from SA to Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
He has also been involved in the relocation of more than 150 black rhino to nine reserves as part of the WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project.
“I am extremely humbled and also honored to receive the 2018 Wildlife Protector Award.” says Cooper. “But I am just one person among many involved in the daily struggle to save wildlife. The rhino is a symbol of representing the loss of biodiversity today. If we can’t save rhinos, what is next? It’s a struggle we must work our hardest to win”.
Wild Tomorrow Fund director John Steward described Cooper as “an inspiration for all us”.
Fellow board member and New York city vet, Dr Wendy McCulloch, said: “I had the privilege to spend time working with Dave in the field in South Africa. I was astounded at his ability to work long hours under tremendous pressure, making it look effortless. He is a fountain of knowledge, patient and generous with his time, and highly respected by his team and peers.”