Dumb blonde; smart khaki

In South Africa, Louise Joubert tells Minty Clinch how learning to change a wheel gained her entry to the hard world of ‘game capture’

As the sun comes up over Northern Transvaal, the red helicopter is a tiny dot in the vastness of the veld. The blonde in the pilot seat looks down on the animals grazing below and picks her targets. Giraffe and wildebeest, impala and kudu raise their heads as she closes in on them. Instinctively, they move away towards the boma, a funnel-shaped compound made of plastic sheeting concealed in the bush. When the animals are safely in the open jaw, the men on the ground close the curtains behind them, channelling them into the trucks waiting to take them to their new homes.
Louise Joubert has been engaged in game capture – one of the fastest growing industries in South Africa – for 10 years.

It is a legitimate business, with animals needed to stock new parks and supply the buoyant biltong (sun-dried raw meat) market, but it is also an unregulated one, which means that anyone with enough money for a helicopter and a couple of trucks can set up a company. Inevitably, some operators put quick profit ahead of animal welfare.

At Helicon, the game-capture company Louise works for, there is ground rules designed to safeguard the animals: helicopter drives into the boma never exceed a mile and a quarter; transfer time in the truck never exceeds eight hours; and, in extreme heat, the capture is aborted. The boma method is approved by conservationists because it keeps the animals’ contact with humans to a minimum, but although severely stressed animals are tranquillised before they travel, some will die of injuries caused by panic and overcrowding. In less ethical outfits, this death toll is much greater.
“Game capture has always been a big bad boys’ club,” says Louise. “Farmers and captors bribe government officials to turn a blind eye while they cut corners. In the end, it’s the animals that pay.”

Last December, she set up SanWild, a sanctuary for young, often un-weaned victims of the more unscrupulous companies. She hopes that anyone who finds youngsters abandoned in the bush will direct them to the sanctuary, a 2,400-acre stretch of savanna bushveld, 40 miles from the main entrance to the Kruger National Park. At SanWild, the young are bottle-fed for as long as they need it, and then placed in family groups so that they retain their instinct for the wild rather than settling for comfortable domesticity.

The catalyst for the project was a wildebeest game capture two years ago. “I waved the truck off with a full load and two days later it came back with five baby wildebeest, three dead and two in extremis. Traders pay per head for trophy game so they only want adults. Those corpses broke my heart but they also made me extremely cross.”

After six months in operation, SanWild has a large barn for severely injured animals, a camp with five tents for visitors, a staff of eight and its own bilingual magazine, Gnus from the Bush. Louise lives on site with her second husband, Andre, his two teenage children from a previous relationship, and her 22-year-old daughter, Lizel, from her first marriage.

When she met Andre, he was a biltong hunter, a macho Afrikaner with attitude, and it took a few years and a lot of battles to change his ways. “There are not many women like me in the bush, certainly not in the Afrikaner community, and he thought I was strange at first. Now he’s a New Age man who gets up every two hours through the night to give our baby zebras their bottles. His friends snigger but he’s learnt to take it.”

Louise grew up in South Africa’s Namaqualand, having been adopted, in 1959, by a sheep farmer and his wife. In the Sixties, the neighbours shot everything that moved, but Louise’s father taught her to observe wildlife rather than to kill it. Neighbours brought her injured and abandoned animals to look after, among them a baby lynx – Tippy – whose mother had been caught in a trap. Tippy was still sleeping on her bed when he was a 60 lb adult, but eventually both he and Louise discovered the opposite sex and went their separate ways.

Louise’s rites of passage took her to Cape Town. Within a year, she got married, had Lizel and got divorced. Louise’s father had died so her mother moved to Cape Town to look after the baby while Louise graduated and built a career in advertising. “My first husband wanted a housewife and baking biscuits wasn’t my cup of tea. My dad always told me to get married if I had to, but to be sure to finish my studies as well and mum made sure I was able to do that. For 10 years, I was a real city girl, but giving me a street plan now is like giving a fish a map of the Sahara and telling it to walk across it.”

Louise’s move back to the country came when she found herself sitting next to Clive Walker, a South African hunter turned naturalist and artist, on a plane from Johannesburg to Cape Town. He set up the Endangered Wildlife Trust in 1974, funding it partly with his wildlife drawings, but by the time he met Louise he was entirely focused on the black rhino, seemingly in terminal decline with only 3,500 animals left in the wild. By the time the plane landed, he had hired her to set up National Black Rhino Pledge Day, a pioneering telethon that raised £700,000. “Lots of people said I was crazy, but if the message comes from your soul, you find a way of putting it over,” says Louise.

The telethon renewed her interest in the wild, but she faced rejection from parks and game-capture outfits when she applied for jobs. Her final approach was to Keith Coppen, the owner of Helicapture who asked if she could change a wheel. “I said I can damn well learn and stomped off to try it out on the pick-up in the yard. There were a couple of black guys laughing at me so I got them to help and two-and-a-half hours later it was done. I walked proudly back into the bar and said: ‘I’ve changed a wheel. Do I have a job?’ I guess playing the dumb blonde helped. It always does with the South African male.”

The first time she worked on a boma, she was terrified. “The adrenaline pumps like you can’t believe and I had the total shakes. When the guy who was briefing me set off to seal the open jaw, I just stayed where I was. He’d forgotten to mention that the animals sometimes turn back and charge you while you’re closing the curtain. As fast as you’re running to shut them off, they’re running to get through it in the wrong direction.” On other occasions, she found herself resting next to a deadly Egyptian cobra and pinned on top of a rock by a rampant wildebeest bull. When the helicopter pilot flew low to drive it off, the blast shot Louise into the dirt, leaving her with her clothes and her dignity in shreds.

She saw Coppen killed, tragically, when his helicopter hit a tree. “Game-capture flying is a dead man’s curve because you have to go low among trees. It’s best to throw away the manual at the start because everything it says has to go out of the window anyway. My closest brush with death came when I was chasing ostriches with my colleague Dave Boyce. He was at the controls and I expected him to be paying attention, but when I looked around, I saw the back cable of the boma at eye level. I said ‘Cable, Dave’ as calmly as I could and he aborted the capture. It was while we were sitting shaking in the cockpit in the middle of the veld that I decided it might be better to fly myself.”

Louise’s blueprint for SanWild is to increase the size of the sanctuary and establish a complete ecosystem, with the big five – lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and hippo – in permanent residence alongside the existing plains game. She has used her own money to buy the core 2,400 acres.

The future of Louise Joubert’s sanctuary, it seems, will depend as much on her marketing skills as her love of animals.