Meet South Africa’s Dr. Dolittle
Brian Jones’s rehab center takes in injured and endangered animals.
MOHOLOHOLO, South Africa — In these scrubby lowlands of eastern South Africa, a place of dust and thorn trees and some of the world’s most renowned game reserves, everyone knows Brian Jones.To hundreds of schoolchildren, tourists, and veterinary students he is a teacher – one who nuzzles with wild dogs, shows the beauty of vultures, reveals the mysteries of the honey badger, and generally explains the wonders of nature.
To game rangers and reserve managers, he is a mentor, the one to go to when there is a leopard caught in a snare, or a baby rhino injured by bulls, or an eagle that has been poisoned.
And to locals, he is the answer to all variety of animal problems that vex humans in this part of the world. Cheetahs threatening the livestock? Call Brian. A crocodile attacking people? Brian will take it – the way he takes everything – to his Moholoholo Wildlife Rehab Centre.
“They just call me, it’s word of mouth,” Mr. Jones says one recent day in his office, a bustling place of staff members, piles of paper, and constantly ringing phones. “On Sunday they called me for a leopard. A few weeks back, they called me for a rhino that had been abandoned by mommy. I got a buzzard two days ago with one leg.”
And when they call, he answers.
Unlike most animal-rehabilitation centers in the region, Jones’s operation doesn’t focus on one particular species; nor does it follow some conservation groups’ dogma of simply letting nature take its course.
In the nearly two decades Jones has run Moholoholo (a game reserve of which the rehab center is one part), he is well aware that some groups, such as the World Wildlife Fund, say that animal rehab is a low conservation priority – that it’s more important to manage the natural habitat, and that helping sick or injured animals does no long-term good.
“Animal rehab is more animal welfare, and doesn’t often contribute significantly to conservation,” says Rob Little, director of conservation for WWF South Africa. “Don’t present that as a criticism – it’s just different.”
But to Jones, it’s all tied together. People have been bringing him injured animals since he was 15. The way he sees it, doing what he can to help is part of his role in the ecosystem. His goal is to rehabilitate animals to a point where they can return to the wild. But if that’s not possible, and the animal is one of an endangered species, it stays at Moholoholo and becomes an “ambassador” used in school presentations and tours to persuade younger people to protect the environment.
He and his staff – which includes international veterinary and biology students – have also bred endangered animals in captivity. Moholoholo is one of few places to have successfully bred and released into the wild the small Serval cat, as well as the crowned eagle.
Jones has no formal training as a vet – he made it through the fourth grade before the call of the wilderness was too strong for formal education. His decades of experience with animals have made him a fixture here, and his advice sought after across the continent.
“There aren’t many like him around,” says Constant Hoogstad, the manager of the Karongwe private game reserve. “He’s a wonderful, passionate, driven person who cares about the wildlife and the wildlife industry quite a lot.”
Inside, Moholoholo Rehab is a series of enclosures – built whenever there are enough funds – holding a variety of animals. Some creatures deemed appropriately safe and unskittish get the run of the place – small antelopes, Marabou storks, warthogs. It has the feel of a Noah’s Ark in the making – which to Jones is not so far off base.
He says that his time in nature, in all its perfection, has turned him into a man of faith. He is unabashed in his role as a bush preacher. Only if other people start recognizing the truth to be found through nature, he says, will humans be able to survive the ecological destruction, habitat loss, and global warming he confronts in his job every day.
This is why he keeps working, he says, as he sits behind mounds of paper at his desk – even though sometimes it feels like a losing race against time.
“I had to catch four cheetah the other day,” he says. “Now, try to find them a home. A farmer says to me, ‘You want me to take four cheetah? You know what that will do to my livelihood? That’s just rude.’ There’s no place for them.”
But Jones is used to taking on seemingly impossible tasks.
As a young game ranger, four decades ago, he was part of the first team to relocate rhinos to South Africa’s flagship Kruger National Park.
Game relocation today is a specialty in the wilderness industry, but at the time it was a new venture. When the group realized that baby rhinos didn’t survive the move because their mothers would not accept them in the new location, Jones offered to take them into his own house. He was the first person to successfully raise white rhino babies to adulthood. “I bottle-fed them,” he says. “Then we moved on to buckets.”