Through my eyes: the journey of a wildlife veterinarian

Through my eyes: the journey of a wildlife veterinarian

Through my eyes: the journey of a wildlife veterinarian

  • Posted by Karen Coe
  • On 14th October 2019
  • 0 Comments

We love hearing what TPOTY entrants have been up to and were delighted to learn that Michael Kock, a South African wildlife veterinarian who also happens to be a talented photographer, had produced a beautiful and fascinating book, ‘Through My Eyes: Journey of a Wildlife Veterinarian’.

The book crosses three continents and 14 African countries as Michael relates the story of his 39-year career through his words and 1400 photographs.  We caught up with Michael to learn more about this fantastic project and a career that has seen him get closer to creatures than even the most dedicated and experience wildlife photographer could usually expect to do. 

What inspired you to become a veterinarian in the first place?

South African born and raised in Zimbabwe, with early exposure to the bush and wildlife, sowed the seeds for my career path. I have always been attracted to wild and remote areas and decided from an early age that I needed to get some stars aligned in order to be in wild places. A Veterinary degree seemed to be a career pathway with promise. Indeed, a veterinary degree opened up opportunities, getting my foot in the door, to pursue a wildlife career!

Was your plan always to work with wildlife?

As much with wildlife AND people. Folk often ask if working with animals is fun, I say working with people is the biggest challenge, they often own the animals and in the wildlife field, wildlife and people are always interacting, sometimes negatively but positively as well. As a Wildlife veterinarian, I have the power to use health as part of the conservation toolbox, health of both animals and people.

The technology of veterinarian medicine, along with transportation and communication must have changed considerably over the past four decades. What do you feel have been the biggest advances that most impacted on your work?

Specific field technology that has developed in the wildlife field relates to monitoring wildlife in remote areas, i.e. the use of GPS satellite tracking devices. As a Wildlife veterinarian, I have spent considerable time immobilizing wild beast from elephant to Honey badgers, to help researchers and managers track these wild animals. We also have technology helping us to monitor an immobilized wild animal, making the whole process more professional and safer for the wild animal.

Conversely, are there simple practices which are still every bit as effective as they were 40 years ago? And do traditional methods of animal medicine or care that can be traced to the indigenous populations also play a role?

A stethoscope remains a very useful tool in working with wild animal anaesthesia and a dart gun and darts, although much improved, still operate by basic principles established several decades ago. A good tracker, often indigenous, is absolutely essential with some of the field work I do and have done in the past, they have my absolute respect for their skills and knowledge. Where did the rhino go….?

Your book includes some very moving and serious events – including, of course, the impact of poaching on the wildlife you help. So much more now seems to be being done in the fight against poaching, though it remains a major issue. You’ve seen things from the frontline; is this a war that can ever be won? 

Unless we deal with socio-economic problems (poverty, employment, corruption, governance, population pressure) of people who live both in the rural as well as urban space, we will not win the war, we may win a few battles here and there but make no doubt that the challenges in Conservation are real and acute. The drivers are clear but the political will often left wanting! We need to support the champions out there!

Your book is full of amazing encounters with animals – we know it’s an almost impossible task, but can you think of one or two of those encounters which had the biggest impact on you?

Working with forest elephant in the tropical forest, no helicopter or aircraft. Just a team on the ground with indigenous Ba’ka trackers, a bit of bush/forest knowledge and skills, a bit of luck and plenty of resilience. Being able to run fast also helps……!

Honey badger, often referred to as “pocket battleships” and they are! They are tough, can be aggressive and humorous at the same time, and have an amazing relationship with Pale Chanting goshawk, as they (HB) hunt for rodents. The Goshawk follows the HB to snatch the odd rodent that escapes. The book has several very amusing stories of close encounters with HB.

It’s also the people and communities you have encountered that are hugely important. You cover this so well in the book as you look at the wellbeing of people who live amongst or alongside the wildlife. Can you give an example of one person or community that has inspired you?

The various villages located in Niassa Special Reserve, in the north of Mozambique. They live in the harshest conditions, eke out a living, with minimal services provided by Government, and are asked to support conservation efforts, often revolving around big beasts like elephant. Mbamba Village, part of the Niassa Carnivore Project, based on the Lugenda River is a key village that is being developed as a model for community conservation. Keith and Colleen Begg run the Niassa Carnivore Project and are absolute stars in field conservation work in a wild and challenging landscape! The Mozambique chapter highlights some of their work.

The book itself is an enormous labour of love. How on earth did you find the time to pull it all together, and how long did it take you?

I started with an idea November 2017 and finished the book April/May 2019, it was a huge amount of fun putting the book together with my team based in Cape Town. Creativity personified!

Turning now to photography – when did you first get seriously into photography and what was your inspiration?

I had a Zenit (Russian camera) when I was studying as veterinarian, I have always had a creative streak in me so once I qualified as a veterinarian and headed into the wildlife/conservation field, a camera (After a Zenit, Nikon all my life) became as mighty as the pen, so to speak!

You obviously started taking images in the pre-digital age. How easy – or otherwise – was it as a veterinarian spending so much time in the bush to get film processed?

Processing always happened well after the event(s) and it was not always simple to find a good photographic shop to get prints or slides developed. The storage of slides was also critical and I was smart to have many of my historical slides, for example, on rhino work in Zimbabwe, scanned at high resolution and stored safely. In the photography field (my book covers the transition from slides and print film to the digital age), the development of digital photography has been a game changer. The software available to process RAW pictures and produce a quality photograph is remarkable, and to then use these photographs to produce a book driven by pictures, what a pleasure! 

You must have taken hundreds of thousands of images over the years – a combination of classic wildlife, people and landscape images and also ones documenting your work out in the bush. How did you manage to select the shots in the book?

Prior to starting with the book, I placed all my pictures (as digital images) in files, by country, by continent, by animals etc. It was then easy to access pictures for each chapter. My graphic designer, Paula Wood and I went back and forth over 14 months selecting, deselecting, correcting pictures and even changed pictures right until the end. I also took pictures right up to the end of book’s development and some were placed in the book in April 2019.

Is there any subject that you haven’t yet photographed that you would love to have the chance to?

As I said, I have a creative streak and there were 2 Chapters in the book that I got rid of – when I reached 600 pages I panicked! The 2 Chapters covered “Patterns”, a creative side of me where I look for patterns in life (they are all around), and “Food”. I continue to take picture around food, at home, in remote areas in Africa and in the forest! More of that creativity is in the future, as well as continuing to eat good food!

Finally, what next for Michael Kock?

Less conservation work in the field, it can be very tough work and I am no longer a youngster. I am still alive (elephants kill more veterinarians then any other wild animal in Africa). As my buddies say: “no need to be a dead hero!” So although I will still do conservation work, I am happy to pursue other interests after 44 years as a veterinarian. Photography continues, no intention of letting that lapse!

“If you want to know what life can look like as a wildlife vet, then this book is a must-read. Michael Kock’s book is a comprehensive retrospective of a life truly lived. When you choose a path like the one Mike has spent his life traveling, the stories and images find you. He has witnessed and experienced things that would make even a National Geographic photographer envious. And all of these intimate experiences are documented in Through My Eyes.”

Thomas P. Peschak
National Geographic Photographer

Through My Eyes: Journey of a Wildlife Veterinarian. Dr. Michael D. Kock. 2019. IWVS (Africa), Greyton, South Africa. Hardcover, 101/4 by 121/8 inches (26×30 cm), 71/4 pounds (3.3 Kg), 600 pages; with foreword, notes on photography, acknowledgements. ISBN 978-0-620-82883-3. US$100 + $15 shipping/UK£75/€85 + shipping from through-my-eyes.co.za