When I think about dangerous game, the animals that usually come to mind would be members of the Big Five, crocodile, hippo, maybe even snakes. However, any animal can be dangerous in certain situations. This article is about a close call I had with a member of the bird family – an aggressive ostrich.

Way back, when I started working for Jan Oelofse at Mount Etjo in Namibia, there were very few ostriches on our property so Jan, being the conservationist he was, decided we must try to increase the ostrich population on the ranch. Ostrich chicks are very vulnerable to predators. When they hatch they are very slow and clumsy, and jackal, caracal and eagles make short work of them.
One day while driving, I saw a tawny eagle swoop down and pick up an ostrich chick out of the flock before the ostrich mother could turn around and do anything. Usually, when you have 25 chicks hatched, you’re lucky if five survive to adulthood.
Having decided to try and increase the numbers, Jan would fly around in a Cessna 150 and spot nests from the air. If we could see them from the road, we would locate the nests and monitor them until the chicks were hatched. Once the chicks were hatched, it was very easy to catch them because they are so slow and clumsy. We would drive up with a few guys and a couple of cardboard boxes and chase the female off with the vehicle. She would turn and come for the vehicle but nothing too aggressive. In the meantime the guys would quickly pick up the chicks and put them in the box.
We built special round cement holding-pens for them and the chicks were brought back and placed in the pens. The pens were egg-shaped and thus without corners. This was because ostriches are not the brightest birds and if you have a square pen they will just go and stand in a corner! With a whole flock of chicks jostling one another, the ones trapped in front of the corner could suffocate.

Raising such small chicks was quite a bit of work for Jan. He would get up a couple of times every night to check on them. Since they were without a mother, he used blankets to make sure they were snug and warm. Ostrich chicks usually sleep under the mother. She covers them with her extended wings to keep them warm. Once the chicks were half grown, Jan would release them back into the wild. At that size very few predators other than cheetah or leopard would bother them.
After successfully raising about 30 ostriches and releasing them back into the wild, we had a good population. The only problem was that the big males, being very territorial and having been raised by humans, had no fear of people. Wild ostriches, on the other hand, are afraid of humans and if you approach them, they will always run away.
At one time some builders were engaged in building a house for PHs and we used to drive by regularly to check on the progress. The guys were always joking about a big male ostrich that was in that area and which would come to them periodically. They said he was somewhat aggressive. He would stretch his wings out and hiss as he ran towards them. Everybody just laughed it off ­– he didn’t seem a serious threat.
One day I was driving by to check on the builders and as I stopped and got out of the truck, the ostrich came towards me. I paid no attention and was walking around the front of the truck when he came right up to me, lashed out and kicked me in the leg. I jumped onto the hood of the truck, grabbed him by the throat and started to choke him. An ostrich is totally helpless if you get him by the head and you hold him that way. However, if you grab a big seven-foot-tall ostrich by the head while you are on the ground, he will kick you to pieces. Being on the hood of the truck, I was safe.

Jan with the ostriches

As I was choking him, I looked down and I saw blood spurting out of my leg. I panicked, immediately let him go and jumped into the truck. My assistant had a piece of rope that he tied as a tourniquet around my leg and we started driving back to the main lodge 15 km away to get assistance. My fear was that the ostrich might have hit the femoral artery. However, I was lucky because he missed it by about three inches!
Lady Luck was still with me because one of our neighbours, who was a doctor, had to come to do his weekly clinic at the lodge that same afternoon and could attend to me immediately. After cleaning and checking the wound, he told me to go to the hospital the next day. It appeared that the wound was deep, almost down to the bone. Furthermore, my wound was full of sand and dirt from the ostrich’s toe.
At the hospital they put me out and cut my leg open in order to clean the wound properly, then stitched it up and left a drain in. I was very lucky – three inches the other way and it would have been all over for me. This experience has taught me an important lesson: any wild animal, even hand-reared ones, can be dangerous. And when a seven-foot-tall, three-hundred-pound ostrich decides to fight with you, you had better make yourself scarce!
The ostrich population at Mount Etjo at present is at around 200 birds, so Jan’s capture method and relocation into the bush worked a hundred percent. ASM