The camp

My immediate conception of getting to see more wyverns was shattered very soon. Actually, at the time being, there wasn't even a single one within the camp's area.

Jake got on tutoring me, first of course answering my immediate questions on where they are which just about every outsider asks within the first ten minutes after landing.

First thing, when everything goes well there are no wyverns settled here. There is but a single reason for one to be contained semi-permanently: if it couldn't yet survive in the wild for either a healing injury, illness or for being an inexperienced rescue. At this very moment it was clearly the "everything goes well" situation.

Jake explained that nowadays they still follow two re-introduced to the wild a year ago, their handlers occasionally spending days out in the savanna. Those however ceased to return since months, and keep drifting away farther as time passes, which is good, proving they can live on their own.

Before I would grow disillusioned even forgetting about the encounter during my flight, he added that there are also a few residents, three here, who live free but occasionally visit, and it was likely that one point I could meet one or another of them.

Briefly, normally the camp's work would concentrate on tracking specimens within the region, either wild or released, partly assisted by GPS units attached to some of the animals, partly after observations, to learn about their behavior, interaction of other members of wildlife, and individual or population health conditions.

Whenever possible, field work is conducted with wyverns permitting that which includes following past releases who kept accepting human presence, and of course, the residents. A good share of the camp is dedicated for supporting these projects, such as even having a moderate, properly equipped vehicle repair shop to be able to patch up the jeeps keeping falling apart in the harsh conditions of roadless wilderness.

Then, of course, there are the rescues and occasional injured wild specimens, who needed local treatment, healing, and in the case of rescues, a lengthy re-introduction to the wild programme, primarily focusing on triggering their hunting instincts and developing their skills.

In the immediate area, the airfield, there wasn't much suggesting working with animals. It rather looked like an airport, with four large buildings with huge doors spaced a good distance apart from each other giving the impression of plane hangars. I asked Jake what this was for in this middle of nowhere. He cleared me up by that the buildings mostly aren't what they seem like: they are rather used to house wyverns, to give them ample clean space even in the rainy season, should they need it.

I could also spot an artificial hill, maybe about ten meters high, two small sheds by the hangars, a stubby water tower, then in the distance, behind some thorn bush fences, a windmill, not as large as those used on wind power farms, but still a remarkable landmark.

Jake was leading me in that direction. As we approached, the fences turned out to be sheltering a tribal-looking village with many round huts. Just as we were passing through the gate, a group departed on a jeep, waving us a welcome and farewell. Those were from a nearby unrelated observation camp, now heading for the airfield to pick up supplies brought here by the plane.

Introductions took place in a modest little assembly hall where I met Janet Murray, the head of the Arnold Camp operation. It was a calm day, so she took her time in describing the basics, some of which I extorted from Jake on the way, the rest mostly involving the daily life and precautions, such as to be wary of scorpions which may dive in clothing left in the open, and being careful about snakes. Then, the matters of work came. A day ago they got a call from Drino where an air acrobatic show gone bankrupt and was dismantled, giving up their wyvern, which was due to arrive in a few days. Two members were already on the site, negotiating, examining, organizing the transportation, and reporting back by their observations.

We got the task of cleaning and preparing one of the hangars where he would be located, which was to be started promptly, giving me just little time to settle in one of the four bed guest huts beforehand. Not like I wasn't eager to start my actual volunteering, just a bit sudden. So soon I was marching back to the airfield in the party assigned to this job, under the thankfully not yet blazing heat.

The place wasn't exactly dirty maybe by the standard of horses, however when it comes to cleaning a stable, you will get dirty no matter how "clean" it was for the start, and the word "getting dirty" is probably a serious understatement for describing the conditions we were in. If you think, well, a wyvern doesn't weight a more than a draft horse, think it again. Fifteen meters wingspan is a size to respect, demanding its place to spread out, and, to give him comfort, such a large resting place has to be prepared. They won't just sleep upright in little boxes.

I wouldn't have thought just a little more than removing the hay would keep us occupied till sunset, but it did. It was a tiring dusty hell. I expelled lumps of grayish grease blowing my nose. A muddy brown stream was flowing down me under the shower, and not because of any bad filtering of the river's water. But these experiences are typical when working "out", anywhere: picturesque secluded farm houses inhabited by clean Victorian clothed farmers only exist in modern day city people's dreams of the thing who never ever had seen any more wilderness than the central park.

Next day, after breakfast, reports on the newly coming wyvern got in. It was a she, as described in a severe condition, however her bone system seemed to be intact, and her behavior appealing, so the decision was to try. It was not an easy decision for the Fund at all. Wasting effort, and lots of money on one who couldn't be hoped for eventually recovering is a loss, one which may prevent recovering others. There were countless sad cases when nice and friendly behaving wyverns had to be put down due to their physical condition, but it allowed others to live, and hopefully breed, lessening the threats looming over the race.

Now, however it was time to continue preparations, getting us soon engulfed in the odor of disinfectants and washing detergents in the hangar, while others gone for tending the stock: goats and bovines held in thorn bush pens around the village, and a group even out in the wild to examine and collect samples from locations where tracked wyverns likely landed.

The weather grew hotter than the day before, even under cover it stalled progress, so between noon and mid-afternoon we got a break, also allowing the now, as I perceived, laboratory-clean interiors to ventilate and dry up. Physical work took its toll on me, so I just trudged back to the guest hut to have a nap before starting over.

Afternoon was about furnishing a resting place for her with fresh smelling new hay, slightly complicated by that we also had to transport the bales from the utility hangar, so it ended up pretty much taking the entire remaining day.

Outside the world was already starting to gain a reddish tint as the Sun was setting while we were finishing tidying up. Just about when I was thinking it is probably all done, nice, clean here, I suddenly found the light going dim. Turning back, I was shocked to realize that a wyvern was just poking its head through the doorway! I forced myself to calm down, guessing it just being one of the residents, and indeed, one of us, by the name Mark, was approaching her like it was all normal.

He knew I was new, and signalled for me to stay where I am while gesturing to the animal which followed him outside shortly. As the Sun enlighted the body, I noticed that at least on my side almost the entire ridge was missing leaving huge ugly skin tone scars behind.

Mark returned maybe about a half hour later, well in the dusk with two of the party already left for the village. I asked him what was about that one, which seemingly he misunderstood.

"Sorry for that, I didn't intend to shake you off, she just doesn't like company. Maybe I could later introduce you to ..."

I cut him off to clear it up, that I understand: I was rather shocked by the sight of her state. He let out a sigh, maybe a bit relieved by my reaction.

"Oh, that was how the Fund received her two decades ago. Those heartless bastards named her Blondie, and held her on a neck collar which she kept escaping. You see, the wyvern's head is barely wider than his neck, so such a restraint is only held in place by the ridge. This is the consequence!"

"She doesn't prefer contact. It feels like she only keeps returning for peace, maybe from other wyverns' harassment. Occasionally she had her neck torn up, mauled, only making the scars worse over time. Maybe they see the imperfection and attack, maybe some reaction like chicken's pecking, maybe just one particular wyvern picking on her: we couldn't discover the cause. She was always quite indifferent with our residents and rescues, and they never seemed to be concerned."

It was depressing to witness this, how decades ago some selfish ignorant people could ruin this poor girl for life. I wished to say something reassuring, but nothing came in my mind. Mark finally noted I should go back to the village with the rest of us, and that I shouldn't worry, some occasion will likely pop up when I may meet a wyvern. I thanked, but wondered whether he wouldn't come with us. That was when I learned that he was the head handler of the camp, and now that a resident was staying, he also did along with the night guard.

The next day was rather uneventful. Blondie left before sunrise, in relation to her, all we had to do was tidying a little up. They are thankfully clean by nature, usually the residents hardly ever leave mess in the camp, which is nice from them when it comes to tidying up, however it is also a nuisance for that they rarely leave anything for medical analysis.

Uneventful, maybe, but not without work, of course. Some carpentry was due by the hangars and the water tower, a fence for a goat pen was waiting to be built in the village, along many other minor things which could always be done for the better. As usual a field research party left in the morning attempting to contact the released, and maybe most importantly, the organization of the Drino wyvern's transportation was ongoing in Janet's headquarters.

The hot hours came upon us sweating at the airfield. Jake was with our group, and we decided to just stay there retreating in a guard's shed to postpone some woodwork to the early afternoon. We picked up some fresh bottles of hot water for it was still way better than no water, shared our tortured burgers prepared in the morning, made ourselves semi-comfortable on a battered springy bedframe left there without mattress to enjoy the little perks of life out in this nowhere.

He worked in the Center at Jala since a while, but moved out here a few months ago for he wanted to experience being out with the wyverns, when Daniel, the previous field supervisor of tracking decided to leave because of family matters.

We started talking a bit on these, such as I asked how his wife tolerates his absence, for which he just noted that she bears it for she doesn't believe he would be cheating her with Blondie, the only she-wyvern of the camp. The poor girl!

Then, sinking comfortably into the wires of the bedframe, the discussion of course drifted towards wyverns and GPS tracking. Jake felt obsessed with just about every aspect of this endeavor: I felt like the Fund could hardly receive any better person for the project.

He recited some interesting cases deducted from the tracking data, how most of them wander, follow the herds many hundred miles seemingly never establishing a territory. How some of them would keep meeting up occasionally for hours, seemingly irrespective of their genders, and how even after years of separation they would meet up again. It makes the impression of them having some kind of social interaction, the exact nature of which is still strived to be understood. He studied these and many other cases for long, matching up tracking data with the observations as a hobby even before he joined the Fund, and now it is part of his job.

Another part is, for the hardship of getting a GPS unit attached to a wild wyvern without harming the latter, trying to identify and to some degree follow those by photographs taken at encounters. This basically means occasionally wading through dozens and dozens of carefully classified images of mostly flying specimens trying to match them up.

"Their flight is wonderful! They can glide with an effortless grace, without a single flap for hours, I am sure they are enjoying it! Being up there all day, looking down the world, us, earth-dwellers trudging sweating under the blazing heat to cover distances they pass with such an ease like mere nothing! They have no barriers, they see while we are striving to find a way through the grass so tall that it would hide an elephant, they could so laugh at those puny beings when they suddenly find themselves ran down by a rhino!"

"They use their entire body to control their flight, they are built for it! They can twist their arms to bank, bend their fingers to adjust the airfoil, raise or fold back all their tail surfaces to give them control or reduce their drag! They even use their hind legs to balance themselves! It is so diverse, so amazingly complex how they can manage their flight!"

He got carried away describing their anatomy, even showing it on his own arm, noting how they retained all their fingers to form a bat-like wing, how it differs yet how their build still follows more that of large birds, aiming to be a perfect glider. I thought they can fold up their fingers, he however corrected me that they can't: the middle one forming the leading edge of the wing evolved to be rigid for more structural strength, the former joints still being visible, but incapable to bend. This is different to bats who even have two fingers here to shape this edge.

Later, before returning to our woodwork, still eager to talk about flight, now having a pencil and some paper, he sketched up some quite nice references in mere seconds. He pointed out why bats and some pterosaurs didn't need tail surfaces: they all had their wing webs extending down onto their hind legs serving this purpose. The wyvern is different: the wings themselves especially when soaring can't provide control, so they need the tail. This, however leaves their legs free which they can use for hunting, occasionally even picking up smaller prey.

He also mentioned one who lost almost his entire left elevator in some accident, yet was still flying. Apparently, with the help of the tailfin, the remaining surface was still sufficient for his survival. While it was impossible to do anything about such an injury, the Muara Camp, where this wyvern was sighted, tries to capture him to conduct a field medical observation and to equip him with a tracker.


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