Wildlife Research in South Africa: Never a Dull Moment

Fig. 1: Searching for signs of new Hyena den in southern end of Karongwe Private Game Reserve.

Fig. 1: Searching for signs of new Hyena den in southern end of Karongwe Private Game Reserve.

“Guys, as you can see the base has no fences so there is nothing to stop the animals coming in here. If you fall asleep on the veranda, the hyena can come in, and they will more than likely bite off your face. So don’t fall asleep on the veranda.”

Leanne Doran writes about her work in Africa:

Life at Karongwe Private Game Reserve was never dull. How could it be when going to the washing line was a potentially life threatening experience? The old farmhouse which acted as our base in the Limpopo region of South Africa was a remnant of the reserve’s agricultural past, before a group of farmers decided to drop their fences, rehabilitate the land and reintroduce the indigenous species extinct to the area (Fig. 1). The reintroduction of the various native predator and prey species within the 8500-hectare private conservation area has resulted in the need for consistent long term data collecting and monitoring. This crucial research on the reserve is conducted by GVI- Global Vision International- an organisation that aims to promote sustainable solutions for a rapidly changing world by matching the general public with international environmentalists, researchers and pioneering educators.

Fig. 2: Telemetry practice

Fig. 2: Telemetry practice

In August and September of 2011, I participated in GVI’s ‘South Africa Wildlife Research Expedition’ which I was able to use for the fourth year BEES module, BL4003 Biological Work Placement. The first week consisted of training, introductory lectures and numerous risk assessments which covered all the essential skills and knowledge required to safely and accurately conduct the research. We were tested on our mammal identification skills, crucial for the accurate identification of the various antelope species for prey surveys, and on general wildlife knowledge such as gestation periods, social structures and diet and hunting strategies. The use of the VHF Telemetry Receiver was of upmost importance as a number of the core research animals had been implanted and volunteers were responsible for the speedy and accurate tracking and locating of the individuals (Fig. 2). A telemetry practical which required 100% accuracy was undertaken using an old collar before volunteers were allowed to ‘T-Lem’
in the field. Similarly we were required to undertake a ‘Reptile Orientation and Handling Course’ at the Khamai Reptile Park which covered identification, habitats and physiology, venoms and snake bite first aid. It was also necessary to take a first aid course due to our remote location and high possibility of injury, so we were trained and certified as Emergency First Responders. We also were trained in radio communication, vehicle maintenance, animal track identification, tree identification, GPS use and data inputting.

Fig. 3: In the midst of the herd while conducting the elephant feeding survey

Fig. 3: In the midst of the herd while conducting the elephant feeding survey

Volunteers worked 6 days a week, going on two research drives a day which usually lasted over 5 hours each. A typical morning began at 04:45 and the volunteers were assigned a particular duty which changed every day. Prey survival duty required the volunteer to record the species, number, sex, age classes and GPS location of the various herbivorous species encountered- tedious work when counting Impala! Telemetry duty involved the tracking and location of the implanted individuals, the dominant male lion, a female lion, and one male cheetah. Vehicle duty required the volunteer to check the tyre pressure on the vehicles before drive, as well as check the various fluid levels to ensure we weren’t stranded by engine problems! Conservation duty required the volunteer to load the vehicle with shovels, pitchforks, saws and pangas incase a fallen tree or worse, the invasive Prickly Pear, was discovered and had to be removed. Data duty involved the recording of all important information regarding the predators including the location, behaviour and full rating which indicates how recently they fed. We also conducted an elephant focus study while on the reserve, which examined the vegetation species being targeted and the extent of the damage being caused to the reserve by the feeding elephants (Fig. 3). A less exciting but equally important duty was base duty, when the volunteer remained at base camp to cook for the other volunteers, clean the farmhouse, input the data from the previous day and maintain frequent radio contact with the drives to ensure their safety.

Fig. 4: Successful location of the cheetah boys

Fig. 4: Successful location of the cheetah boys

One might think that with the early mornings, long hours, basic living conditions, labour intensive work and lack of electricity, that life in Karongwe is hard. If I had known from the start just how incredible my 5 weeks would be, I probably wouldn’t have booked a flight home. Life was never dull in Karongwe. How could it be when you’re awoken by hippos in your garden, you spend your morning tracking the cheetah boys (Fig. 4) and on an afternoon bush walk you get growled at by a leopard? Or your evening is spent within touching distance of the elephant herd, or watching the lions chewing on a dead giraffe, spotlighting for nocturnal animals come nightfall and then falling asleep to the howls of jackal and hyena- which may or may not try to bite off your face if you fall asleep on the veranda.

Living and working in the African bush was truly an amazing experience and having the opportunity to conserve and research these fascinating animals in such close proximity is an experience I will never forget.

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