Day In The Life

A lot of friends and family have been asking me, “I know you’re out in South Africa, but what exactly are you doing?” so I’ve decided to give a more in-depth reply rather than just saying “research”. Below is a day-by-day blow of my time out here!

4h00: Wake up. I have to put my recording device at a new location each day and I need it recording before a game drive would ever start their safari, which is around 5h00. In order to beat them all, I have to get up, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, at the crack (or really, even before the crack) of dawn.

4h15: I am out of the house and driving to one of 20 locations around the reserve where I am placing my recording device. 10 of the sites are along the paved road while 10 are along the northern and eastern gravelotte fenceline. Depending on where the device is, it can take me as little as 15 minutes to get there or up to 45 minutes. During the time I get to see a lot of nocturnal animals I might not see otherwise. I have seen the male lion calling and monitoring his territory, porcupine, bushbabies, hyenas, civets etc.

5h00: I arrive at my pre-determined site and set up my stand (see photo). The stand must be 25m from the road and 1.4m in height off of the ground. Depending on the site this means the stand will either be right next to the fenceline, or tucked away back in the bush. No matter what I try to disguise it a little bit so that it’s not too visible from the road.

5h30: Arrive back at base. By this point other staff and volunteers are up and getting ready for 6h00 research drive. I have a cup a tea with them and pester them with how tired they look (I have found, while I’ve been out here, that I am a morning person. And while other people are just waking up, I have been up for 2 hours and wide-awake. They find this irritating. I find it hilarious).

6h00: Most days some other staff and I will grab Zuri, the base dog, and go running along the gravel road which borders the reserve. A nice 45-minute run to get the day going is sometimes all you need! I’ve been lacking an amazing running partner while in New York, which is why it is so nice to have Zuri as my running companion!

7h00: Back at base to start work! After a quick shower (or not, depending on if the water tanks have warmed up yet or not) it’s time to get focused on my work.

7h00-12h00: Depending on when the generator goes on and how much battery power I have, I am usually found in front of my computer listening to the road recordings from the previous day or analyzing some more data. I have also been assisting GVI with their maps and datasets.

12h00-16h00: My recording devices need to be swapped midday. For the most part they can last the entire 14 hour period, but I like to make sure that the whole day is recorded, so I will go to my site and swap them out. During this time I have seen elephants, cheetah, rhino and a whole smattering of other wildlife!

At the same time I have been helping with Wendy Collinson’s road kill work! She is looking at the impacts of roads on wildlife mortality. Following her protocol, I drive around the reserve 5 times a week and record any road kill I come across. That includes the location, the time and some photos in order to identify to the species level. So far I have found black-backed jackal, yellow-billed hornbills (Zazoos), scrub hares, and even a cow (the cow doesn’t really count though)!

16h00-18h00: I usually am charging one of my recording devices for the next day, listening to more of the road recordings and organizing whatever I have been working on.

18h00-19h30: Usually I am relaxing, either reading a book, helping cook, making donuts (!) or drinking a beer with friends. Anything to wind down from the Go-Go-Go of the day.

19h30-21h30: Dinner is usually served around 19h30 and then I have to go collect my recording device after, leaving me more opportunities to see nocturnal wildlife

21h30: I am exhausted and happy. I usually collapse in a giant heap onto my bed in order to start all over again the following morning!

Obviously this changes depending on what else I need to do or how I can help out around base. I’ve been lucky enough to take volunteers on a couple of drives here and there to find the focus animals, which will continue throughout my time here. I was even lucky enough one morning to find Tsavo, our male leopard, with an impala kill in a tree, the three adult lions and their four cubs on a wildebeest kill, and the male cheetah coalition. A trifecta of cats!

Overall, it is very hard to complain about life! I have some really great interns and staff here who are helping me out as well and had opportunities to see old friends and catch up with life in the bush. I even was able to attend the South Africa v Wales rugby match in Nelspruit, which was EPIC.

Summary: Fieldwork is exhausting but amazing and I might never come home.

Comfort Zones

How to Gauge the Comfort Level of an Animal (or Human)

Humans and animals are extremely different, and comfort zones and observation protocols are no exception. Here’s a quick an easy guide to both people- and animal-watching/interacting:

There are four zones that FGASA (Field Guide Association of South Africa) recognizes as the space given to an individual animal. This ranges from the Comfort zone to the Critical zone. Everyone, not just guides in South Africa, should always aim to remain in an animals’ Comfort zone. The comfort zone is something that is not a specific distance or a range, but rather you must constantly gauge the individuals behavior, mood, and the surrounding environment. Anything- the wind blowing through the leaves, the crack of a tree, the movement of an antelope nearby, the invasion of personal space- could spook the individual. You must be constantly vigilant in order to determine what zone you truly are in. Now, depending on your goal, if you treat humans the way you should treat animal sightings you might not achieve much…  

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The Comfort Zone

The Comfort zone is defined as the area or distance that an animal (or human) is required to have in order to feel comfortable and safe in the presence of another organism, be that humans or other animals. At this point the animal will continue carrying out its normal activities. This is ideal when you are approaching animals. You want to remain on the periphery in order not to draw attention to yourself so that the animal is unaware of your presence.

This “comfort zone” is also extremely important if you are people-watching. In this wonderful way to pass the time, it is important that you do not disturb your subject by being too obvious. You want to blend into the background of the airport, coffee shop, or subway stop in order to get human-interaction and behavior at its finest. If your chosen subject notices you staring, they might even have a flight-or-fight response, therefore losing your entertainment. Learning how to keep within the comfort zone of people is a critical skill to learn if you like to people-watch…

The Alert Zone

The Alert zone occurs when you have gotten close enough that the animal is aware of your presence and has frozen. Sometimes the animal will determine you’re not a threat and then continue on feeding or its normal activity, while other times it might flee to a safer distance. This might be if the animal is at a watering hole and you pull up to watch it drink. The lion or elephant might pause, watch you and your vehicle until you stop and it can see you’re not a threat.

For humans, this is like sitting at the bar next to someone attractive. You both size each other up a little and assess what to do next. Are they as attractive up close as they were from your booth? Would they be interested in you? Have they noticed you? Who is going to make the next move? This gives the person you semi-approached to flee back to the safety of their friends, or to perceive you as non-threatening. Entering the Alert zone of another human is like preparing to make the first move… or someone who is too shy to actually talk to the person but hopes that the other will notice them and speak up. Staying in the Alert zone is playing it safe…

The Warning Zone

If you approach an animal even more and enter in the warning zone you are now putting yourself, and whoever is with you, at risk. This is when the animal sees you as a definite threat and may even give you warning signs that you have approached too close. Depending on the animal you will see various warning signs. For example, an elephant might size you up and flap its ears at you while a cheetah might crouch and hiss at you. Basically, some sort of combination snarling, baring teeth, tossing of the head, raising of swishing of the tail is going to indicate that you have approached too close. The problem is that if you don’t know the animals behavior well enough you may mistake it for yawning, smelling, or even a flehmen grimace (see photo). This is why it is dire that you understand the animals you are working with. If you are unaware of the warning signs you are going to be danger without even knowing it.

I like to think that the Warning zone for humans is initiating contact. I associate this with you sitting at a bar with your friends, and a guy comes over and starts up a casual conversation. Whoever is initiating the contact is entering into the warning zone, she/he now has the possibility of being rejected, shot down for making the first move, or stuck with someone who might not stop talking the whole night. The warning zone is when you officially put yourself out there, and from there you never know what will happen next.

The Critical Zone

The final zone is called the critical zone, when is when the animal gives you less of a warning and more of a charge or an immediately flee. The animal will reply either on finding the quickest escape route or, especially for the larger mammals, they feel that an attack is best form of defense that the animal can take. You never, ever want to be in the critical zone with an animal, especially a large one. Not only have you completely invaded its personal space, but it feels overly threatened that it feels it must make some sort of aggressive response to you. Here you have forced the animal into such a place where the animal must make a drastic move. Either to frantically leave, or confront you head on.

In our parallel human world, this is when you ask someone out. It’s the end of the night, you had a great time chatting with someone and you realize you want to see them again. So you ask them point-blank for their number. They have no where they can go, and no matter what you ultimately can walk away with two outcomes. You get their number or you don’t. Comparable to the fight-or-flight response, the flight reaction will come in the form of an excuse: “oh I actually have a girlfriend”, “sorry I just lost my phone”, “I’m not looking for that kind of thing right now”. In the “fight” response, in my tame version of this comparison at least, the person you ask out reciprocates in kind to your advances and gives you their number. Maybe not a full on fight, but they show their interest and stay to match you at your level.

Obviously this comparison is not completely accurate, however in my mind, whenever I am out in the city, I like to compare it to my life in the bush, and vise versa. When out at a bar, or even just wandering the city, you’ve got to read the warning signs of other people, assess the environment and what may distract or upset an individual, just as you would in the wild. I’m not saying that mind always works just like Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls, where humans act like animals around a watering hole…  But lets be honest, I’m not saying it doesn’t… Know your purpose, your boundaries and the boundaries of those around you. Whether in the wilds of South Africa or the jungle of New York City, assessing and considering the actions and reactions of those around you may make all the difference.

 

 

Male lion demonstrating a flehmen grimace* rather than a growl or snarl:

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*note: a flehmen grimace, or flehmen response, is when a animal will pull back its upper lips to expose its teeth and sometimes its gums, in order to transfer scents such as pheromones, from the urine or faeces, to the vomeronasal organ which is located at the roof of the mouth.

Did You Know?

Originally posted on CU in the Field:

Fun Facts about South African Animals by Kaggie Orrick

Did you know that porcupines can stay afloat in water because their quills keep them buoyant?

Did you know a rhinos horn is actually made of keratin, which also makes up your fingernails and hooves of cattle?

Did you know that a leopards tail is rounded while a cheetahs tail is flattened so it can act as a rudder and keep it balanced while is sprints?

Did you know elephants can communicate from kilometers away by feeling the vibrations through the ground? They can also hear each other from up to 8 kilometers away via trumpeting. 

Did you know that a type of amphibian called an African plantanna can tell you if your pregnant or not? (a dose of a pregnant womans pee will cause the female plantanna to lay eggs within 8 to 12 hours…)

Did you know you can…

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The Truth About Fieldwork

Katherine Orrick:

I am currently writing posts for our “CU in the Field” which me and other masters students have put up for our summer research. Check it out!

Originally posted on CU in the Field:

Fieldwork is about how well you can adapt. If you can’t adapt, can’t make plans on the fly, have no creativity and a quick temper you’ll never make it in fieldwork. And that is because fieldwork is never what you expect it to be. Even if you already know your field site well anything can happen out in the field and you always have to be on your toes. An example, you ask? Well the perfect one happened on base a mere few days ago.

            With some of the newly arrived volunteers gone for a day in town, Brie, a GVI staff member, and I were changing a gas bottle for the fridges. We requested some of the older volunteers to take the empty gas tank over to the garage and bring a new one over. A few minutes later we hear one of them shout “Yo…. Fire!” (to give…

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Great Expectations

I am not one to create grandiose expectations of things. I like to see how plans fall, without any expectations, and then be pleasantly surprised when they turn out to be pretty great. But, as is with most things in life, we do create certain expectations.

This first year of graduate school has not been what I expected.  In a good way. Nay, in a great way. But it’s still been a long year. In fact, “it’s been a long year” is quite the understatement. It’s been a LONG year. And not that I haven’t loved it, nor do I regret anything throughout my first year of graduate school (well, maybe that fateful time I pulled an all-nighter on a term paper that I really should have been writing over the course of the semester… that wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had… but it built character). But all-in-all it’s been a pretty fantastic year. I made some amazing friends and learned more than I could have expected. I even fell in love with New York a little. Not at all what I expected.

            I guess I didn’t know what to make of graduate school when I first began in September. But what I do know is that it’s rocked me, pushed me, morphed me and challenged me in so many intense and strenuous ways. And the reward now? Fieldwork for the whole entire summer back on Karongwe Private Game Reserve in South Africa working with GVI. This post will be the first of many of my time in the field, starting with one about my time in London (which I am residing currently) and then I’ll keep you up-to-date of all the exciting things happening on the research base as well as my research. 

            For someone who does not usually create great expectations, I have a sneaking suspicion that this summer will be full of GREAT outlooks. And I, for one, could not be more excited. 

Life and Death in the Bush

Life and death in the African bush is normal. As someone who has worked with large predators in a protected area (aka not a zoo), I have seen many deaths and kills of prey species during my time. While some people find even the death of an impala cruel and brutal, I am fascinated by the chase, the hunt, the kill, and even the way the predators devour their food. But if you are following one individual for years on end, and if you have become (without trying to or anthropomorphizing it) attached and connected to them, you view it a bit differently.

And that was definitely the case for Ketsweri, our female cheetah. Ketsweri, affectionately called Kets, arrived on Karongwe in April of 2008, two years after she was born. She struggled with having cubs for a number of years and finally had her first successful litter in 2011. Five little fluff-balls, I was lucky enough to be the first one to get a proper look at them and photograph them (read more about it here). She was also the focus animal of my first darting and implant procedure. And after such amazing moments like that, it is hard to not get emotionally attached. And I was sold on her from then on. During my time with GVI we have to find multiple research animals for each drive. Ketsweri, because she was a bit difficult to find and not as charismatic as the two cheetah boys, was usually saved for last because she wasn’t a “priority” focus animal. But that would allow me to sit with her for an hour or so after I had found all the others and just as the sun was hitting midday instead of heading back to camp. We’d both sit under our respective trees and I would get to intimately watch her normal behavior and day-to-day activities. A hilarious cat, she would always be rubbing her face against a tree, cleaning herself, or rolling around in the dirt. She seemed to always want to be fussing about something. She as stubborn to, or really, as stubborn as an animal may appear to be, and would be found for days at a time in the same place, almost refusing to move as if she was waiting for something. Completely relaxed around humans, I was even lucky enough to see the consummation of her current litter.

Needless to say, I had a lot of emotions connected with Ketsweri. So when I heard she had stumbled upon the lions and they had killed her I was devastated. But not because I thought she was better than an giraffe or kudu that we see the lions kill regularly, but because if you spend that much time with something, be it an animal, a person or an inanimate object, you’re going to become accustomed and adjusted to your life with them in it. I can remember the day that my 10-year old Gap jeans finally had their last day. I moped for weeks, refusing to throw them out even though I knew I could never do anything with it. The same (or really, more intense) feelings apply to these focus species. Had I spend 3 years of my life tracking a zebra or wildebeest I would have had the same reaction. I knew Kets habits, her mannerisms, when she was having a good or bad day, and when I thought she was going to make a kill or not.

Life in the bush is dangerous, and cheetahs are really at the bottom of the predator hierarchy. (I’ve seen two male cheetahs being chased off by vultures, and another time by jackals. Since cheetahs rely heavily on their speed, they cannot risk any injury since it might decrease they ability to survive). So a cheetah being killed, especially by lions, is not exactly a novel occurrence. It’s impossible to blame the lions, who at the moment also have cubs, because it’s their natural instinct to protect their young. Instead, I think we must just embrace the dog-eat-dog world that nature intended to be and be thankful she made it this far in life. I only hope that her two current cubs, now at around 10 months, are old enough not to need their mother (with, obviously, a little help from management). Ketsweri’s contribution to EWT’s cheetah meta-population study, multiple published papers and the volunteers amazing sightings will never be forgotten. All in all, she was one tough cat and will be sorely missed. And though I understand the way the “circle of life” works, I’m still going to feel pretty crestfallen about her death.

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Animal Group Names

Test! Different groups of animals are called different things! Can you match the correct name for each grouping of animals? Give it a shot and feel free to add any comments with other funny animals grouping names as well!

 

For example, a group of crows is called : A murder of crows

ZebrasMongoose

Wildebeests

Rhinos

Baboons

Hippos

Owls

Hyenas

Giraffes

Butterflies

Lions

ParliamentPride

Journey/tower

Cackle

Impossibility

Rumpus

Rainbow

Raft

Crash

Business

Dazzle

 

Wildebeest zebra

 

 

ANSWERS! (no cheating)

Dazzle of zebra

Business of mongoose

Impossibility of wildebeest

Crash of rhinos

Rumpus of baboons

Raft of hippos

Parliament of owls

Cackle of hyenas

Journey/tower of giraffe

Rainbow of butterflies

Pride of lions