Waiting for the Ghost

I find it fitting that his name is Shangaan means ‘Ghost’, that I only saw the outline of him cross into the block, and that when I went on a hunt for him all I got was brief eyeshine and then he was gone. He’s one of the larger, more distinctive animals on this reserve that I have never confirmed seeing. In fact, I think I have seen just about every other animal except this one leopard. Just goes to show that you can work in the bush in the same place for 3+ years and still not have seen everything.

It is sad to think my time collecting my research has already come to an end and I have to leave Karongwe for a second time. Sadder still is that this time I wasn’t able to get my fix of the place, the animals or the people, and I feel like I’m going home before I am ready.

 As I was sitting there in the dark waiting for Xipuku to come out again I started thinking about my entire life at Karongwe. I don’t think I would have been able to see Xipuku when I initially started working for GVI. I was impatient, unsure about roads on the reserve, and not confident enough to guess where an animal would appear after they disappeared off into the bush. The number of leopard sightings I had when I first started working was minimal because of that. I was too busy focusing on finding the focus animals to follow any tracks, or two distracted by knowing what road I was on or the sights and sounds around me to be looking for tracks. As I grew more and more confident on the reserve I began to find myself with better and better sightings (and more and more leopards!). I then was thinking like the animals, guessing where they would appear, not always listening to what the telemetry set was telling me where to go and taking my time to obtain the visuals the game drives and GVI were hoping for. And Xipuku is the pinnacle for that patience. One rarely sees him randomly, and you’re extremely lucky to see him for longer than a few seconds. He’s the most elusive of the large cats. It sounds silly, but the fact I saw a brief glimpse of Xipuku twice is better to me than a long sighting with any of the other focus animals, and it sums up a lot about how far I’ve come.


Amazing Sightings!

I haven’t been able to keep up with my blog as much as I thought I would out here, just due to the nature of being in the field and all the work I am doing. And, each time I sit down to write a blog, I keep getting distracted by all the amazing things that I’ve seen or done. I can’t chose what to write about!

So instead I am going to try and sum up some of the amazing sightings I’ve had recently, and why they are amazing in terms of behavior:

  • Tsavo with Metlai

Metlai is a young female (roughly late 2011) whose name mean ‘playful’. What it really should stand for is ‘flirt’! At the time of these photos she was following Tsavo around for at least 24 hours already, presenting herself to him and attempting to vie for his attention. Tsavo, on the other hand, and for no real explanation, was not interested whatsoever. In fact, he was basically running away from her while she followed (which, by the way, was such a mission trying to track him) continually presenting herself in hopes he would change his mind.


*For those who are in the know, Metlai is actually Gate Pan, that female who we couldn’t ID forever.

  • The lions and cubs on a kill

As this 6 month old cubs keep getting bigger and bigger, their moms are having to hunt more. We were fortunate enough to hear the females take down this zebra from in the block and after offroading in were able to see the females catching their breath and the cubs wrestled with the dead zebra. Making sure we gave them plenty of space, the cubs became curious with our vehicle and even came up to the car, giving us an amazing visual! The cubs wrestling with the zebra was indeed cute, but there is a much more practical reason behind it all. They are slowly but surely practicing their hunting/survival skills.

lion cubs on a kill

A couple of weeks later, the females immobilized a impala in an attempt to let the young cubs make their first kill. Even with a lot of help they were still confused with the concept, so the moms ended up finishing it off themselves. The cubs are still quite young, so there is no need to worry that they weren’t able to make the kill. The females will continue to do this as the cubs grow so that when they are older they will be able to survive on their own.

  • Leopards on kills

I may be bias because leopards are amazing, but Tsavo is a pretty cool cat. I have been fortunate enough to see him on a few kills during my time here. Two of which he actually dragged up into a tree. Contrary to popular belief, leopards don’t actually spend all their time in trees. Usually (depending on the individual leopard) these cats will only spend time in trees when they have made a kill in an area with lions or hyenas, or are being chased by the former (now that was an awesome sighting I had in 2013, but that’s for a different time and different blog post). Tsavo has been seen in the south a lot recently, which is prime territory for the resident hyena clan, which is why he may be taking his kills into trees. Many times we see Tsavo on kills he just drags the corpse under a bush.

Most recently we found Tsavo on an aardvark kill! Aardvarks are quite rare to see, so for most of the volunteers it was their first visual of one. Tsavo took the aardvark straight into the tree, ripping open its stomach contents, but only ate half one half of the kill. So from one side it looked like a sleeping aardvark in the tree, but from the other side it is clear it was a kill.

 Tsavo in a tree Aardvark

            These are only a few of the amazing sightings I’ve had out here, but it is exciting to be able to determine why they behave the way they do, which is why I chose these few examples!


I only have 17 days left out here (SO depressing!) but hopefully I get a few more posts up before I leave. If anything, I’ll just post some more photos….


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…  


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:


*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.