Always looking for animals

Sam, Katy, and Noggs in Africa


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Planning ahead in Africa time

Parents of small children need to be organised and plan ahead but also be flexible and ready for the unexpected. I think parents could and should fill employment cover letters with all the highly developed organisational and interpersonal skills they develop from parenting the shit out of life. Parents also possess other skills like small child bum wiping and cereal preparation under extreme pressure, but often these are less transferable.

I am a planner. I love me a list. Say I’m going to the shop with Noggs in England, I will plan when I need to leave and be back based on the following variables: how long my shopping list is, how far away the shop is, how close it is to nap time or bed time, what Noggs’ mood is like or will become, how hungry Noggs is or will become. Once all these factors have been properly assessed and strategies have been put in place to reduce negative eventualities (by strategies, I mean snacks in my bag), we can head to the shop. But in Africa, you have to add another variable into the planning a task with a small child equation and that is Africa time.

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Even though I’m a very organised and mostly impatient person, I love Africa time. It describes how things just take a bit longer here. The cogs of productivity seem to move slower. Buses don’t always go on time. Things come up or don’t always work. People chat and take life slow. If you want a form stamped, allow at least an hour. Things happen when they happen, if they happen. It can be infuriating but it can also make you relax and let it go. It can also be pretty hilarious like when we got married.

Sam and I got married at a Home Affairs office in South Africa and it felt like one giant dash of Africa time. We waited around for ages. The building used to be a jail so it was kind of weird waiting around in my wedding dress with flowers next to the barred rooms anyways. Eventually someone agreed to marry us but instead of the marriage officer, it ended up being a man we think might have been a janitor. He couldn’t find his glasses. Eventually a pair of specs were found but they were missing one arm. He struggled to read the vows and kept getting everything mixed up including our names and our genders. People were talking and shouting and randomly singing from the rooms (cells) next door. Eventually after having our fingerprints taken we were married (or maybe we aren’t actually married, the janitor wasn’t super convincing).

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Waiting to get married in a jail photo opportunity

In South Africa there are even vague terms that describe rough quantities of Africa time. Now now means something that is going to happen relatively soon. This could be in the next five minutes or in a few hours or maybe never. The length of time is never specified because who really knows how long anything is going to take. Just now means something that is going to happen soonish but not as soon as now now. Again it’s completely vague. It might be hours, few days, a week, or never. It will happen just now.

So back to planning a shopping trip, you have to add in a dash of Africa time into your plans as well. You never know how long someone is going to chat to you in the shop or whether the till is going to work or if there is going to be a power outage or a police roadblock or how painfully slowly a worker is going to place vegetables on the shelves one tomato at a time.

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We bought a Noggs.

From tomorrow our whole town won’t have any water for four days while maintenance is conducted on the water pipes. The backup pipes are also broken so everyone is making plans to stock up on water beforehand. Although our estate has a reserve of water, we have buckets, bathtubs, and bottles filled up ready for the dry spell just in case. All this standing water breaks the rule about never having standing water around your house so mosquitoes don’t breed. But it should only be a short time so it will be fine. But really how short or how long it will take is up to Africa time so who knows.

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Ready to wash dishes in the bathtub or whatever life flings.

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Ain’t no leg like a hairy leg or staring at hyaenas for science

In order to ascertain population estimates of animals from camera trap images using spatially-explicit capture-recapture analysis you need to know which individual is which. In order to ascertain which brown hyaena is which you need to check out their hairy legs. Staring intently at hairy legs is not something I generally do when dealing with humans but it’s pretty much all I do with hyaenas at the moment. There are quite a few mammals that have unique coat patterns among individuals including leopards, giraffes, and cheetahs. Brown hyaenas lack comparatively easily identifiable spot or rosette patterns. As the name implies they are mostly covered in brown fur which is shaggy along their backs. Their legs are covered in shorter hair which has white/tan stripes. These stripes are magic for biologists as they are all slightly different and can be used for identification. Life in the bush is tough for hyaenas. There are lots of dangers – giant thorns, diseases, parasites, competitive apex predators, and people. Sometimes there are other indicators or battle scars which help me to identify individual hyaenas including ear notches, open wounds, or wire snares.

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Image credit: Panthera

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Collaring Bill the brown hyaena for my PhD. Check out her stripy legs.

Staring at photos of hairy legs is very slow and meticulous. As my postdoc is only six months long, I feel a lot of pressure to prepare results quickly but quick really isn’t an option. Like learning to prepare the world’s best sushi and massaging an octopus to use on sushi (we watched the documentary ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ last night), some things can’t be rushed. Each camera trap image needs to be checked at least four times and at sites where there are a lot of brown hyaenas, there are often a lot of photographs to trawl through many times.

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Keeping meticulous spreadsheets as I id hyaenas and recheck my work with wildebeests for company.

Staring at abstract patterns in hairy legs for hours on end can send you a little crazy like any slow repetitive job. When I examined brown hyaena diet for my PhD by staring at hair extracted from over 300 scats (poos) under the microscope, I felt a similar level of craziness seeping in. When I lay down to sleep at night I still saw images of hair cuticles and hair imprints before my eyes. My documentary could be ‘Katy dreams of hyaena hair’. While doing scat analysis and identifying hyaenas from camera traps, I listen to audiobooks and podcasts to keep me somewhat sane. At the moment I love podcasts. Here are some of my current favourite podcasts:

The Discovery Adventures

  • An adventure story podcast about a kid who helps his uncle save the country by going on a road trip around the UK and solving clues. It’s created by Land Rover so that’s awesome in itself.

Stuff You Should Know

  • Each episode explores a different topic that can vary from history to medicine to engineering. The presenters are funny and as colleagues, they compliment each other well. They remind me of Brad and Jason, two American friends of mine.

Not Another Mummy Podcast

  • British mum, blogger, and writer, Alison Perry, chats to different guests about parenting. She has a nice Scottish accent and asks interesting questions like what is your handbag and what’s your biggest parenting fail.

Here are some random facts I learned by listening to podcasts while staring at hairy legs.

–       Lego is derived from the Danish phrase “leg godt” which means “play well”. But the Lego group only found out later that “Lego” can be loosely interpreted as “I put together” or “I assemble” in Latin. I love a good coincidence.

–       The writer and author, Edward Gorey, was not a dower 19th century British gent. He was a surprisingly modern American who loved cats and the ballet. He does amazing illustrations and I want to go to the Edward Gorey House in Massachusetts.

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Image credit: Edward Gorey

–       Despite the lyrics of a campfire song I sung in girl scouts, old lady O’Leary’s cow did not start the Great Chicago Fire. It was most likely a man with one leg called Peg Leg Sullivan. I think he needs a campfire song.

–       I did really well in my first few months of being a new mum. Other women find it really tough even when they have a lot more help than I did. Also I didn’t know that there such as thing as push present which is a present that a mother gets given after giving birth. I got given some toast with jam from a nurse after Noggs was born so maybe that was my push present. It certainly tasted good after being unable to eat or drink all day.

In summary, staring at hairy hyaena legs is useful both for learning random trivia facts and for producing solid scientific research. Studying hyaena ecology is amazing and important but it’s not always glamourous, quick, or easy. This is true of science in general even when you are studying big iconic species. But we do it because we love it and if you’re going to stare at a leg, there ain’t no leg like a hairy leg.

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Listening, learning, and looking at legs.


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Putting a plaster on snaring

This is a snare. It is also a piece of wire and part of a fence. It catches food for someone’s dinner across many parts of the world. It is also killing wildlife in droves and often the species that are dying are not those that are intended for the pot. It is everywhere but it is hidden from sight so it is nowhere. It is rarely talked about. It needs much more attention. It needs to disappear from the bush.

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The wire snare that killed CC the leopard. We found her skeleton by tracking her weak collar signal. She was hidden in a cave and a snare around her foot had killed her.

I think snaring is one of the hardest things I deal with as a conservation biologist. Our conservation work is focused on trying to reduce conflict between humans and wildlife, especially predators. In some situations, there are options I can present to people who are having challenges living with predators and may be considering killing predators in retaliation. There are several preventative non-lethal solutions which have been proven to help humans and predators coexist on farmland. A very simplified dialogue between myself and a farmer can go something like this:

Farmer: “The leopard keeps killing my calves. It makes me really angry and I want to kill the leopard.”

Me: “That is very frustrating. Those calves are your livelihood and I can definitely understand why you would want to kill the leopard but perhaps there’s another alternative you could try instead. Keeping your calves locked up at night in a secure kraal can stop leopards from attacking them. Predators prefer easy prey and if it’s hard for the leopard to get into your kraal, they will generally hunt natural prey instead. Another idea is to use a livestock guarding dog that will defend your calves. These dogs can be almost 100% effective at stopping depredation if implemented correctly. If you would like, I have a phone number of someone who can help you get a dog and I can have a look at your kraal if you like to see if there is any way to make it more secure.“

Farmer: “Okay, lets try this.”

Convincing people to stop setting snares is not the same at all. There is often no easily accessible alternative that will both protect wildlife and meet people’s immediate needs.

Wire snares are predominantly set to catch bushmeat but as it is an indiscriminate hunting method, wide-ranging predators are frequently caught as by-catch (Becker et al., 2013; Lindsey et al., 2013). They may die at the snare site or pull themselves free from the anchor and sustain injuries or die later due to infection or starvation. With the human population rising in many parts of the world, the strain on wildlife killed for bushmeat is expected to worsen (Ripple et al., 2016). Bushmeat hunting is linked to socio-economic factors including economic hardship, low levels of formal education, unemployment, lack of family planning, and food insecurity (Lindsey et al., 2013). Unless you can magic away poverty and create jobs, snaring is likely to remain in many parts of the world. I have led many sweeps through the bush to remove snares (nearly stepping on quite a few snakes as I went) and helped with an education campaign to inform rural communities about the devastating effect of snares on non-target animals like leopards. These actions are important but they are not the solution ultimately. As a conservationist, I understand why many people set snares but unfortunately I can’t provide these people with an alternative course of action that will meet their daily needs. Stopping snaring needs big long-term changes that will improve the lives of people living near wildlife, create fair employment, reduce poverty, and enable communities to benefit from wildlife. Solutions are slow to implement and need to counter complex socio-economic problems.

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An Earthwatch volunteer cutting a snare from a game trail. Can’t see the snare? Neither can the animals that get caught in them.

Snaring is illegal in South Africa and is often conducted covertly, making it is extremely difficult to examine. A recent study identified 301 terrestrial mammal species worldwide that are threatened with extinction due to bushmeat hunting for mostly food or medical products. This study includes bushmeat hunting methods other than snaring, but does not quantify the vulnerability of species that are being killed as by-catch (Ripple et al., 2016). I have collected photographic and anecdotal evidence that snaring is having a colossal detrimental effect on carnivores in South Africa but I suspect that this is just the tip of the iceberg. While analyzing camera trapping datasets during my PhD and my current postdoctoral fellowship, I detected a high occurrence of images portraying brown hyaenas and other animals with snares or snare related injuries.

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Brown hyaena with a snare wound around its neck.

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Three legged brown hyaena. Probably the result of a snare.

Sam and I collared eight leopards in the Soutpansberg Mountains, South Africa, between 2012 and 2015 and within the 455 day period that the animals were supposed to wear the collars for before they dropped off automatically, three collared individuals died from snaring. Snaring was the most common cause of death in our study (three leopards killed by snares, two went missing and were never detected again, two survived (one of these was nearly poisoned though), and one was shot without a permit for cattle predation) (Williams et al., 2017).

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Pimms, one of the collared leopards who died.

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Michel who died from this snare despite weeks of trying to catch him to remove it.

Last weekend a research project I worked for previously contacted me. They found a camera trap images of a female leopard with a snare around its waist. They asked me to help them to try and capture the animal so a vet could treat its wounds. I received the message about coming out to help the leopard late in the evening after Noggs was fast asleep. When Noggs woke up the next morning, I explained to my almost 3 year old son that we would have to cancel his playdate because we had to go and help a leopard with an owwie. He seemed very concerned and said that he would give the leopard a Marshall (a dog from the TV show Paw Patrol) plaster*. He would also give it some of his water. That would make it feel better.

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Noggs and I drove there as quickly as Mukiwa, our old Landrover, could go. I helped the project prepare traps and organise everything in case there was an opportunity to try to catch the leopard. Unfortunately, we did not catch her. She is almost undoubtedly dead. Death by a snare is a slow, painful way to die. What a waste, especially considering that the leopard population in this area is already facing severe population declines. The morning we drove home, I explained to Noggs that we weren’t able to help the leopard because we couldn’t find her. Noggs offered me his binoculars to help find her.

I love the simplicity of my son’s solutions to the snaring problem. A plaster, some water, and binoculars. I wish it were that easy. I think that the immense challenges of addressing snaring sometimes pushes it off the immediate conservation agenda. Conservation organisations and individuals may chose to focus on less wicked problems first, like helping farmers protect livestock. This is understandable and it is important, but I think that prioritizing real long-term solutions that will reduce snaring can’t been put on the back burner any longer. Otherwise, there won’t be any animals left to conserve.

*Plaster is the British word for a band-aid.

Literature cited

Becker, M., McRobb, R., Watson, F., Droge, E., Kanyembo, B., Murdoch, J. and Kakumbi, C. (2013) Evaluating wire-snare poaching trends and the impacts of by-catch on elephants and large carnivores. Biological Conservation 158, 26-36. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2012.08.017.

Lindsey, P.A., Balme, G., Becker, M., Begg, C.M., Bento, C., Bocchino, C., Dickman, A., Diggle, R.W., Eves, H., Henschel, P., Lewis, D., Marnewick, K., Mattheus, J., McNutt, J.W., McRobb, R., Midlane, N., Milanzi, J., Morley, R., Murphree, M., Opyene, V., Phadima, J., Purchase, G., Rentsch, D., Roche, C., Shaw, J., van der Westhuizen, H., van Vliet, N. and Zisadza-Gandiwa, P. (2013) The bushmeat trade in African savannas: impacts, drivers, and possible solutions. Biological Conservation 160, 80-96. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2012.12.020.

Ripple, W.J., Abernethy, K., Betts, M.G., Chapron, G., Dirzo, R., Galetti, M., Levi, T., Lindsey, P.A., Macdonald, D.W., Machovina, B., Newsome, T.M., Peres, C.A., Wallach, A.D., Wolf, C. and Young, H. (2016) Bushmeat hunting and extinction risk to the world’s mammals. Royal Society Open Science 3, 160498. doi:10.1098/rsos.160498

 Williams, S.T., Williams, K.S., Lewis, B.P. and Hill, R.A. (2017) Population dynamics and threats to an apex predator outside of protected areas: Implications for carnivore management. Royal Society Open Science 4, doi:10.1098/rsos.161090.


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Running in the African bush or being a gingerbread man on safari

Run, run as fast as you can. You can’t catch me I’m the gingerbread man.

My cousin, Clair, and her husband, Jason, are running the London marathon this weekend. This is impressive and awesome in every way. This morning I ran a 5 km race through Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate organised by Lowveld Trail Running and Pam Golding Properties. This was the first of four similar events in wildlife areas that Sam and I will be competing in. Not even close to 26.2 miles (~42 km!), but I’m really still pretty impressed with myself.

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Running has never really been my thing. I was on the track and field team for one year in high school. I ran the 400 m. I was not super fast but I was not super slow. Fairly average but just good enough to qualify for varsity races. As I was at an international school, I travelled all over Europe to race against varsity girl runners from other international schools. I normally placed last but that was fine by me. I had a good time just being there with my friends. Reflecting back on that time, it was such an amazing opportunity. I went to England, France, Austria, Holland, etc to run averagely but happily.

Since then (and that was a long time ago) I haven’t run regularly until I started running in the bush where we live a few months ago. I like it far more than I expected. I can definitely feel a difference in myself. I feel stronger and I have more stamina. I feel healthier and I can run for longer and longer stints. I also appreciate that the running I’m doing now is not to be taken for granted. I pass all sorts of animals as I go. It’s like a mini safari which is probably why I enjoy it so much more than I have ever enjoyed running before. Being in the bush is definitely my thing.

So here are some things I have learned about trail running in Africa from my own short involvement and Sam’s much more established running experience:

– Whatever you do, don’t run in big five areas. But if you must run where there are animals that can hunt you, eat you, or squash you, make sure you do it with armed guards, helicopters, and a beer at the end like Sam did when he ran a half marathon in Kruger National Park. See his blog post for the full story.

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–  Watch out for thorns. We have some seriously massive ones. A thorn tree reached out and yanked my headphones off today. I untangled myself and kept going. Sometimes the thorns pierce your shoes and you have to pull them out like the sword and the stone.

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– Contrary to popular belief, giraffes are not silent. When you accidently almost whack into one because you spend too much time looking at the ground, they snort loudly.

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– Don’t spend too much time looking at the ground. There are a lot of things with big horns (impala, wildebeest, eland, etc) around.

–  But don’t spend too little time looking at the ground. Watch out for snakes especially the puff adder who lolls about and doesn’t generally move when people come towards it unlike other snakes. As a result, the puff adder bites the most people in Africa every year.

–  Running on a mountain is much harder than running on the flat. That one is true anywhere but Sam certainly tested and proved this theory in South Africa.

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The Soutpansberg Mountains where Sam used to run.

–  When it rains here, it pours, and flash flooding happens. One day you’re running on a trail, the next day following a storm you’re swimming in a river.

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This whole lake appeared in the course of about an hour.

–  It gets bloody hot most days so if you’re planning on running without cooking your insides, it needs to be early in the mornings or late in the afternoons. Even at those times, I still turn a shocking shade of pink. Lovely!


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Working from home as a conservation biologist

My dad worked in an office, had a secretary, often wore a suit, and went on business trips. I don’t remember him ever working from home. As a kid, the only adult I remember working from home (who was not a stay a home parent) was a friend’s mum who ran a daycare in their home. Their house seemed to be filled with about 50 kids and was loud and hectic, pretty much the opposite of my house growing up.

Nowadays, working from home is pretty normal without having 50 kids bombing around your house. Yesterday I went to a picnic with other mums of young kids and I was amazed at how many of us worked from home – myself as a conservation biologist, one mum ran her own interior design business from home, another mum did admin for a lodge in Mozambique, and a mum worked for a London based publishing house from her home in South Africa. Working from home is a great development in modern employment, especially for parents.

Both Sam and I work from home in our postdoctoral researcher positions. Although we are affiliated with universities, we work independently at our laptops and just get on with it. We do not need to go into the university very often. We email and Skype everything. We make lunch for each other and help each other out if we’re stuck with sciencey questions. I ask Sam for assistance when my statistics are giving me gip or if just want to rant about how tough R (a statistical programme) is. We spend a lot of time analysing big datasets on carnivore ecology. My poor computer has been crunching numbers non-stop all week. Running each statistical model takes about 24 hours. My laptop keeps whirring and I think it might launch into outer space or start smoking (Dearest macbook please please please don’t do either. I don’t think I know enough curse words to respond if that happens.) I do miss fieldwork and would love to do more one day, but I feel like since we live in a wildlife area, we still have a good balance of seeing animals and spending time outside.

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Cross stitch I made for Sam’s desk.

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Ran into a herd of zebras on my walk the other night.

Having a proper workspace has made it a lot easier to work from home. Almost two years on and we still love real walls. We lived in a 5m x 5m tent  for five years which contained an abbreviated version of a living room, a bedroom, a bathroom,a kitchen, and an office. It also contained a lot of mice (lovely for attracting snakes). Sometimes when I worked on my laptop a mouse in the netting above would wee on my head. We now have a lot more space and a healthier ratio of rooms to people (from 1:2 to 5:3). Almost every day giraffes, wildebeests, zebras, warthogs, nyalas, or something else comes by the house which we love. We love the quiet of working at home in a wildlife area, listening to the birds and the animals outside. We still feel connected to the wildlife and the habitats that we study even though we aren’t conducting fieldwork. I don’t know if I would feel that connection if I worked in an office in a city with cars driving by.

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Working from home is incredible for parents, especially people like us who don’t have family nearby to help with childcare. It gives us the flexibility to get our work done around Noggs’ preschool schedule.

I think that conservation biology is a very work from home / work from a tent / work from the field sort of profession anyways. If you are going to study animals in a remote area, you are probably pretty independent and self-sufficient. You’re not going to call your secretary to send another Landrover when yours gets stuck in the mud. You dig it out and make sure a lion doesn’t eat you while doing it. It’s great that with the rise of the Internet, conservation biologists at a slightly later stage in their careers can work from home and thus continue to just get on with it.

Finally, I’d like to say that most of the time I don’t work from bed but I could. Yes, I could.


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The Easter lagomorph

In January there were Easter eggs in the shops. Yes, January. Noggs noticed. To Noggs large chocolate eggs must look even more enormous. I sometimes imagine being Noggs’ size and his perspective on the world. He must feel like Jack up the beanstalk in the land of the giants with tables at head height and toilets his little bum could easily sloop into. Holding an Easter egg must feel like holding one of the giant’s golden goose eggs. Anyways, occassionally when he sees something he wants in a shop it can be hard to convince him to walk on without a fuss. But with Easter eggs he has gladly accepted that he has to leave them because the Easter bunny is going to bring choccy eggs for him soon. He gives the Easter eggs a mature knowing nod, walks on, and then finds a cucumber to wave around like a sword while making pirate noises. It is nearly time now for the Easter bunny to spring into action and Noggs is counting the days.

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In South Africa, there are eight species of lagomorphs. Lagomorph is an amazing word for any member of the order Lagomorpha which is comprised of hares, rabbits, and pikkas. Don’t get the word lagomorph confused with legomorph which is what Noggs’ duplo does every day as he turns tree houses into cars with towers precariously attached on the back. Do say the word lagomorph in lots of different voices because it is super fun.

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For a short description of the some of South Africa’s lagomorphs, click here. One of these species, the riverine rabbit, is critically endangered as it has very specific habitat requirements and these fragmented areas in the central Karoo are being destroyed or degraded by humans for farming. Conservation efforts, particularly by the Endangered Wildlife Trust, are trying to save the riverine rabbit. We have the more common scrub hare where we live. Although we sometimes photograph them on our camera trap, we seldom see them, as they are nocturnal.

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I think the small stuff like rabbits, hares, mongooses, foxes, etc, are often overlooked when people think about South African wildlife. These species don’t receive the same attention that the big stuff does, but small mammals are really important. Sam published a research paper recently entitled ‘Predation by small mammalian carnivores in rural agro-ecosystems: An undervalued ecosystem service?’ In a nutshell, small carnivores like jackals and mongooses (sometimes referred to as mongeese) are often perceived as a problem for farmers and are persecuted. However, they could actually be providing rural farmers with an important ecosystem service by controlling rodents who destroy their crops. If you want to read more about this research check out Sam’s article in the Conversation ‘From foe to friend: how carnivores could help farmers’. Rabbits and hares are the same. Often undervalued, especially by the big 5 seeking tourist, but super important for the ecosystem. I have seen lions hunting rabbits and hares. They provide a good snack / meal for the bigger things up the food chain. They also eat native plants and disperse plant seeds (and chocolate eggs).

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Domestic rabbits can be small but mighty too. My dear friend Abbie is a licensed mental health counsellor in Massachusetts, USA and she has a therapy bunny called Peanut who works with her to help people. Although rabbits can make amazing colleagues and pets, people often underestimate how much care and exercise they require and how long they live, leading them to be the third most abandoned pet in the US. Easter can be bad for rabbits as young rabbits are often purchased as gifts under the assumption that they are easy to care for short-lived pets. When the reality kicks in a few months later, rabbits are often abandoned. So please do not buy rabbits as Easter gifts. If you need to buy Easter gifts for someone, you can always buy me chocolate eggs, as many as you like.

So that’s my take on rabbits, hares, and Easter eggs. Happy Easter for next week and hooray for all the small but mighty stuff.


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Eco-tips for people with the potential to become legendary

I am so impressed by my friends who have gone vegan or vegetarian for environmental reasons and by my sister-in-law who is incredibly proficient at reducing the amount of plastic she uses. One of my friends from high school posted this photo of all the rubbish she created in six weeks after a conscious effort to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

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That’s it, all of an adult in Australia’s rubbish for a month and a half. Amazeballs. I am proud to know legendary people like this. The planet really needs everyone to live like them.

I’m not quite one of these legendary people yet. Despite trying to live as environmentally as we can, we could certainly go greener. We try to make good decisions for the planet while allowing ourselves to lead healthy, enjoyable, and successful lives. We try to find a balance between it all.

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Going green.

I believe that if my legendary friends and family can adopt eco-awesome ways, just about anyone can. Excuses schexcuses. The environment is not lazy and it doesn’t have time for us to be lazy now. However, I do appreciate that it can certainly feel a bit scary to jump into to the deep end of the environmental pool. I invite you to start small. In this blog, I am sharing eight of our favourite eco-tips / environmentally conscious products. These are not things that require a complete uprooting of your life. You don’t have to become a sandal-clad kumbaya singing healing crystal waving hippy (thank goodness) to lead a less consumptive life. In fact, I hope you avoid kumbaya entirely and opt for some more tasteful and secular tunes. Sandals are good though. I love sandals so wear them if you want. Anyways, back on topic – you can still be you but a more responsible you. These tips require a bit of effort initially (also known as change which can be scary for the Sheldons out there) but not heaps and ultimately you end up saving money too. They are stepping stones to reducing the impact you make on the planet’s overstretched resources. And hopefully by making environmental decisions, you will inspire other people to follow suit. By purchasing environmentally conscious products you also send a message to manufacturers about what is valued in our society. The more people and businesses getting on board with environmental values the better. So here goes…

1. Reusable cling film

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I got an Abeego beeswax reusable food wrap set from my amazing warrior against plastic sister-in-law for Christmas. I love it. I feel so good about wrapping up unfinished food, rather than having a creeping feeling of guilt for contributing more plastic waste to the landfills. I love that we’re saving money by not buying new rolls of plastic wrap all the time. You can even make your own reusable beeswax food wrap which I haven’t tried but definitely should.

2. Lift club

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Guinea fowls in a row are the African version of ducks in a row.

We drive our child to his environmentally themed preschool and back every day. He’s in the Earthtots class. Since we’re working from home that means two trips there and back or just over an hour of driving a day. This feels like a big and slightly ironic environmental impact for one little Earthtot. We have recently started a lift club (carpool) with another nearby family. This has meant that we have both significantly reduced our environmental impact, gained more time in our days, and are saving money on fuel. I also enjoy taking more kids into school. I feel like a mother duck with a parade of ducklings waddling behind me when I drop them off.

3. Cloth nappies

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We used cloth nappies constantly for Noggs. They are better for the environment and have saved us a lot of money. I’m in the process now of selling our stash and I’m looking at getting about 50% of the original purchase cost back making it even cheaper. By selling them on, they will be reused by another family which makes them even more environmentally friendly. Here is a link to a previous blog post I wrote about cloth nappies. Another interesting read about them from a South African mother can be found here.

4. Sun drying clothes

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Getting our field clothes dry on a mountain.

When we led Earthwatch groups for the Primate and Predator Project we would help the volunteers have their clothes washed and dried once a week. I remember one volunteer from America telling her friend in absolute amazement that we are going to sun dry their clothes outside like it was some incredible revolutionary idea that had never been thought of before. I was surprised because sun drying clothes seems obvious to me but I guess it’s not to everyone. It’s hot, it’s sunny, it’s way better for the environment, your clothes, and your wallet than using a dryer. It makes sense. Even in England where it’s rainy and cold we used to ‘sun’ or air dry everything. Hang a line and get some sunshine on your underwear.

5. Pallet furniture

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Almost all of our furniture is second hand, as in belonged to someone before us. Two of our pieces (a coffee table and a bookshelf) are second hand in a different way. They are made from recycled wood pallets. I love recycled furniture. It looks amazing, has a story, and is again better for the planet. If you are up for a bit of DIY, there are plenty of plans and inspiration online showing you how to make pallet furniture yourself (click for an example).

6. Fake meat

Eating meat, especially meat from cows, has a huge environmental impact. Farming beef requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water and results in five times more climate-warming emissions. South Africans love themselves some meat, in fact a lot of meat. Braais (barbeques) are a huge part of the culture. There’s even national braai day on September 24th. I quite like the national braai day slogan ‘Unite around a fire. Share our heritage and wave our flag’. It reminds me of a t-shirt Sam has with giraffes on it which says ‘Giraffes united against ceiling fans. Ban the blade. Protect thy neck’. Two very important messages.

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Anyways, so despite enjoying a braai and a bit of meat, we try to only eat meat only occasionally. We prefer to eat game meat whenever possible which has a lower environmental impact and has enjoyed a proper free-range life in the bush. For Christmas dinner last year we ate a leg of impala which was delicious. We often eat fake meat made from quorn. Noggs like quorn nuggets. All kids seem to be crazy about nuggets. What is that about?

7. Decanting yogurt

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We try not to buy anything with excessive packaging for single serve foods and drinks like small water bottles or small pots of yogurt. They produce lots of nasty plastic waste almost immediately. We carry reusable water bottles everywhere. We decant yogurt into a reusable pot and send that to preschool instead of those little throw away pots. Decant is such a posh word for the transfer of yogurt into a neon lidded receptacle which will be consumed in the company of 20 toddlers. I like it though. I hope Noggs learns the word decant and starts saying it. I like the idea of a 2 year old saying decant.

8. Bamboo toothbrushes

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I always felt a bit guilty about toothbrushes. Their shiny plastic handles are only used for three months and then they end up in the bin. Then they take hundreds of years to decompose. That means that every toothbrush I’ve ever used until very recently (I estimate this to be about 99 toothbrushes) is still out there unchanged and they will remain there long after I am gone. Recently I swapped to bamboo toothbrushes which are designed to biodegrade and come in recycled biodegradable packaging. I feel much less guilt. I also feel like a contented panda while using one. Here are some suggestions for the best bamboo toothbrushes available.