Always looking for animals

Sam, Katy, and Noggs in Africa


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Local is lekker: being a bit more South African

Living at a research centre on the top of a mountain in South Africa for five years was an incredible experience. But culturally, it wasn’t a very South African one. It is sometimes the case that wildlife research and conservation volunteering in Africa is conducted by foreigners rather than locals. Volunteering in conservation can be very pricey (yes, you often have to pay to volunteer which is a bit of a jutaposition in my opinion). This is challenging for young inexperienced ecologists who need to gain experience to advance their careers. The prices inevitably dissuade potential local volunteers. The research assistants who volunteered with us had to pay a fairly high fee to the managers of the property to cover some of their living expenses. These funds are often essential to keep research centres functioning. As a result, we were primarily surrounded by Europeans, Americans, and Australians who could afford to volunteer, rather than South Africans. Research centres situated in remote locations can be quite bubble-like which amplifies the cultures within. When talking to a few of our volunteers who had been in the country for awhile, I was surprised about their impressions and knowledge of South Africa, as these seemed quite limited due to living in the ‘bubble’. However, they were extremely knowledgeable on primate behaviour and troop interactions which they witnessed day in and day out.

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Our international research assistants blowing bubbles on Noggs’ first birthday.

Sam and I spent a lot more time off the mountain than our volunteers collecting data, attending meetings, purchasing supplies, and working with communities. We tried to take our research assistants with us whenever possible. We also had our own car so we could travel more easily in our time off.

In the year since we moved to Hoedspruit we have been living a more South African experience on a daily basis. It is nice for our son to be surrounded by the South African culture to a greater extent. He says ja instead of yes, even though he’s the most English boy in his class. He says eina instead of ouch when he gets hurt sometimes. He has kids who speak lots of different languages around him every day. He eats mealie pap porridge for breakfast at school. Sam eats rusks (hard biscuits) and Noggs shares them. Noggs also sometimes has rooibos (redbush) tea and loves droewors (dried meat sticks).

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Another South African specialty lurking in our fridge – Monkey Gland Sauce.

I think that living here also feels more South African due to the landscape. At Lajuma it was sometimes quite jungly and misty which felt more like Jumanji than South Africa. But here it is sunnier, drier, and we have plains game like zebras, impalas, and giraffes outside so it feels more like Africa, more like the Lion King.

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The misty Soutpansberg Mountains.

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Photo taken from our bedroom window in Hoedspruit.

We braaied (barbequed) by the river at our estate last weekend. The braai is a very South African institution. We haven’t actually been braaiing as much here as we used to at Lajuma. Shockingly, our house doesn’t have a braai stand but luckily there is a beautiful and secluded public one nearby.

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Braaiing by the river.

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The gate down to the braai spot. We often hear hippos calling from our house.

We celebrated Mandela Day on July 18th for the first time. Every year on Nelson Mandela’s birthday, South Africans are encouraged to give 67 minutes (one for every year of Mr Mandela’s public service) back to the community. The message behind Mandela day is that everyone has the ability and the responsibility to change the world for the better. Noggs and I spent our 67 minutes doing a litter pick on a hike to a local waterfall. We filled a whole bag up for recycling and had a lovely morning out.

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Despite signs and monkey proof bins around, we still collected a whole bag of rubbish.

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Helping out with the litter pick.

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Made it to the waterfall. Time for playing.

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Wearing trousers, socks, and shoes didn’t deter Noggs from paddling. Like all mothers of dragons, I mean toddlers, I had spare clothes packed.

Over the past few weeks from within our wildlife estate, we can hear singing every morning and evening. We found out that this is part of a ceremony of boys becoming men (nothing to do with the band, thankfully) during a circumcision ceremony. The teenagers go to the bush to be circumcised and stay there for 21 days in seclusion and away from women. A traditional surgeon preforms the circumcision without anesthetic. The singing celebrates their transition to manhood. Unfortunately, traditional circumcision ceremonies can result in death or serious injury.

The people we meet now are mostly South African or long term expats. Being part of a community means we are getting more involved in national holidays and local events. Also, living off the mountain has made it easier to explore our local area. It has been really nice to feel a bit more South African but I am still very aware that we are mostly experiencing only one version of South Africa. We are involved with a quite privileged, primarily white version of how South Africans live and this certainly does not fully represent the complexity of the country and its many cultural layers and lifestyles. This diversity is something that we want to make our son aware of as he grows and encourage him to explore and embrace.


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Eco-parenting in South Africa

Having children is bad for the environment. A new study found that by far the most effective action a person can do to reduce their carbon emissions is to have fewer children. Having one fewer child equates to a reduction of 58.6 tonnes of CO2 for each year of a parent’s life. Other actions are very important to reduce CO2 but the impacts are considerably less. For example, living car free is the next best action and this saves 2.4 tonnes of CO2 annually. Avoiding one roundtrip transatlantic flight saves 1.60 tonnes of CO2. Reducing CO2 emissions is absolutely essential to avoid severe global warming and all of our individual lifestyle choices, from how we dry our clothes to whether we reproduce, contribute.

I have been aware that having children is bad for the environment for a long time. It seems fairly obvious if you think about the maths. There are already more humans alive than the planet can sustain and the human population is rising at a scary 10,000 net per hour. Children who have highly consumptive lifestyles like many born in America, Europe, and Australia use up far more resources than the majority of children in less developed countries. It is not just about having less people on the planet; it’s also about living more sustainably and passing this lifestyle onto the next generation.

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Haubles of people at the Loi Krathong festival in Bangkok, November 2011

We wanted a family (well I was ready and I gently pestered Sam till he said okay – isn’t that how having a baby works?). As environmentalists, we decided that the way forward for us is to have a small family and to try to reduce our environmental impact. Eco-parenting is also a way to reduce the financial costs of having a child. That was a much appreciated bonus since conservation biologists tend to line their pockets with fresh faecal samples, not cash. After the baby, we were carrying leopard, hyaena, and human poo samples around which felt a bit excessive. Oh, how we hoped the sample bags / nappies were properly secured.

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Wee Noggs

We started our eco-parenting quest with cloth nappies, reusable cloth wet wipes, and biodegradable nappy liners. I remember seeing a picture like this showing how much waste disposable nappies create for just one child and being horrified.

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Disposable nappies take up to 500 years to decompose. I hated the idea that a giant pile of pooey stinky rubbish from our child would be around long long after his lifetime. What a legacy.

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Cloth nappies have been a good experience for us. We had to adapt at first because when Noggs was born we lived in a tent with almost no power. The tent was upgraded and we made a plan to get the nappies clean. We have enjoyed cloth nappies, aside from a few instances of nappy rash that we think were associated with using cloth nappies in a hot country and childcare workers sometimes not changing the cloth nappies as often as we do at home. It has been great knowing that we made less of an impact on the environment. We used disposables when traveling for convenience or if we were ever particularly worried about nappy rash. Now Noggs is pretty much potty trained, we will be thinking about selling our cloth nappy collection soon. It is satisfying to think that we will get some money back. It is like getting a reward for surviving potty training. Congrats, you wiped up enough wee wee and poo poo, here is some money.

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Opening up our box of cloth nappies and cloth wet wipes

If anyone feels nervous or unsure about the decision to use cloth nappies, I would definitely say go for it. Ask me if you want advice. Yes, it is a bit more work but not much, and it is worth it for the environment and for your wallet.

We also personally tried to buy almost everything for Noggs as a baby secondhand. Less impact. His second hand cot was a tad rickety as a result but it lasted. All the toys and clothes he grows out of are passed on to someone else who can reuse them. We made all of Noggs’ baby food ourselves which was more environmentally friendly, cheaper, and probably healthier. Less food miles and less packaging. We try not to buy juice boxes or disposable water bottles. We refill reusable cups and bottles all the time. We have started deliberately consuming less meat. Quorn is awesome by the way. I’m not sure I could fully give up babalas droewors (South African dried sausage-like snacks infused with chili) though. Living abroad makes stopping international air travel difficult but we don’t fly very often.

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Beautiful wooden secondhand high chair Noggs received from a friend of ours

Hopefully, planning a small family and implementing more environmental childrearing choices are reducing our carbon footprint. That way I can save my guilt for other things like occasionally binging on too much droewors.

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Babalas droewors

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Some of the South African delicacies we had at our wedding

Here are some links on eco-parenting and cloth nappying:

Eco-friendly parenting

10 tips for green parenting

How to be an eco-parent

Growing up green

Cloth nappying

What are modern cloth nappies?


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When predators and politics collide

When we’re not busy having an adventure or looking for animals, we spend our time conducting research into carnivore conservation. This ends up in stuffy scientific journal articles, which can be quite heavy going, so we also like to share our findings in more accessible ways. Here is another piece about our research that I wrote for The Conversation. Hope you enjoy it.

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How badly implemented land reform can affect wildlife: a Zimbabwean case study

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Land reform is thought to have caused the cheetah numbers to fall by 85% in Zimbabwe.
Sam Williams, CC BY-SA

Sam Williams, Durham University

Large carnivores are in decline all over the world. Threats like persecution and loss of both prey and habitat are key contributors. The planet’s top biodiversity hotspots have already lost around 90% of their primary (undisturbed) vegetation, driven by factors like growth of infrastructure, agriculture and the removal of natural resources.

These are some of the key factors that have caused the number of wild lions across the globe to fall by over 40% in the past two decades, and have resulted in a decline in the number of cheetahs of 50% over the past forty years.

In Zimbabwe cheetahs depended heavily on private land, but the amount of private land has been reduced by 90% over the last 17 years. This loss has been caused by factors like the country’s land reform programme, which was set out to redress the historical imbalances in land tenure resulting from colonial practices. Under the programme, land previously owned privately by large-scale commercial white farmers was distributed to black Zimbabweans.

But it’s becoming clear that privately owned land plays an extremely important role in conservation, as state owned conservation areas alone aren’t enough to keep large species out of danger. A major problem is that the land reform programme was implemented in a chaotic way. This meant that no consideration was given to how to manage the wildlife that had previously lived in the area. The result was a dramatic fall in the number of carnivores.

Until 2000, 34% of land in Zimbabwe was privately owned, 13% was state owned conservation and forestry areas, and 42% was communal land. The remainder of that was made up of old resettlement areas, state farms and urban developments. Private land supported 80% of Zimbabwe’s cheetahs. But since 2000, 90% of this privately owned land is thought to have been resettled. Large numbers of subsistence farmers – making enough for their homes but not enough to sell – now occupy these farm spaces.

In instituting the land reform programme, the survival of the species that depended on privately owned land was pitted against the needs of the people to survive off the land. This is a widespread problem, not one confined to Zimbabwe. But the solution could lie in how land reform is planned. Instead of replacing successful wildlife areas with subsistence farming, keeping the wildlife while allowing more people to benefit economically could hold the key.

What we found

We recorded animal tracks across 1000 km of unpaved roads on private land that had been resettled, and on adjacent private land that had not yet been resettled. Our aim was to understand how carnivore numbers had been affected by the resettlement process. This research allowed us to draw estimates.

Our studies showed that large carnivores (weighing more than 19 kg) such as African wild dogs had high densities on private land. On neighbouring land that had been part of the same conservancy but had now been resettled, we found no signs of cheetahs, leopard, lion, African wild dog, or brown hyenas. We did however find very few tracks from spotted hyenas.

Similar trends were also evident for all other mammals studied, from baboons to giraffes.

If these trends are representative on a national scale, our models estimated that carnivore populations have declined steeply since 2000 due to land reform. We predicted that the number of cheetahs in Zimbabwe dropped to approximately 120 individuals. A subsequent nationwide interview survey estimated that only 150-170 cheetahs remain across national parks, private land and communal areas. This represents a fall of 85%, thought to be largely due to land reform.

A leopard carries a wire snare around its waist.
Sam Williams

The low abundance of wild mammals on resettled land appeared to be linked to the high density of people that now occupy the land. People have cleared the natural vegetation to grow crops and graze livestock, causing habitat loss, fragmentation, and loss of prey for the carnivores.

Bush meat poaching was also rife on private land close to resettled areas. Between 2001 and 2009 over 4,000 poachers captured and over 84,000 snares removed in one conservancy.

Land reform didn’t just affect the wildlife. We found that farmers on resettled land, reported levels of cattle predation by large carnivores that were three times greater than that of farmers on neighbouring communal land. This was despite resettlement farmers working harder to reduce predation by taking measures like kraaling (enclosing) their cattle at night or herding their animals during the day.

Lessons learned

As land reform programmes progress in other countries, what lessons can be learnt from Zimbabwe’s experiences?

By planning resettlement schemes carefully as opposed to allowing them to develop haphazardly, authorities could focus resettlement in areas of greater agricultural potential. At the same time, it’s important to maintain connectivity within wildlife populations.

Using fencing that cannot be used to make snares could help. Strands of straight fencing wire is often stolen and used for snaring, but other fencing wire materials such as square mesh cannot be easily made into the loops used by poachers.

Importantly, land reform doesn’t have to mean changing land use. Land reform initiatives should maintain wildlife as a land use where it’s suitable, while diversifying land ownership. Leasing resettled land back to the former owners could also benefit wildlife while also retaining expertise and generating more income for a broader array of people than switching to subsistence farming.

The ConversationThe hope is that integrating community members as stewards of the land and helping them to benefit financially from wildlife, could encourage them to protect rather than poach animals. This will create durable solutions to the land issue.

Sam Williams, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology, Durham University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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Having an adventure

A few weeks ago on the drive to Noggs’ preschool we spotted a hot air balloon overhead. We see them many mornings as they fly over us to view the wildlife in the reserve with the mountain backdrop. Noggs pointed to basket of the hot air balloon and said, “Look people, they are having an adventure!”. This surprised me because I didn’t realize he knew the word adventure. We also didn’t realize he knew the word disgusting until we gave him some medicine. It’s like he has a secret dictionary in his head which he is slowly divulging word nugget by word nugget. He also knows words we don’t even know such as ‘poo poo lekker’. We’re not sure what it means but apparently poo poo lekker is naughty. Astounding stuff.

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This morning Noggs and Sam pulled the wheelie bin to the end of the driveway for collection. When they returned after a little while, it was announced that they took longer than expected because they were “having an adventure”. This adventure involved riding Nogg’s bike, going on a bush walk, and collecting rocks and sticks.

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Running through the leaves.

I often consider having an adventure to mean riding in hot air balloons, flying to exotic places, and experiencing something completely exotic, something very big and out of the ordinary. To Noggs though, his definition of having an adventure can be flying in the sky but it can also be picking up a cheese puff he found on the ground outside a shop and eating it. Both are equally thrilling to him.

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Having an adventure.

Although I definitely crave ticking countries off my list and having big adventures, I am starting to appreciate the small adventures in our backyard more because of Noggs’ more open minded definition of having an adventure.

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Climbing in a digger we found in a car park so Noggs could pretend to drive.

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Having giraffes in the backyard and Kruger National Park down the road definitely makes it easier to have adventures.

And to end, a quote…”Enjoy the little things in life because one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.” (Kurt Vonnegut Jr.)


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Old men in Africa

I love how untamed Africa is. The sun scorches, red dirt stains your takkies (sneakers), and spotted hyaenas whoop at night.

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It is still possible to live where there are free-roaming lions, elephants, leopards, rhinos, and hippos. Sadly, this amazing continent is facing major wildlife population declines because of (you guessed it) humans. For example, giraffe  numbers have fallen from around 155,000 in 1985 to 97,000 in 2015. Lions were estimated at 450,000 in the 1940s and now there may be as few as 20,000 animals.

Despite these declines (which conservationists like us are trying to reverse), there is still plenty of adventure left in Africa. I think that the level of wilderness based adventure South Africa has to offer is still pretty high (especially if you go out there looking for it), but I also think that it used to be higher when the country was less developed. I love listening to old men in Africa because they tell the best adventure stories of an Africa where life was tougher and rawer.

Southern Africa has changed drastically in the past century. Now large wildlife is mostly confined to fenced areas (albeit very large fenced areas), many roads are paved, we have maps, phones, and GPS units. Old white men in Africa wearing khaki field clothes and knee high socks tell stories of adventuring across Botswana (Bechuanaland), Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), Namibia (South West Africa), and Tanzania (Tanganyika) in barely running landrovers or on rickety trains. They remember times with no roads or proper maps, just being out in the bush fending for oneself. They had close encounters with wildlife and there weren’t swarms of tourists around. As young men, they were hardy, sun-worn and tougher than nails. They bandaged their own wounds, fought their own battles, and knew how to survive. These men know an Africa that I somewhat romanticise because of the vast expanses of untouched wild areas. I could listen to old men in Africa talk for hours. I hungrily seek out and consume memoirs and stories of life in the Africa from earlier days – books like Mukiwa by Peter Godwin, The Power of One by Bryce Courtney, I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallman.

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Wearing my old man knee high bush socks while camping in an unfenced Big 5 area in Botswana

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The old Victoria Falls train station

I can still find places in parts of Zimbabwe and Botswana that I believe might resemble old Africa. We camp in Big 5 areas with no fences and no neighbours. We wake to find lion or leopard spoor outside the canvas tent flaps. We drive across empty expanses and don’t see anyone for a long time other than battered looking donkey carts and their drivers. Our mobile phones have no reception and there is no power to charge them anyways. Our landy gets stuck in mud and we make a plan to get out which may involve a whole village pushing in mud up to their waists while elephants wade in the river nearby. This Africa does still exist and it makes me feel alive.

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Carrying our own fuel across the country and fueling up the landy bakkie for fieldwork in Zimbabwe

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Hiking in Swaziland, bumping into wildlife, and getting very lost

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Surrounded by elephants in Chobe National Park, Botswana

South Africa is a land of old men remembering a grittier wilder Africa. Not all aspects of this old Africa were good and not all aspects of this new Africa are good. We love South Africa and we think it is ideal for raising a young child. There is plenty of adventure but there are also good hospitals nearby. There are amazing animals you can live amongst but you can chose to live with the ones who are not going to munch up your toddler in one bite. There is food in the supermarket and power. But I also crave the rawer wilder Africa from time to time, the old man’s Africa, and I am looking forward to taking my son there when he is a little bigger. I want him to know this world and tell the stories one day.

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Lucky to be in conservation

I do occasional guest lecturing on my research experiences and findings for college students visiting the Greater Kruger area through African Conservation Experience. It is an awesome opportunity that I love. When I drove out to a lodge to give my most recent lecture, I missed my turnoff and ended up looking for somewhere to turn around. It was a very quiet Sunday morning and I came to a big metal gate across the road. I was about to turn around when I saw someone lying on the ground by the gate. A motorcycle lay haphazardly next to him and he only had one shoe on. It was clear that he had had an accident and that he had been there awhile. I stopped and I helped him. Once I knew he was in safe hands, I turned my car around, found my turnoff, and did my lecture on leopard population dynamics.

At the end of the lecture, one of the teachers asked me to share my advice to the students about how to get into conservation. I talked about doing the right university degrees, working hard, being persistent, obtaining lots of field experience, and networking. I didn’t talk about being lucky, although reflecting on it, I think being lucky has influenced how my career has progressed so far.

Working in conservation is tough. A recently published paper describes the challenges that conservation biologists face including conflicts between family and work interests, and working under stressful conditions that can lead to burnout. It is a tough field but the study also concluded that most conservation biologists enjoy their careers. It is a job people do for the love of it.

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Two tough conservation biologists in the field

In conservation, there is a surprising amount of competition and a whole lot of rejection involved with getting jobs, finding funding, and publishing results. In my experience, no matter how much effort and hard work you put in, rejection is still a big part of working in wildlife conservation. My PhD supervisor told me that I would become calloused to this over time.  I’m getting there but I am definitely still a soft-shelled crab and some days it feels like I’m sandwiched between two pieces of bread about to get munched. A bit of luck mixed with a lot of hard work and determination helps to sway things in the right direction though. Getting my last job in conservation was partially due to luck, and luck was a large component of my PhD funding.

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I think that luck is lots of little interplaying variables that create a favourable outcome through a complex chain of cause and effect. Some of the variables are completely out of your control and others are not. My mum told me that she thought that some people are born lucky. I used to find four leaf clovers all the time as a child and press them in the pages of my dictionary. I have won a quite unattractive sweatsuit, an iron, and 10 pizzas in competitions. I thought I was pretty lucky in general. Looking at my amazing husband and incredible son, I know I’m still very lucky, even though I don’t find four leaf clovers anymore. This could be due to living in the African bush though; there aren’t too many clovers here.

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Career-wise, I am in a position now where I have put in years of hard work and I am continuing to put in more, while waiting for a little bit of luck. On Twitter someone posted about how they were counting their money in terms of how many months post-PhD they could afford to be unemployed. That’s the hard bit, not knowing how long it will be until the right job comes up and you get selected from the hundreds of other desperate and deserving souls, or basically until you get lucky. But here is the thing about wildlife conservationists, we don’t give up, we wait, we work hard, and we put up with a lot of challenging circumstances because we do it for the love of the job and for the love of the planet. We believe in hard work and luck. It is definitely worth it.

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A lucky day when I found my brown hyaena collar that had detached in the bush

The last things conservation biologists need while they are soldiering on are funding cuts and poor environmental policies. This just makes it even tougher for us to get lucky in following our dream career paths and harder for us to make the differences that the world’s wildlife desperately need right now. Everyone should support conservation because well, if we don’t, there will be no future for this planet and its wildlife. I’ll get off my soapbox now.

The motorcycle guy broke a few bones but he was okay. His mum said that God must have sent me. I don’t think so. I think I just suck at following directions and that he got lucky that I found him and that I stopped.


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It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

Every June as winter settles in and it starts to feel crisp and cold, I get a Christmassy feeling. Even after years of Christmases in the southern hemisphere, I still associate Christmas with cold weather. I feel ready to cook decedent foods and exchange presents. In December when we’re super sweaty and hot, I struggle to drum up the Christmas spirit in the same way. The decorations get hung but they look false and out of place. Santa looks hot and uncomfortable in his coat and boots. The advent calendars drip melting chocolate out of their sealed doors.

It is June and I have started singing Christmas carols again. We are wearing long trousers, coats, and jumpers again. I even cracked out the gloves. We have become so acclimatized to the heat that the roughly 13 degree C temperatures at night to 23 degree C day temperatures feel jarringly low. We are very happy though that we are in a proper house with walls and not freezing in a tent on a mountain.

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Wearing flannel Christmas pyjamas again and feeling very excited about toys.

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Thomas the tank engine doing a wheelie.

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Playing with cars in pretend snow (corn flour).

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Snow day.

We’ve been in Hoedspruit for almost a year now and the signs in nature remind me that the time has passed and it’s winter again.

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The big aloey plants at the end of our road are flowering again. My plant id skills have a long way to go.

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The trees are looking sparse as they drop their leaves.

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Zebra poo without dung beetles = winter.

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The impala lilies are flowering again.

It’s been a pretty amazing year and having a small child helps me to appreciate how far we’ve all come. Noggs learned to walk, talk, started preschool, and became a more proper human. I passed my PhD. Sam got a postdoc position. It may not be Christmas now but I’m going to sing anyways. This year I keep singing the John Lennon song ‘Merry Xmas (War is Over)’. I wonder if this has some link to the end of the PhD…