Always looking for animals

Sam, Katy, and Noggs in Africa

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Wearing a cape in the Cape: conferencing and holidaying in Cape Town

This was our second year attending the Southern Africa Wildlife Management Association’s (SAWMA) annual conference. This year it was in Rawsonville in the Western Cape. The SAWMA conference is such a great event. The talks are always fantastic, as is the networking. And you leave feeling full of ideas and invigorated about wildlife conservation.

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Sam’s talk on small carnivore ecosystem services

Reading the environmental news is depressing; big headlines about sea levels rising, temperatures rising, oceans filled with plastic, species extinction rates, and overpopulation are everywhere. Images of snared animals, melting ice caps, and dissected and discarded rhinos are hard to avoid. They must not be avoided, but this media can make me feel small, insignificant, and overwhelmed in the face of all these environmental challenges. However, the SAWMA conference helps me to feel like I’m not alone and that as conservationists and scientists together, we are not insignificant. Meeting other people in my field and seeing people unite towards the common cause of protecting wildlife is empowering and rewarding. That’s what I love about the SAWMA conference.

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Tea break chats with with old and new contacts

So we had a good conference. We think Noggs enjoyed it too.

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Noggs’ tablecloth cape at the conference’s wine tasting event

After three days of learning, networking, and dressing as conservation super heroes, we headed to Cape Town. We love Cape Town. It is a stunning city. There are so many beautiful wild places (and animals) within its borders. Here are some photos from our adventures exploring the city. Back home again now. Tired, happy, and full of birthday cake (thank you Sam!).

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Enjoying Camp’s Bay beach

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The Company’s Garden

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Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

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The tree lined walkway in Kirstenbosch

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Face painting at Kirstenbosch

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Hugging Mr Mandela


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A blog from Noggs

We are pretty busy at the moment so Noggs is in charge of this week’s blogpost. Noggs who is two has started making up and telling up stories. Here are two stories we heard recently:

Once upon a time, Chickaletta (a chicken from the Paw Patrol TV show) is stuck in a tree. She needs Mummy’s ladder. Mummy, bring the ladder. A robot eats Chickaletta. She is not okay. The end. 

Marshall rescuing Chickaletta

Once upon a time, a giraffe sees an impala. He is scared. He goes to his Daddy. The end. 

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Have a lovely weekend everyone!


Quite calm and not cross at all cross stitching

Sometimes I get asked how life is after the PhD. This is often by people who are doing a PhD. I think perhaps they are looking for reassurance that there definitely is life after a PhD.

There is life after a PhD but it has been less glamorous than I had previously envisioned. Only one person has seriously called me Doctor (I think I blushed a little). I haven’t suddenly scaled the career ladder in an impressive superhero leap. I have given advice to several people who asked me for help with their research though. I have also done a bit of guest lecturing. I am trying to publish my research but this is slow process.

I am very happy to have graduated but life after the PhD can still be stressful as I try and make it in the world career-wise, especially in the field of conservation. There have been a couple of articles released recently about how challenging gaining employment in conservation is and also about how moving straight into secure employment after a PhD is becoming less common. Conservation and academia are for the thick-skinned.

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Unfortunately, I can see the veins in my thin skin. If this picture is making you feel nauseous (like I do), scroll down quick for a selfie with a giraffe and zebra.

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Aww much better. I hope my slightly crazed looking eyes don’t put you off again.

To de-stress and because I just like doing it, I sew. Yes, sew – a needle pulling thread – sew. I feel a bit like a granny or one of the characters from Little Women holding my needlepoint but I don’t mind one bit. There is a sense of serenity in following a pattern that works out without thinking too much and stabbing a needle up and down through the fabric while making steady progress towards a bigger goal.

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Last year’s owl cross stitch.

I remind myself of my mother. A lot of my childhood memories are of her sewing or knitting in the evening while we watched TV or played. She always seemed so calm. Sometimes I notice that one of my long blond hairs has gotten stitched into the pattern. It’s maybe a bit creepy but I don’t mind and I keep going, letting it become part of the fabric. I don’t purposely put them in like people who knit jumpers from their dog’s hair (now that’s creepy). I hope there are a couple of accidental strands of my mother’s hair stitched into her pictures.


Yes this is a real book.  Amazon also recommends also buying ‘Dancing with Cats’.

It’s taken me a year, hours upon hours, and I’m nearly finished this pirate ship cross stitch for Noggs. Just a bit of detailing on the top to go. Then I’ll try to make friends with someone who owns an iron so it looks a bit smarter before I get it framed. I don’t know who this friend will be yet but we are going to get on like a house on fire (hopefully not due to the iron being left unattended).

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Nearly done me hearties!

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Section with the outlining final stitching complete.

Next up, I might dabble in a pattern from this book.

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These creations might not be appropriate for family Christmas presents however.

One day, I hope I will be able to finish up the cross stitch my mum had only half finished when she passed away.

Finally, I’m putting it out there that I reckon cross stitch might become the new trendy thing for a while. Like how Sam and I went to a fish nibbling foot spa called Dr Fish in South Korea and then fish foot spas popped up all over the UK. Or how I loved pulled pork long before it was adopted on menus across the UK and even in South Africa. Cross stitch could be the next big thing, I’m telling you, so get your embroidery hoops out and embrace your inner granny or granddad.


Fish munching us at Dr Fish spa in Korea.

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Being a trendster (is that a word? I don’t know but now it is) eating pulled pork in Cape Town.


Defending the Defender

This is our landy called Mukiwa and it has more character than some people I have met. It’s kind of like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in that respect.

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The chosen one.

Landrover Defenders are iconic cars. In my mind, they epitomize adventure, Africa, wilderness, and being hardcore. When it rains, we get wet in the landy. When it’s cold out, we are cold inside and Noggs wears a blanket. When it gets hot, we open the air vents and hot air from outside blows on us. The battery is under the passenger seat so it’s a mission to get to with Nogg’s car seat on top. The landy is so loud that you can’t really talk to each other. But all these things just make landys better and more hardcore. Maybe it’s not the most comfortable vehicle, but it can go anywhere – well very almost. We’ve certainly had a few adventures of being well and truly stuck in the mud or in a ditch etc.

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In the Kalahari, filling up water bottles from the landy’s water tank and lazing in the hammock attach to the landy’s roofrack ladder.

There is a sense of comradery and friendship driving a landy. When you see another Defender, both drivers wave or flash their lights like old friends. The other day when I pulled over the car to let our toddler have a potty break, another Defender driver stopped to check if I was okay. This was very sweet but slightly awkward when I had to explain the reason why we were pulled over. Landy drivers are like that. They look out for each other. Sam and I compete to see who can spot the most landys a day on roadtrips.

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Mukiwa came to our wedding.

There is a jokey rivalry between Landrover and Toyota Landcruiser owners in South Africa. When I interviewed farmers for my PhD, my car was often a good icebreaker as the farmers got to crack out their favourite Landrover jokes when I arrived. This made asking them about the illegal killing of carnivores later on a bit easier.

Why do Land Rovers have jerry cans and gas bottles fitted?
So that the driver can make coffee while waiting for AA road assistance.

Land Rovers have the best fuel consumption of all 4x4s.
That’s because they are always being towed by other vehicles.

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Picture from my brown hyaena children’s book  Hyena Time of interviewing farmers.

If ever our car needed towing, it was often a Toyota that helped which gave the Toyota driver a sense of real smugness. The tables sometimes turned like when we towed a Toyota bakkie (pick up truck) out of the sand dunes in the Kalahari which meant we got to have our moment of being smug. When collaring a leopard for research, all the other 4 x 4 vehicles got stuck in the mud but the landy made it and the vet free darted the animal through our tiny back window.

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Rescuing a Toyota!

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Collaring O’Malley. Using the landy’s headlights to see.

I am quite miffed that Landrover stopped producing Defenders last year after 67 years of production. With new regulations on safety and emissions, the Defenders’ iconic and minimalist design is not built to meet them.

Landrovers are the cars that explored Africa. I feel like a lot of the great stories of wildlife conservation and adventure in remote places have a landy involved. One example is Mark and Delia Owen’s seminal brown hyaena and lion research in the Kalahari in the 1970s. You should definitely read their story – Cry of the Kalahari. I feel like by driving a landy (and doing conservation work and going on awesome road trips), we are part of this legacy of adventure and exploration. When I drive my landy, every trip feels like an adventure even if we’re just going to the supermarket and that’s a pretty good feeling. So long live the Landrover Defender (even though the are becoming a rarer breed) and boo to the Landcruisers!

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Camera trapping the crap out of our driveway

I love camera traps because they allow us to see wildlife that we would otherwise miss. We used them intensively for scientific research in and around the Soutpansberg Mountains. Several of the academic papers we have published or which are now in review present camera trap results. But I love just having one for fun to see what is mooching about outside our house. I was sad when I had to leave the camera traps that I got funded for my PhD research when we moved, but luckily I given one as a birthday present shortly after. It has been resident in our driveway for the past year. Here are some images showing the diversity of species in our backyard and the passing of time:

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Yellow billed hornbill

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Owly bird

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I can’t believe how little and fluffy Noggs looked less than a year ago

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Helmeted guinea fowl

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Large spotted genet

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Candid shot of us

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Blue wildebeest

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Slender mongoose

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Common duiker

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Orange is the new mango, and wandering elephants

In January I wrote about how abundant mangos are locally. Now it is winter and it’s oranges. The farms around us are brimming with oranges. I only realised recently that most of the citrus farms near us cultivate both crops on a large scale. Therefore, they seem to transition from mango season to orange season and back again.

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We are making the most of this time of plenty. We buy huge bags of oranges and make fresh orange juice. The juicer I received as a graduation present last month is constantly buzzing.

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There were elephants at our wildlife estate this week. They were in the river bed and then they ventured across the river to a local clinic at night where they knocked over stuff, as ginormous animals do. Apparently, they came from Balule Nature Reserve which part of Greater Kruger. It is impressive that they transversed the approximately 25 km without being bothered to much. Maybe they came for all the oranges. Or maybe they were here because they have such large spatial requirements and humans pen them into fenced areas. Or maybe it is because elephant poaching is on the increase in Kruger National Park at the moment. In Kruger National Park, two elephants were poached in 2014, 22 elephants in 2015, 46 elephants in 2016, and 30 elephants in the first six months of 2017 alone. Here’s a nice article with ideas about what you can do to help protect elephants.

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Eles in the riverbed on our estate – photo by Riaan

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Ele poo by the clinic – photo shared by MJ du Preez

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Ele damage at the clinic – photo shared by MJ du Preez

The eles are going to be darted and transported back to Greater Kruger. We loved knowing there were on our estate but it is safer for them in the national park where all efforts are being made to protect them, than amongst all the citrus farms. It makes me feel sad that elephants aren’t safe outside of national parks (or sometimes even inside). It also makes me think about what this part of Africa was like wildlife-wise before there were so many people. We are staying in Kruger National Park for a night next month. Maybe we will see the wandering eles back there.

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The view where we live. Imagining a time when eles filled this landscape and there were no fences.

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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.


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.