Always looking for animals

Sam, Katy, and Noggs in Africa


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Gene-gle Bells

In case you are wondering what to buy someone for Christmas, I have a sciency suggestion. Last year my father-in-law (or bab-in-law as I should call him) bought Sam and I a DNA test each from ancestry.com. My initial reaction was – cool sciencey gift that involves bodily fluid and posting it to a lab, sounds fun. I was excited so we posted our vials of spit off and waited. As scientists, we have posted vials of monkey poo across the world so spit felt relatively tame and required a lot less paperwork.

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After awhile we received our results and found out where in the world our ancestors came from. There was a snazzy map and the results was interesting but not too surprising – no hidden Japanese ninja ancestry sadly. I thought that was it for my present. But it wasn’t. The DNA test also reveals how you are related to other people who have also taken a DNA test. I ended up being contacted by someone who I didn’t even know I was related to and helping them to determine who their biological parents were through sleuth work, DNA connections, and genealogical information gathered by my parents. Being part of this person’s journey to figure out where they came from was an amazing experience and was one my highlights of 2017. It also helped me to learn more about my family tree and become more interested in genealogy. So spitting in a tube is my present suggestion for 2017. Go science and Santa.

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Our spiky acacia Christmas tree in Zimbabwe

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We got inked

While living abroad, it feels like we spend a lot of our time convincing the authorities that we are not hardened criminals. Every time we apply for a visa we have to go to the police station and provide our fingerprints so that they can check that we are not tsotsis, which is what we did today.

Katy gets inked

Going to a South African police station tends to be fairly low tech experience. No computers or high tech fingerprint scanners are necessary for our police clearance application, all that is required is a form and an old-school ink pad. Which can be quite fun, if not a bit messy.

Not a crim

Unfortunately this system also has its drawbacks. The payment system was down today, so we have to come back again next week. And when the check is complete, the certificate often gets lost in the post, so you may have to go and start all over again. This process took 6 months for our friend. There’s no hurry in Africa.

Applying for proof that I am no crim

Applying for visas isn’t the only time we have to get our ink on. To our surprise, we found out first hand (ahem) that when foreigners get married in South Africa they also need to provide their fingerprints. It was so romantic.

Getting married or getting sent to jail? 

The South African police is not the only police service to whom weed to prove our innocence. For each visa application was also need to provide police clearance from the UK, although this is a less hands-on process that can be done online. The South African High Commission also once made Katy get clearance from the CIA because when she was a child she lived in the US for a few years. They found no evidence of her childhood criminality. The young criminal mastermind must have covered her tracks well.


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Termighty mounds

The first time I saw termite mounds, we were on a road trip in the Northern Territory in Australia in 2006. We stopped our van so we could investigate through licking and riding them, as you do.

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South Africa has a lot of termite mounds. I see so many termite mounds that I don’t really see them anymore. But, I stopped to look again the other day and they are pretty damn impressive structures.

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As tall as a tree – a termite mound where we live.

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Trees and bushes grow out of termite mounds surprisingly successfully.

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A termite mound with a fence passing through the centre of it.

Advanced termite species build complex underground nests with large ventilation mounds that can be as high as 4 m tall. These are the termite mounds that litter our landscape. The outer walls are as hard as concrete but the inner walls are much softer and are honeycombed with a network of chambers and tunnels.

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Termites are extremely social animal and they live in large colonies like ants. A queen and a king rule the colony. There is a caste system and most termites are workers or soldiers. Workers and soldiers are wingless. However, some termites are swarmers who possess wings. They fly up from the nests in large swarms, often after the rains. Most die but some are successful in finding a new place to start another colony. Animals like baboons and samango monkeys flock to the mounds when the swarmers emerge, catching them mid-air and stuffing them into their mouths as fast as they can.

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When we lived at Lajuma, we had a fairly worrying termite infestation in our tent. These were a more primitive species of termites that make simple nests in the wood in which they feed from. They were busy munching away at the structural poles, books, a wooden picture of a lion, and anything else they could find. One day that tent will just crumble to the ground as the poles give out. Back to the bush. Small but mighty.

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Posing by a termite mound and feeling happy that termites are no longer threatening to munch our home down. By the way, I had to use my nose to take this photo. The things you do when blogging.


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You, me, the sea, and all our plastic waste

My family leads a very un-aquatic life. In the South African bush, water is scarce. There are no jellyfish and puddles dry up almost instantly in the hot sun. Our two year old son loves the beach but it is a rare occasion that we get to go. We have a pile of building sand next to our driveway that was left by workers after a water pipe leaked. We also have small shell shaped paddling pool with a crack down the side. This is our ‘beach’.

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Sam’s tattoo is the only sea creature nearby.

So why is a landlubber like me writing about the sea?

I naïvely used to think that the sea was mostly safe from substantial human impact. Humans live on land and the oceans are so deep and ridiculously ginormous. Even if we spill some oil here and there and drop a bit of rubbish, I used to think that the there was so much water that it would dilute the overall impact like very weak orange squash. A drop in the ocean. The sea is too big for us to muck up too much and besides, the tide renews daily leaving pristine sand. I used to think that at least there is somewhere left on this planet where the animals can live without too much anthropogenic interference. Maybe this is one reason why I didn’t pursue marine biology. I wanted to help save the planet and I thought that the sea was doing a bit better overall. Also, the sea is a bit scary. To me, the sea is kind of like space – massive and dark and unpredictable. I feel safer on land, safer making a difference in an environment I can relate to.

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The beach in Bali.

Over the years, I realised that sadly I was completely wrong about the sea and our impact. We have mucked up the oceans too, big time. We are overfishing at a ridiculous rate – 89% of the world’s commercial fish stocks are overfished.The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a continent sized vortex of concentrated plastic waste floating in the Pacific. Although it is hard to gauge the size of the vortex, it is estimated to be about twice the size of Texas. The heart of the garbage patch is thought to be around 1m sq km (386,000 sq miles), with the periphery spanning a further 3.5m sq km (1,351,000 sq miles). That’s f***ing crazy. That f***ing disgusting. When the currents push some of the garbage patch’s waste towards a coastline, it coats the shore with thick debris. Remote uninhabited islands covered in trash. Henderson Island is about the most remote place you can visit without leaving the planet – no one lives there, it should be pristine, but it is covered in 17,000 kilograms of trash. Sea birds and fish eat our trash and die by the millions. Images of stomach contents of dead animals filled with our waste makes me feel revolted. A recent study found that nearly 90% of seabirds have plastic in their guts because they mistake it for fish or eggs.

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My friend who is working in the remote Galapagos Islands shared this picture and the following message:

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A somber sight amongst the natural beauty of the Galapagos. Tiny pieces of colourful plastic collect along the shoreline amid the natural mangrove detritus. If plastic pollution is present in a place like the Galapagos, imagine the extent of it closer to more densely populated areas. All the more reason to REFUSE to use plastic wherever you can. And then Reduce Reuse and Recycle it when you can’t. Every bit of plastic you refuse to use helps. It may feel like your effort is a drop in the ocean, but what is an ocean but a multitude of drops? – Photo and text by Sophie Tuppen in Santa Cruz, Galapagos, Ecuador, October 2017.

Imagine what Charles Darwin would have thought rocking up in the Galapagos and seeing all this rubbish.

The ocean is not only vital for the entire planet’s health and survival but it is also symbolic for me. If the ocean’s vastness and relative remoteness from people can’t be kept clean, what does that say about our species and the future of our planet?

But here’s the good news and we really need good news. Things are changing. I like that there are ideas about launching a vast rubber boom called Boomy McBoomface to collate some of the at least 244,000 tonnes of plastic floating in the oceans and to recycle it. At least people are thinking about the problems and reacting, rather than ignoring. I love that countries, cities, businesses, and individuals are banning plastic bags, plastic straws, and single use cutlery. Kenya recently imposed the world’s toughest plastic bag ban with punishments of up to four years in jail or $40,000. Seattle is banning all plastic straws and utensils in restaurants next year.

We could learn something about reusing from Zimbabwe. When we lived in Zimbabwe, it was somewhat like living in a bygone time period. In 2007 if you could find any food to buy in the shops, the chocolate looked like this. Old school.

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You couldn’t buy single use plastic bottles or cans ten years ago (this has changed now by the way). Instead, we bought all our cool drinks or beers in retro looking slightly dented glass bottles. When we finished our drinks, we returned our empties to the shop to exchange for more. The empties were sterilised and refilled. The same bottles were used again and again by different people at different parties. The stories they could tell. It makes sense. The world should have stayed in a Zimbo style time warp with this trend. We should bring this back everywhere.

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Emptying our reusable beer bottles with friends in Zim.

The point of this post is that, even if you are like me and are not particularly connected to the sea, our rubbish and our actions are. I would like to live in a world where you could do all your shopping plastic free. In London, there is a plastic free supermarket. Toy libraries are coming back into fashion. This is a place where families can borrow good quality toys, rather than filling their homes with piles of stuff that kids grow quickly out of. I’ve also heard about clothes libraries for kids and adult clothes too. I want this to be the future. It is time to be like Zimbabwe (that’s a phrase you don’t hear very often) circa 2007 and reuse your bottles. Refuse straws. Carry refillable water bottles. It is time to buy less crap, make less waste, and be less naïve. It’s the only way for our planet to stay afloat.

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There is even rubbish in the illustrations of Noggs’ Tiddler story book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.


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Tough as a honey bastard

Sam and I are definitely predator people. The more badass the predator, the better. And there is nothing tougher than a honey badger or honey bastard as Sam accidentally said in his presentation at the recent SAWMA conference. Here’s an article about why they are so tough.

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A honey badger we watched in the Kgalagadi National Park.

We don’t have a lot of predators living at our house. We photograph mongoose and genet on our camera trap and there are leopard occasionally on the wildlife estate, although we haven’t seen one. The other day when I checked the camera trap in our driveway, we had photographed a honey badger carrying a snake egg in his mouth, which was pretty exciting and well-hard, especially since most of the snakes around here are not to be messed with.

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Finding these pictures solved the mystery of who had been digging holes in the nearby mound of dirt with snake egg shells by the entrance. We hope the honey badger will be a regular on our camera traps and we don’t mind if he munches some snake eggs or even snakes nearby. What a badass.

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We try to share all aspects of life in the bush with Noggs and explain everything we see. We let him look up close and get hands on with anything safe to touch. He has pretty good understanding of nature. He knows that spiders spin webs to catch insects and that giraffes eat leaves and that the bird that makes a loud honking noise at dusk is a hadada ibis.

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Checking out the hole. There were still yolks in the shells!

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Watching a zebra in the bush.


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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!