Always looking for animals

Sam, Katy, and Noggs in Africa

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Witchy witchy magicy magic

Africa is magical, really magical, and not in some sort of soppy metaphorical way. Witches are a common topic of conversation and if something goes wrong in your life it’s probably a witch who put a spell on you, I mean why else would you get AIDS? You have to be careful because anyone could be a witch. If someone in a traditional community is doing really well financially, it’s probably not because they worked hard, it’s because they’re a witch and made it happen using spells.

People believe this stuff and during my PhD interviews I’ve been finding out more about traditional beliefs.

In our local newspaper the other week, this article was printed…


To summarise: at a restaurant in our local town, Louis Trichardt (aka Makhado) some diners were having a meal and someone pulled a human arm out of the freezer and started waving it around. Apparently a woman was murdered for her body parts because African magic dictates that if you keep human limbs on your business premises then your business will do well. The man who waved the arm helped with the murder and felt that the restaurant owner didn’t give him his fair payment for helping and got angry hence the arm waving. Although you probably can’t read the small text of the article, there is a quote from the President of the South African Council of Traditional Healers who recommends that if you want to attract more customers to your business you should advertise more rather than killing innocent people. Sound advice I think! It makes me wonder how many of the restaurants and shops we visit have human arms in the backroom…

Traditional healers are often consulted for help if people are feeling sick or want to win the lottery or want a bigger penis or want to avenge a cheating lover, etc. Whatever your problem is, don’t worry you can always go to see the traditional healer or sangoma! They are able to speak to the spirits and mix together animal and plant parts to find a cure for your ailment.

I recently visited a traditional healer for my PhD. I wanted to find out how they use hyaena parts in their medicines. It was very interesting. Traditional healers can also predict the future by throwing bones of powerful animals. I had the sangoma do this for me while I was there. She told me all about my sister (I don’t have one). She also told me that my father’s mother was dead. When I told her this wasn’t true, she wisely amended it to my father’s grandmother. I also found out that I should stay in the job I have because the spirits have given it to me especially (via Russell I guess) and that it will make me very rich. If I get rich in conservation biology, that’ll be a first!!

People in Africa are also very afraid of Tokoloshes. A Tokolosh is a small demon that can bewitch you. They take many forms and are especially active at night. When we were in Zimbabwe some of our adult male friends were afraid to walk at night because they might bump into one.

But again don’t worry – There’s a solution. You can buy Tokoloshe salts from the pharmacy here which you can sprinkle around your house and off your roof to protect your premises. They come in lots of pretty colours too. Sam bought me some as a present.


In order to activate the protective powers of the Tokoloshe salts you have to mix the crystals in water.


And then you walk around the house (or tent in our case) sprinkling the magical purple water.


We have quite a few mice in our house who are probably tokoloshes in mice form and this will definitely sort that problem out.


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Pie of pies and other news

So it’s April and it’s ‘autumn’ in Africa. We have put a second blanket on our bed reluctantly and we are starting to prepare for Earthwatch season.

At the end of March we housesat / dogsat for Oldrich and Judy. We had access to an oven and made the BEST MEAT PIE EVER!!! It was awesome and most certainly blog worthy. I think pieminister could be put our of business by this pie of pies. It was a steak and ale and blue cheese pie with ingredients imbued with extra strength powers of deliciousness.




For Easter we decided to organise a big sit down Sunday lunch for everyone at Lajuma. We had roast chicken, roast tatties, veg, stuffing, etc. Twas very nice. We sat in the garden outside the barn and imagined fluffy Easter chicks running about and little bunnies nibbling on carrots by our toes. In reality we had Gunter the St Bernard slobbering on people and samango monkeys calling from the trees.






Okay so enough about food. Let’s talk about one of our other favourite things, animals. The project hosted a famous wildlife photographer called Benny Rebel recently. He came to Lajuma to take photos of our project which will be used to promote our work. Sam and I had the taxing obligation of picking him up from near Kruger Park so we had to drive through Kruger. Oh pains of pains!! Ha just kidding, it was awesome, as always.

We saw lots of Sharpe’s grysbok which is this cunning looking little antelope.




In the road we saw these mechanical looking bugs and a leopard tortoise.




Saw lots of elephants, zebras, giraffes and buffalos (or the big hairies as Oldrich likes to call these sorts of animals!)




We saw hippos and crocs in the river.




Waterbuck just chilling.




And the best thing we saw (but with the worst pictures, sorry the grass was in the way and we couldn’t really get out and move it!) was a baby spotted hyaena suckling from its mum. It’s little tongue kept popping out and you could see it licking away.




So although it was a quick in and out trip to Kruger, it was still great. We heard lions roaring in the night which is amazing. I’m already dreaming of going back again. Anyone fancy a trip with me??

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It was supposed to be so easy

When I think about Chomma and Betton, the two hyaenas we collared almost two months ago, a song by the Streets called ‘It was supposed to be so easy’ comes to mind. With leopards and baboons, the hardest part of using GPS collars to collect data has been to catch the animals in the first place. Once the collars were on, it’s been fairly easy to download the data. Brown hyaenas, on the other hand, are a different story…

This is not the first time since working in wildlife conservation and academia that things have been more challenging than imagined. A few things that I learnt over the years include:

1) Cheetahs are not easy to catch even if you dress up like one.


2) It is almost impossible for me to do statistics without crying.

3) Getting the paperwork to do research in Africa approved is tricky and time consuming, and makes one become good at hoop jumping.

Since Chomma and Betton were collared neither individual has been photographed on any of our 48 camera traps despite being caught at a central point within our 60 km2 camera trapping grid. I set out another camera trap at the spot the animals were caught in case they pass by again. So far I’ve photographed baboons, civets, genets and people but no hyaenas.

Noeks and I have been trying to find a signal from the hyaena collars a number of times. We haven’t heard a single blip on the VHF radio tracking receiver (other than the blips we hear in our heads because we so desperately want to hear something that we are starting to imagine it) and we haven’t managed to get any UHF communication from the collars despite covering a lot of ground by driving across properties on the mountain at night.

I decided that rather than always chasing around after hyaenas I will let them come to me. I set up a camp on Mount Lajuma in the hopes that the animals will pass by either side of the mountain and I’ll pick up a signal.

Here’s my tent at the saddle of the mountain. The tent has only been up there for about 4 nights now and mice have already chewed a small hole in one side and the wind already blew the rain cover off and left it exposed for water to come in. So it’s not such a great long term plan but I’m going to stick with it for a bit longer.



I climb the mountain at about 18:00, which is when the UHF receiver becomes active. Every half an hour until midnight I listen for the hyaenas with the radio tracking equipment and use the UHF receiver. So far not a thing has happened. The most exciting thing was on my first night when I went out for the 23:30 check and an unidentified but fairly large animal just outside the tent got scared off by me coming out.

This is the inside of my tent and all the essential gear needed to survive a night on the mountain. As I slept in my wet sleeping bag last night on the top of a mountain I could certainly sympathise with Frodo’s equally challenging quest.


Here’s the view as dawn broke this morning at the top of the mountain. Not too shabby.


So the plan at the moment is to just keep camping and keep hoping that the hyaenas will pass by. 

A local newspaper is publishing an article this week which talks about my PhD research and asks landowners with camera traps on their land to get in touch if they take a photo of a collared brown hyaena. I have also organised for a microlight flight in a few months time to help me search for the hyaenas. But basically despite the hyaenas seemingly ‘laughing’ at me, I’ll keep trying! It was supposed to be so easy.

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Japanuary Episode VI: General Greatness. Or, Random Stuff That Didn’t Fit Into The Other Blog Posts.

Japan had lots of cool shit to do, and we only had time to try out the tip of the greatness iceberg. In no particular order, here’s some of it.

We got around.

I’m not a big fan of karaoke in England. The only thing worse than listening to tuneless pikeys wailing on stage is being peer pressured to go up there to inflict my shitness upon a room full of people. But even karaoke is better in Japan. Rather than pub-wide karaoke crapness, Japan limits the damage to single private room. You can fit about 10 people in. Ten people you know. Which is reason 1 why it sucks less arse. Reason two is that they deliver jugs of beer. Which makes everything better. And people do karaoke different there. Apparently if you want to impress a girl you take her out for karaoke. And people seem to do karaoke all the time, not just once every 10 years when people make them, ahem. And as a result they all sing like pros. Making you sound all the more shit. Never mind. Legally, they can’t let you leave Japan until you have embarassed yourself in a karaoke booth. Fact.

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OK. I’ve talked about high tech japan. But what about old school? We saw a few sumo wrestlers in Japan and it always made me smile. If I saw a super fat bloke in Blighty it wouldn’t necessarily fill me with joy, but if he is in a kimono it rocks. I don’t make the rules. I don’t know how sumo wrestlers talk but here is what I imagine they sound like:

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Gangsta sumo taking up 3 seats at the train station: “Checkin’ ma sumo phone waiting fo’ ma train to ma sumo home. Oi! Are you looking up my skirt?

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Socialite sumo sumoin’ round town: “Oh my god, my kimono is, like, so in right now

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Northern sumo having dinner at Maccy D’s: “I fucking love Happy Meals, me

Kyoto. We arrived on the bullet train and wandered round looking for temples, bamboo and geishas. Hint: temples are a lot easier to photograph than geishas.

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Bullet train!

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Not geishas. Just old ladies dressed up all fancy.

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It’s so…shiny!

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We may not have found that many geishas but we did find this cool hat.

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Saw Mount Fuji; was nice.

Reason #6725 why Japan is ace. Everyone reads manga. Even grown ups. Even old people. Even hobos.

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“It’s not a cartoon, it’s anime”

We went to the museum of Studio Ghibli, and anime studio. They don’t let you take pictures but we snuck a few.

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Obey the robots. In South Africa we call traffic lights robots. Don’t ask me why, other than cos its cool. Who can say no to “Turn left at the robots”? No one. I always imagine an army of giant robots instead of boring traffic lights when someone says that to me. Anyway. In Blighty there are robots [traffic lights] to help you cross the road. But even if you’ve got red man, people still cross if it’s safe. Not so japstylee. Even if there are no cars in sight those mofos wait for the green man. Our friends in Tokyo told us that they warn foreigners about crossing on a red man, as Japanese people may see you crossing and assume it’s a green man, so just absent-mindedly wander out into the road and get mown down. Its a tiny detail but it’s something that strikes you when you are in a hurry and there are no cars but everyone is just stood there like japanese lemons waiting for the oficial go-ahead to cross the street.

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We tried our damndest to see some Japanese cosplay. Apparenltly it was too cold for cosplay when we visited the cosplay hotspots. This would never happen in Newcastle. Maybe Japan just isn’t quite northern enough? Anyway, we did spot some interesting fashions:

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Everything was cute. Even buses. Can you imagine this rocking up to take you to work in the morning? “Sorry im late, I was too embarrassed to get on the bus cos it was made of a giant cute panda.”

And instead of chavs that pimp out their novas, in Japan they go one step further and slap on pictures of cute manga girls. Im not sure that would go down too well on the estate.

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OK, I think that about wraps it up. Thanks so much to our friends and family who contributed to our honeymoon, and to our friends Greg, Steve, Sheila, Chica, DJ and Taka for showing us a good time in Tokyo and trying to explain what the hell was going on.

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May the world have more bowing.



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Japanuary Episode V: Northern monkeys!

So, we slept in love hotels, befriended robots, and had maids serve us cute food. But you can do this stuff any time in Japan. Why go in winter? Isn’t it obvious? So that we could walk out into the snow, jump into a hot geothermal spring, and, you know, bathe butt naked with snow monkeys. Why? Well, everyone knows that monkeys are ace. But for centuries mankind has wrestled with an age-old question. What could possibly be batter than normal monkeys? I’ll tell you. Northern monkeys! The most northern moneys in the world, to be precise. In the snow!

Everyone who has ever had the privilege of visiting northern Britain knows that northerness is next to godliness. There’s a reason maps have north arrows. The north is simply better in every way. So it stands to reason that northern monkeys would be the archetype of monkey awesomeness.

So off we went on our pilgrimage, which took us to the Japanese alps. After hiking up the snowy mountain to our Ryokan we got naked and headed for the outdoor hot springs. I dont know why, but the rule in Japan is that you have to be naked in the springs. Pervs. Their rule, not mine, honest. Anyway, the monkeys didn’t seem to mind being naked in there with us in the ryokan spring.

The next day we went to look for the monkeys on their home turf in a park where only monkeys are allowed in the hot springs. I’ll stop blabbing and let the pictures do the talking.


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As well as snow monkeying we also went to Hokkaido island, where we went skiing in Furano. I managed not to die. 

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We also visited Sopporo snow festival to drink at ice bars and see snow and ice sculptures.

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Japanuary Episode IV: Places to eat

Its dinner time in Akihabara. You are a Japanese nerd, and you are tired and hungry after spending all morning checking out the latest graphics cards, buying video games, reading manga, and oggling at figures of sexy anime characters. You have had a pretty sweet morning, but your day week life is about to peak. You are going to a maid cafe.

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When you enter a maid cafe you leave all sanity at the door. We went to Maidreamin, where our hostess escorted us into a suspiciously ordinary-looking lift. “This is not a lift,” she assured us, “it’s a dreamjet!” Oh boy. We arrive in the maid cafe, and are greeted by the rest of the staff, all dressed in maid outfits, and we are asked to complete some paperwork so that we can be issued with passports to enter their world. Seriously.


To attract the attention of a maid to order your food you have to move your paws and shout “Nooo nooo nooo nooo” like a kitten. They deliver our cake, decorated with a cute picture of a bear. Do we want to buy glowsticks? A maid is about to get up on stage and do a song & dance! All the maids and customers do a special spell to make the food extra delicious. I would love to have more pictures to show you but they have a strict policy of no photography of the maids (unless you pay). And of course no touching of the maids. Which makes it feel a lot like a strip club, except instead of typical male fantasies they seem to be catering to little girl fantasies. Sexy is replaced by cute. Sickeningly cute. But look around, and you will see that the clientele are not little girls. This is the fantasy of grown men. Some of them are really/mental creepy ones, and we had to debate whether they were actually special or not. Hanging with the maids was amazing in every kind of way, but the star attraction was watching the sex-offender-lookalike clientele dancing with glow sticks. I’m waiting for them to open a branch in Louis Trichardt. I’ll be there every Monday, at least until the men take me away in a white van.

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Reason why Japan is ace #4325: signs like this are necessary. Taken on the escalator in Akihabara train station.

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Sometimes you don’t need food, you just want to sit down for a bit and have a nice drink. And, you know, play with lots and lots of cats. You need a cat cafe! It’s Starbucks for crazy cat ladies.

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Stroking pussies not your thing? How about Ninja Restaurant? And Labyrinth. Don’t forget the labyrinth. It was a bit pricy so we just ninjad our way in & back out of the foyer without being detected, but if you ask me more restaurants should be staffed by ninjas and have in-house labyrinths.

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Ninjas also brought us to Gonpachi. Sort of. My favourite scene in Kill Bill was inspired by this place. This is the IRL house of blue leaves – Quentin Tarantino based it on this place. I kept waiting for the 5,6,7,8s to strike up as O-Ren Ishii and her posse came marching through the doors. Sadly the The Bride didn’t pop in and single handedly slay the entire Crazy 88 with her Hanzo sword as I munched my wasabi duck teriyaki. We must have come on the wrong day.

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Next up: Northern Monkeys!

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Japanuary Episode III: Food

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Food. Where do I start? I dare thee to try and find bad food in Japan. We tried. God knows we tried. Here are some pictures of our failures.

Sushi. Blah blah raw fish blah blah. Eat it and you will change you tune. It’s like walking up to mother nature and ripping a chunk of flesh out of her calf. Pure, unadulterated briliance. We ate this a lot.

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Seafood. If it swims you can probably eat it here. Check out this octopus witha qual egg stuffed in its head. Cos, why not?

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I have no idea what the hell these things are, some kind of delicious steamed bun. We ate these prety much every day from Sebun Erebun.

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What kind of restaurants make you cook your own food? Great ones! Drinking steins of beer and cooking a “Ghengis Khan” barbecue at the Sapporo Bier Garten, and cooking at the Ryokan.

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Rice burger. No the meat is still meat but the rice is the bread. Delicious, if not a bit fally-aparty.

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Bento boxes. Dinner on the go. Makes sarnies looks a bit rubbish.

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Gyoza. These little fuckers are so tasty that we went on a cooking course to learn how to make them at home.

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Think cheese and you dont immediately think Japan. Maybe this cuttlefish ink brie is why.


This is the what to eat, but what about the where? I’m glad you asked…