Always looking for animals

Sam, Katy, and Noggs in Africa


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Krugertron

Living on Lajuma is pretty great but there aren’t that many animals that could kill you. There are a few…leopards (only if they are feeling ambitious), snakes (puff adders, black mambas, cobras, etc), scorpions (if you’re dumb enough to turn over rocks and stick your head in holes), but all in all it’s pretty safe.

Kruger National Park, on the other hand, has lots of animals that could bite you, trample you, chase you and poison you. And consequently, we can’t seem to stay away.

The other weekend I headed to Kruger with friends Greg and Kyle. We had a few hours before meeting Sam off the bus in Hoedspruit so we went into Blyde River Canyon. Blyde River means River of Happiness which is pretty nice. It was beautiful there and to me it looked a bit like the American west coast rather than Africa.

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We took a short walk out to a waterfall which entailed crossing an Indiana Jones style bridge. Only once we had risked life and limb to cross the bridge did we realise that this was the old path and that a newer, safer way existed.

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There was an amazing old log by the waterfall which seemed to have faces in the wood with exposed roots snarled around a giant rock.

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We met Sam but his bus was running late and we missed the park gate entrance time. We had to pay a fine and be escorted to our first camp like naughty children. Next morning at sunrise we went our first game drive and saw buffalos and waterbuck. The buffalo had super shiny horns. It was pretty nippy so Greg wrapped up in blankets hobo-style for the drive.

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The camps we stayed at were nice. We heard lions roaring at night at Satara and rode a fig tree at Pretoriouskop.

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I felt very safariy in my Afrikaans shirt! Greg also looked quite safariy looking for animals on the top of the landy in his Springboks jersey.

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So here is a smattering of the birds, mammals and reptiles we saw…

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Crocodiles!!

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Fish eagles

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Impalas that kept pretending they were about to rut and then didn’t!

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Haubles of elephants.

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A kudu bull with lots and lots of oxpeckers on it.

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Sleeping lions!

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White rhino while on a night drive.

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Wildebeest and vultures. We saw vultures eating on a kill as well which was pretty awesome.

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A secretary bird.

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Lazy baby giraffes.

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Zebras

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Sun-burnt hippos and more elephants.

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Spotted hyaena both at night and in the day.

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The lilac-breasted roller or the magic bird as Marion, our Research Assistant, calls them because of their colours.

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Finally here’s the view of the Oliphants River.

It was a nice wee trip to Kruger. We didn’t get eaten this time.


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England and leopards

On June 6th I had my PhD progression viva. This is essentially an oral exam based on the assessment of a report I submitted outlining the relevant literature, aims and methods for my PhD.

Sam and I went back to the UK at the very end of May for this. We drove down to the airport and stopped at Sterkfontain (also known as the Cradle of Humankind). Scientists discovered some of the most important hominine skeletons of all time there such as Little Foot and Mrs Ples. Basically there is this cave network underground and there are slits in the earth’s surface and ancient people were doing their thing, running from giant hyaenas etc and sometimes fell down the holes and couldn’t get out. They would die down there and then millions of years later they were found.

Sam and I went to see the actual Mrs Ples skull at the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria. This is us with Mrs Ples and Dr Francis Thackery, an important paleo-anthropologist who did a lot of the dating work on the skeletons found at Sterkfontain. Somehow I managed to take the worst photo ever. I look horsey and scared all at the same time. This photo also is reminder not to cut your own fringe with a Swiss Army knife.

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Sam has pictures from our visit to Sterkfontain and I hope he’ll share them on the blog later.

We flew back to the UK and I was there for 1.5 weeks. Sam stayed longer so he can spend time with his family.

In my flying visit we went and visited Sam’s dad in Yorkshire.

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Sam is enjoying being back in the land of real ale.

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We went to London for two nights and visited old friends, Tom and Sally. Here is us drinking on a street corner in London. Now I think about it booze did feature quite a lot during my quick trip to the UK.

 

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I had awesome weather in England. Apparently summer arrived the day we arrived and I think left again when I did!

My viva went very well and I passed with no corrections. Thank goodness they didn’t tick the last box on the sheet.

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Since I got back to Lajuma things have been hectic!! I opened leopard and hyaena traps the next day.

Noeks, Marion and I baited the traps with cow lungs which were still warm because the cow had been killed that day.

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I checked traps the first night with Gregoire. We didn’t catch anything but we did see bush pig on the road. Later this week while trying to track collared leopards on the quad bike I saw a family of three bush pigs on the road at the bottom of the mountain.

However on the second night of trapping we caught BB, a young male leopard that Sam and I first saw as a cub on the camera traps in October 2011 when he was only about 6 months old.

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We collared BB and here’s Adrian checking the collar is on securely! You have be sure.

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Here I am with BB.

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We put BB in a recovery crate until he was ready to be released. I like this picture because it looks like Oldrich is making BB sniff his finger.

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Also this week we’ve had a few parties and braais which have been good.

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My dad sent me a book of campfire recipes and activities. I was reading it while waiting for guests to arrive at my braai the other night. One of the jokes in the books was ‘Why did the moon stop eating?’ Answer ‘Because it was full’. It made me laugh.

Yesterday I went to a trophy hunting farm to do an interview and try to track my collared hyaenas. I learned a lot about the process of trophy hunting and it was really interesting. Here’s a hide they use to shoot leopards from. I was standing at the baiting station so that’s how far the shot is.

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Sadly on the way home yesterday we witnessed an almost certainly fatal car accident and as witnesses, we waited till the police came to try and give a statement. The response time was so slow, about half an hour, and even when help did arrive there was no urgency or order. It made me appreciate the emergency services in the UK and also made me realise that when driving in South Africa I always need to drive the speed limit and be cautious because if something happens I might not get the help I need in time. Very very sad all around.

So June’s been pretty eventful. Sam’s back later this week (yay!!!) and we’re going to Kruger National Park for three nights on the weekend. I canny wait.    


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Kids, Camera trapping and community

For my PhD research I have met people from lots of communities in and around the Soutpansberg Mountains. Just over a month ago I went to a Sepedi community called Indermark which is at the base of  the neighbouring Blouberg Mountain.

The Lajuma Research Centre has a long connection with this community through the work of Lajuma owner, Retha Gaigher, who was devoted to supporting the crèche. Since Retha passed away in November 2012, her husband, Ian Gaigher, has continued to support the crèche. However there has been very little face to face engagement from Lajuma researchers over the past few years.

I met with Fredericka who manages the crèche and she helped me to connect with farmers and traditional healers for my PhD interviews. Although I spent much of the day out in the community, the glimpse I had of the crèche impressed and inspired me. I asked Fredericka if I could bring some of our research assistants to visit and whether we could lead some environmental education about the animals we study with the small children. She accepted gladly.

Upon arrival, myself and four PPP research assistants were mobbed by smiling faces.

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We created three laminated posters with photographs of animals from our camera traps to hang on the walls of the crèche. We made a predator themed poster, a prey themed poster and an animal alphabet poster. These were also shared at the landowners’ braai days before. We did a presentation to the children where we talked about the animals. Fredericka helped to translate what we were saying into Pedi.

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Although the crèche is in close proximity to the Blouberg Mountain where animals like leopards, hyaenas, impala and baboons live, the children of the community have very little exposure to them. We hope that by seeing the photos on their wall they will learn more about the biodiversity of the area and become more aware of the wildlife. Below is the view of the mountain from the crèche’s vegetable garden.

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In order to teach the children how the photos on the poster were taken we set up two camera traps in the playground and let the kids run around in front of them. We then showed them the photos on a computer.

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To finish the day off we played a running around game with the kids and did animal face painting.

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The research assistants didn’t want to miss out on getting their faces painted too. Here’s Marion the leopard.

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Below is the PPP researchers with the crèche staff and children in a ‘Where’s Wally?’ style photo.

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As well as hopefully helping the children gain a more positive and informed view of wildlife, I think the assistants learned a lot about life off the mountain and I think Retha would have been pleased that the engagement she campaigned so hard for has continued through the Primate and Predator Project.