Always looking for animals

Sam, Katy, and Noggs in Africa


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The adventures of an intrepid social scientist

One of the very best thing about my PhD is meeting the people who live in and around the Soutpansberg Mountains. Everyone is fascinating and different and has a story to tell us. So far my assistant Noeks and I have conducted just over 40 interviews. We’ve got a lot more to go (I’m aiming for about 200 in total!).

Every time Noeks and I go out to do interviews we don’t really know who we’re going to meet, what we’re going to find out or what is going to happen. We’ve ended up in graveyards, at funerals, on the top of mountains, being yelled at, being given free lunches, hearing legends about black leopards, exploring nature reserves, being attacked by jack russells, at wimpy’s burger restaurant, at a salt mine, having our fortunes told by sangomas and being offered helicopter rides.  

We are gaining a huge amount of information about how people live with predators in the area; how they think about them, how they use them, how they feel about them. One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot people like to make animal noises for us during their interview. Most of the people we interview are adult males since they are the landowners or managers. When they tell us about hyaenas or leopards or birds or monkeys, they like to mimic the calls of the animals while they tell us a story. When I’m listening back over the recordings and doing transcriptions Sam will often hear me chuckling to myself as I encounter a grown man pretending to be a hyaena.

I wish I could photograph every person I interview and make a collage of them all but I feel that might be a bit invasive since the interviews are anonymised but I have collected together a few images of things and places I have encountered along the interview adventure so far.

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Checking out fresh fresh leopard tracks on a farm we visited.

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Collecting hair from a roadkill aardvark for scat analysis on the way home from interviews.

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Visiting one of the first settlements by white voertrekkers near the Soutpansberg, Schomandaal. This is the cemetery where General Potgeiter was buried.

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This is where the town of Schomandaal used to be in the early 1800s.

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Driving along the railway tracks near Kutama.

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Meeting one of my interviewee’s pet meerkat!

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A bottle store called Wolwekraal or wolf’s kraal. Some Afrikaans people called hyaenas wolves. We were referred to as ‘die wolwemense’ (the wolf people) at one interview.

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A view of Kutama.

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A great sign at one interviewee’s place.

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Calling all hyaenas

It’s been about five months since we collared the first brown hyaena and we still hadn’t downloaded from either of the two collared hyaenas.

We have driven around in the dark for hours trying to download, stayed on several neighbouring properties to look for them, and camped out on the top of mountains in tents. Time for a new approach… mountain and Muhammad style! If we can’t go to the hyaenas, then the hyaenas must come to us.

I spoke to the Project Phiri in South Africa’s North West Province who use call ins with brown hyaenas and I read a number of papers on how to call predators in for density surveys.

Then last Saturday night Noeks, Leanne and I headed off into the mountains to try calling the collared hyaenas and leopards in to us.

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Noeks setting up the speaker.

We played the sound of dying rabbit for three minutes, waited five minutes and then turned the speaker 90 degrees.

The sound of dying rabbit at full blast is not pretty. The rabbit does not just yelp and keel over; it whines and yells and shrieks for a full quarter of an hour before even considering giving in. If you would like a wee taste what we spent hours listening to, click here.

We also listened to the cutely named (but not cute sounding) cottontail rabbit’s death call as well. 

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The CD player.

In between calls and for twenty minutes after the four calling sessions we used spotlights to look for animals, listened for collared animals using the VHF receiver and tried downloading with the UHF receiver.

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Every time we got out the vehicle to turn the speakers we cautiously checked about for animals since the CD we used for our calls aptly warned us that ‘PREDATORS CAN AND DO ATTACK!’ .

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However on Saturday and Sunday nights when we tried call ins we had no response from anything. This didn’t stop us from getting spooked though! Especially on Sunday when the research assistants were telling scary stories between calling periods.

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We’ll keep trying this technique a bit longer and then next step in the great hyaena data challenge is to fly over them and try to download from the air…. stay tuned!