Always looking for animals

Sam, Katy, and Noggs in Africa

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Science cat to the rescue!

Our tent is literally alive and crawling. There are some animals living in it that we quite like:




And other animals that unfortunately we really do have quite a big problem with.




The mice eat our clothes and poo everywhere. They keep us awake with their constant gnawing. And they gnaw everything from our water bottles to our camping gear. The shrews crawl around under the duvet with us, nest in my hair while I’m sleeping and make noises under our pillows. The snakes are mainly poisonous and unacceptable inside. Our huge rodent problem is probably a bit attraction for them. We also have a serious termite problem but that’s a story for another day.




Maya the Bush Camp cat and resident rodent control came to visit the other week and swiftly killed a big fat mouse.




We couldn’t keep Maya though so we got our very own deadly assassin. Welcome Schrödinger!!




At this point in time Schrödinger is only 6.5 weeks old and has an uncanny resemblance to a fluffy soot sprite from the Studio Ghibli animations, My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away.





We named our kitten Schrödinger after Schrödinger’s cat, a principle in quantum theory of superposition proposed by Erwin Schrödinger, a very jolly looking Austrian physicist, in 1935. In Schrödinger’s theoretical experiment he places a living cat into a steel chamber with a device containing a vial of the radioactive substance, hydrocyanic acid. If a single atom of the substance decays during the test period a hammer will break the vial and kill the cat. The observer cannot know whether an atom of the substance has decayed and killed the cat or not. Therefore, according to quantum law, the cat is both dead and alive in a superposition of states.




So why did we name our cute little kitten after Schrödinger and his slightly disturbing theoretical experiment?

Reason 1: She came home in a box. Partway through the very rocky 7.5 km drive up the mountain she stopped mewing. I was not sure if she was dead or alive (or both!) until we opened the box when I got home. Luckily she was alive. Yay physics!




Reason 2: We hope that as well as being a cold hearted mouse killer, she will also be a science cat! What better way to inspire scientific reasoning than to have a sciencey name.




Today we had another mouse / termite incident. But after eyeballing the mouse it was about the same size as Schrödinger so we thought we’d let the mouse live…for now.





Hyaena success!

For anyone who is new to this blog, for the past year finding the collared brown hyaenas has become an obsession! For my PhD research into relationships between humans and hyaenas I collared four brown hyaenas:

  Betton (collared Feb 2013)      Chomma (collared March 2013)


Hermione (collared Sept 2013)     Bill (collared Oct 2013)HermioneBill

And since Betton was collared a year ago Sam, a lot of very  helpful research assistants and I have searched and searched for them. We have tried everything from sitting by hyaena latrine sites all night to trying to call them to us using dying rabbit sounds. We even did some flying to look for them in helicopters and microlights. I was getting worried because two of the collars are due to drop off soon (they only stay on the animals for 455 days) and if I did not download the data from them before that time the collars and all the information would be lost.

Last year I heard about an organisation called the Bateleurs. The Bateleurs are a charity which organises flights for environmental work in Africa. I contacted them and my application for assistance was approved!

This week Bateleurs pilot, Eugene, arrived at Lajuma Research Centre with his ex-French military helicopter to help me.

1 Waiting to board Eugene's helicopter

I was very excited about the mission but I was also worried that the hyaenas may have moved a long way away or be in dens underground and we would not be able to locate them.

We spent the day preparing for the flight. He had designed mounts to secure our VHF antennas to both sides of the aircraft. We fetched the fuel from Louis Trichardt and finalised our flight plan.


Fetching almost 500 litres of fuel for the helicopter

In the late afternoon we were ready to go. We flew up and started surveying the mountains. We left a new leopard collar near where we took off from and we were able to gauge the range a collar’s signal could be picked up from. We were able to detect the test collar a surprisingly long way away which was reassuring. From the air we made communication with a collared animal. Unfortunately it was not one of the hyaenas. It was Jenny, one of the leopards we collared last year. I downloaded the leopard’s GPS data and we flew back to camp just as the sun was setting.

IMG_09573 Stunning views of the Soutpansberg Mountains

Stunning views from the air of the Soutpansberg Mountains

That night we refuelled and prepared for tomorrow’s flight. From what we had learnt during our first flight, we planned a longer route.

4 Refueling the helicopter for the second flight

Refuelling for the next fight

The next morning at dawn we were ready to go. After wiping the condensation off Eugene’s helicopter, we were airborne. The early morning cloud prevented us from following our flight plan to the east so we headed west instead. As we past the western end of the Soutpansberg Mountains I heard a beep loud and clear. I asked Sophie, a research assistant, who was listening to the VHF antenna on the other side of the helicopter to confirm. We both heard a clear VHF signal from Bill’s collar. Bill is one of the missing hyaenas! We circled the area until we heard the strongest signal and then I took a GPS point of his location so I could return later with the UHF receiver to download. The UHF receiver we use to download data from collared hyaenas only works between 18:00 and 00:00 so it was not possible to download the data from the air that morning.

Mounted antenna searching for VHF signals

Filled with excitement we resumed our original flight plan. Above a gorge deep in the mountains we heard another beep. It was Chomma, another collared hyaena. He was collared in March 2013 and his collar was due to drop off soon. Again we took a GPS point. I couldn’t believe our luck. All my anxieties and worries that I’d lost my study animals forever disappeared.

Research assistants, Elliot and Sophie, listening for the VHF and enjoying the flight

We spent another hour in the air and searched north of the mountain. We didn’t detect any more signals and it was getting late in the morning. We suspected that the hyaenas would have retreated into their dens by now so we headed back to Lajuma.

Eugene had to head home but we still had work to do. That evening we drove out to where we had detected Chomma’s collar. We had to hike up a large hill where I waited impatiently until 18:00. We could hear the VHF signal from our lookout. At 18:00 we searched for the collar with the UHF but didn’t get a fix. We listened with the VHF receiver and the signal had become weaker.


Tracking Chomma’s signal

We ran along the ridge following the sound of the moving hyaena until the beeps were stronger and at that point the UHF receiver made contact with the collar. We downloaded all the GPS data from Chomma. It was a great feeling after trying to find him for so long.

First ever collared hyaena download for the Primate and Predator Project!

We drove quickly to where we had heard Bill’s signal and we made communication with the collar easily. Again we downloaded GPS and activity data.

The mission was such a success. Finding two out of the four collared hyaenas was such an achievement. It was amazing to go from having no data at all on hyaenas in this area to having heaps to analyse. I have mapped out Chomma and Bill’s ranges and it’s really fascinating to see where they are moving. I am very excited to examine the data properly and answer the many questions we have about hyaenas living in montane environments. This data will be essential to suggest conservation strategies for their protection and to encourage coexistence with humans.

We would like to thank the Bateleurs and Eugene for making this successful mission possible!


Sophie, Katy and Eugene happy after a successful mission

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It rained. I tidied.

This week it has rained most of all day and all night. It’s been shite.

It has been so misty that entire mountains disappeared.




It has been so wet that the landy’s steering wheel moulded.




It was such bad weather my helicopter flight was postponed. Our laundry is still wet on the line and seems to be getting gradually wetter. 




My side of the bed has been soaked for days. There is a leak in the roof directly above it so stop thinking rude / mean thoughts now!

This week despite the weather, I have been jolly for the most part. I got to do something I have been excited about for almost a year. I got to organise and inventory all of the project equipment!! It was awesome.

I know I sound a bit OCD crazy, but there is something incredible about taking chaos and turning it into labelled, alphabetised order.

Sam likes to compare me to Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory. In this case there was a certain similarity. In one episode Sheldon goes to a social function at his friends’ house but instead of socialising, he spends the evening obsessively cleaning and organising his friends’ messy closet. He loves it so much he doesn’t want to go home.


closetcloset 2

I didn’t want to leave the store room of the new PPP office until every last object was categorised and properly boxed; until it looked like this:




In the Big Bang Theory Leonard noted, Sheldon is possessed by "the compulsive need to sort, organize and label the entire world around him".

Howard describes Sheldon’s obsession at making labels: "his label maker has a label on it".

So maybe I’m verging on Sheldonness but my label maker does not have a label on it. This might be because I’m cooler than that…or perhaps because I ran out of labels.




Besides the enjoyment of organising (really you should try it) the other great upside of this endeavour is that we have way more space in our tent. Every single item in the photos above was previously living in our tiny about 5 m x 5 m home. Our tent was like a clown car.

The porch is no longer covered in project equipment.




As this might be the most boring blog post ever written (I can summarise this post in four words: It rained. I tidied), here are some photos of  vervet monkeys who came to visit Sam in the office yesterday. I’m hoping the interestingness of monkeys will save the blog post.