Always looking for animals

Sam, Katy, and Noggs in Africa


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Game Scouts

Scouting was a really important part of my youth. I quit a lot of extraciricular activities when I was kid, mainly things I wasn’t good at like every sport on the planet. But I stuck with girl scouts for an impressively long time. All my closest friends were my scouting friends and it didn’t matter if we ended up in different classes in school or even if we went to different schools because we would see each other every Tuesday night and a lot of weekends too for scouting. When we got to middle school being a scout became quite uncool so we called girl scouts ‘GS’ instead. ‘Are you going to GS tonight?’ ‘See you at GS.’ I think we thought we were being clever by disguising our uncool hobby with a code name but looking back, GS was a pretty easy code to crack. I stopped scouting when I moved to Belgium at 13. I’m sure there was a scout unit I could have joined there but scouting for me was about being with the friends that I had spent every camp out with since I was 5.

As an adult I’ve tried to give back to girl scouting / girl guiding and help enable other young girls to have the same fantastic experiences I had. When I was 18, I worked as a summer camp councilor at the GS summer camp that I used to go to every summer as a kid. My camp name was Narnia. That summer I sang so much, did lots of silly things, and had the best time. When I was living in the UK I volunteered as a girl guide leader for guide units in three different cities (Cambridge, Brighton, and Durham). I achieved my girl guide unit leader qualification. I liked guiding in the UK but not as much as scouting in the US. There seemed to be less singing, less camping, and more religion.

It’s been awhile now since I’ve done any scouting or guiding. Sam, Noggs, and I go camping a lot still. Noggs went camping in a tent for the first time at 16 months. We’re going camping next weekend in Kruger National Park. I also still wear a t-shirt I made with retro guide badges on it. But that’s about it.

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I was recently approached by an old friend from my GS troop in Maryland to ask whether I would help out a daisy scout project. The troop was sending Flat Juliette dolls they made to girl scouts (or ex-girl scouts) around the world and requesting photos and information about the countries the dolls visit. The dolls are named after Juliette Gordon Low who established the first girl scout group in America in 1912. She’s quite a big deal in the history of girl scouting in the US and as a result, the Baden-Powells’ role in scouting seems strangely overlooked.

Anyways so two Flat Juliettes came to Africa in a posted envelope like Flat Stanley.

The Williams family

And we took the dolls on tour. The Juliettes saw giraffes in Balule Nature Reserve, which is part of Greater Kruger.

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They also met the Black Mambas. The Black Mambas are an all female anti-poaching unit working in Greater Kruger. Anti-poaching is traditionally a very male profession. There are still expectations in some African cultures that women do not belong in the bush or around wild animals. The Black Mambas have made a huge impact on reducing snaring and poaching – they have removed 12 poachers’ camps and 3 bushmeat kitchens, and reduced snaring and poisoning activities by 76% in their area of operation since their deployment in 2013. They are awesome because they are super tough but still feminine. They break societal expectations and do their jobs exceptionally well. The unit is named after a venomous snake but I like to think the name Black Mamba also has a connection to Kill Bill and the bride’s code name. I love Kill Bill and I love the Black Mambas!  I am less enthusiastic about actual black mamba snakes, especially when they are in our house.

Black Mambas

The flat Juliettes saw zebras by our house.

Zebras

And they posed by the Drakensberg Mountains which we live near.

Drakensberg Mountains

The Juliette dolls have now crawled back into their transportation unit (an envelope) to journey to Brighton, England for the next part of their world tour. Thanks to troop 81612 for letting me be part of scouting again in a little way.

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Maggoty foetuses and living the tent life: the highs an lows of working as a conservation biologist

I was recently interviewed by Laura Cottam. This post originally appeared on the Conservation Conversations series on her blog ThatBiologist. Check out ThatBiologist on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Sam Williams – Conservation Conversations

Today’s interviewee is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Zoology at the University of Venda, in South Africa. He studies the conservation ecology of large African carnivores and is currently developing a research interest in the ecosystem services provided by carnivores. As he told me one way of explaining his research is that he is trying to find out how carnivores help us and how we can help them. Here’s what Sam Williams had to say to my questions.

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1. Starting off with something simple, what is your favourite species and why?

Duck-billed platypus, because it’s probably the weirdest animal I have ever seen. An egg-laying mammal with an electrosensitive (why not?) duck bill? Oh, and it’s venomous.

 

2. So now I’m going to quiz you about your career in this sector, firstly why did you decide to get into conservation?

I find it hard to imagine why most people would not want to get into conservation. I once gave a visitor from the UK the opportunity to help me bait leopard traps for collaring here in South Africa. He hated it, and left saying “I am so glad that I’m an accountant instead of doing this for a living”. (Getting him to help me shovel up maggot-ridden animal foetuses might have had something to do with it.) But to each their own – I am so grateful that I am not an accountant.

I got into conservation because it brings together my love of science with my desire to leave the natural environment in a better state than I found it, all while doing fascinating things in exciting places. I wake up in the mornings excited to start work, which is a feeling that not everyone gets to experience. I remember when I was little my mum advised me to find a job that I love, because it can be sad to spend so much of your life doing something that you don’t enjoy. Who doesn’t want to get paid to fly in a helicopter around African mountains, radio tracking large carnivores that you collared? Accountants, I suppose…

 

3. Sometimes working in conservation or the environment sector can be difficult, what inspires you to keep going in your career?

Although I love working in conservation, it certainly comes with its fair share of challenges. Here are just a couple of things that I wish present me could have told past me about my experiences, when I was deciding to commit to a career in conservation biology. It’s hard work and the pay isn’t great. You will work long, long hours, weekends and public holidays, and despite earning a PhD you will get paid fraction of what you could have earned if you had dropped out of school and stayed at home working at McDonald’s. It does occasionally cross my mind that future me will kick present me when I can’t afford a space holiday because I have no savings or pension, and live in a bin.

But despite the challenges, it’s really not difficult to find inspiration to keep going as a conservation biologist. I cannot think of a more rewarding career. You can have a very real, very much needed impact on the world. You could help to prevent a species from going extinct. You could help people to live in harmony with nature. You could find out something about the way the world works that no one knew before, and share that knowledge with others to build upon. Not only is the endpoint incredibly rewarding, but the journey along the way is so much fun. I can’t begin to tell you how much fun it has been to live out of a hammock in the Indonesian rainforest, studying macaque ecology. To collect behavioural observations on howler monkeys in the cloud forests of Honduras. To track cheetahs, lions, wild dogs and hyaenas in Zimbabwe. To get married and start a family while living in a tent on a nature reserve at the peak of a mountain range in South Africa, while camera trapping elusive leopards. I even find working at my computer exciting – I still get a thrill out of running an analysis and finding out something new.

 

4. What’s next on your career bucket list?

I don’t know about next, but it would be fun to one day discover a new species to science. The list of species that share the planet with us is going down every day. To grow that list by one, even though the species has probably been around for quite some time without us identifying it, I think would somehow feel quite satisfying.

 

5. What’s been your career highlight so far?

I once met a man who told me that he (illegally) killed an average of about a dozen leopards each year on his small farm in southern Africa, in order to protect his cattle from predation. The reason he was telling me this was because he had recently shot a leopard that I had collared, and he demanded that I paid him if I wanted to get the collar back. He refused to let me do anything to help him keep his cattle safe, and he continued to kill leopards. I worked hard to turn around this inauspicious start to our relationship, and four years later he finally agreed to let my colleagues place a livestock guarding dog with his herd, which has been shown to be extremely effective at protecting livestock from predation. I ran a half-marathon to raise funds to buy and care for the dog, and as I write this, the dog is protecting his animals. Seeing that someone so disinterested in engaging with conservation efforts can change their mind, and knowing how much this could benefit a declining population of leopards, was probably my career highlight so far.

 

6. Our world is pretty amazing with lots of wonderful things happening in the natural world. What natural phenomenon would you like to see or have seen?

Watching snow monkeys bathe in volcanic hot springs in Japan was definitely one off the bucket list. One day I would love to see the northern lights. And the wildebeest migration in east Africa.

 

7. If you could let the general public know one thing about conservation what would it be?

Conservationists need your support – see question 15 to find out how.

 

8. Now if you could change one thing about how the world works what would you change and why?

It would be nice if conserving the natural environment was a top priority for people and for governments, as humans and all other species depend on it to survive.

 

Now for a little favourites quick round!

9. Favourite sound?

The sound of lions roaring and hyaenas whooping, heard through a tent wall

 

10. Favourite fact?

Spotted hyaenas have a pseudo-scrotum and a pseudo-penis, through which they give birth.

 

11. Favourite snack?

All the chocolate [LC – me too!]

 

12. Favourite word?

Gargantuan

 

13. Favourite curse word?

Cunt nugget

 

14. Least favourite word?

Yolo

 

And finally…

15. What’s your best piece of advice for someone who wants to do better for the environment?

Have smaller families. Eat less meat. Turn things off when you’re not using them. Ride a bike or catch public transport when you can, instead of driving. Recycle stuff and try to cut down on waste. Be sure to vote, and do it based on environmental issues. Make sure that politicians know that if they don’t make conserving the environment a priority, they will not be elected.

 

Thank you so much to Sam for all those inspiring words of wisdom! Sam is one of my favourite bloggers in conservation so it’s an absolute honour to have him on the blog. I’d strongly recommend following him on all of the social medias. Here are all his links:

Twitter: @_sam_williams_

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/samual_williams/

ResearchGate: http://researchgate.net/profile/Sam_Williams

Blog: https://samandkatyinafrica.wordpress.com

Website: http://www.samualwilliams.com


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Signs of life

I drive a fair bit on my daily commute and see quite a few signs on the way. When I think of road signs I think of this really boring book I studied for my driving theory test. I remember reading this book while babysitting and falling asleep. Don’t worry I’d already put the kids to bed and don’t worry I passed my driving test. But in Africa the signs that are commonplace (at least in our part of the country) are a lot more exciting than ’roundabout ahead’.

Here are two animal crossing signs I pass daily:

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This above sign shows that kudus cross here. Kudu are massive antelope (males can weigh up to 270 kg) and they can jump over two meter high game fences. No fence too big, no kudu too small or something like that.

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Another uncontainable animal is the elephant. Elephants often break through the Greater Kruger electric fences and wander about on the road. It seems to happen fairly often. The traffic gets all mucked up and everyone tries to herd the elephants back into the protected area. I haven’t encountered this yet here, but I’ve stopped for elephant traffic on public roads in Botswana and Zimbabwe plenty of times.

I also pass plenty of signs on fences advertising that the property has de-horned all their rhinos in an attempt to deter poachers. In 2016, 1054 rhinos were killed in South Africa and a recent report suggests that three rhinos a day are still being killed in this country. The battle against rhino poaching is very real here and I’ve seen first hand how poaching devastates not only the rhino population, but also families who work on or own game farms.

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It’s not too surprising that a lot of the signs I pass are about wildlife considering that Hoedspruit calls itself a wildlife haven. The wildlife is one of the reasons we live here. Here’s the town’s sign which I drive pass daily. It has warthog busts on it.

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I often see warthogs munching away when I enter Nogg’s school. When I entered Balule Game Reserve today I saw four lions about 50 m from the road. This was awesome and certainly makes a day of office work more exciting!! It’s not the best photo though because I only had my phone to hand. When I drove out in the afternoon the lions were just getting up after a long lazy day of chilling.

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I also pass some bright signs that have been painted on a wall by a charity called Hlokomela. Hlokomela is a HIV and AIDS educational and treatment programme targeting workers in the area. The messages are uplifting and represent a vision of South Africa that I hope becomes a reality everywhere. By the way, ubuntu is a word in South Africa that sort of means humanity but it’s more than that, it means that everyone is part of a whole that must care for each other and work together. It’s really quite a beautiful concept and a lovely sounding word to say out loud too. Ubuntu, ubuntu, ubuntu.

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Guest blogging on the Thesis Whisperer

HI everyone…it’s been a busy week full of new starts, ridiculously long days, sand flies, bats, tonsillitis, presentations, academic papers, old friends, studying, painting, working, and writing. We are super tired! So rather than write a brand new post, I shall direct you to this link…https://thesiswhisperer.com/2017/03/01/be-the-mouse/ because I am the guest blogger on the Thesis Whisperer website this week!! Go check it out. It’s a big honour and it’s very exciting since I’ve been following the Thesis Whisperer for years. You can read my blog post for the week there rather than here. Enjoy.

Here are a few photos from the week as well just for funzies.

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Noggs captaining a boat filled with soft toys. In the background is Sam working his bum off on a paper.

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Did a bit of painting this week – pictures to send to close friends around the world. Four pictures posted this week, 11 more to do.

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Some bunnies bouncing to Abbie in Salem…

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Started a new job this week and I’m hoping that strong tea will save me from the tiredness monster.

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A whip scorpion in the bathroom. Harmless but it looks like something out of a horror movie so it had to be relocated outside to prevent nightmares.

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Sam looked after Noggs while I did evening talks on hyaenas for Reaseheath College students. Playing in the sandpit which is a fancy name for a pile of sand and dirt next to the driveway.

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Playing in the sand with daddy. He does have tshirts without spiderman on them by the way. I swear.

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A bat plans his next holiday destination on our wall.