Always looking for animals

Sam, Katy, and Noggs in Africa


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Conservation optimism

When I was a kid and I first learned about all the environmental disasters happening in the world (climate change, holes in the ozone, pollution, mounting piles of indecomposable rubbish, etc) I was completely horrified and petrified. I was horrified that our species was responsible for these terrible things and I was horrified that every human being on the planet wasn’t up in arms doing everything they could to stop it. I was petrified that all living things on the planet were going to die as a result of humanity’s greed, including my family and I.

As scared as I was, I felt compelled to do something to help and I felt optimistic. I spent my childhood recycling and preaching about the environment to anyone who would listen. I was the president of the Eco-club at my high school. I studied environmental science at university so I could be part of the solution. My adult life so far has been spent working and researching in the field of conservation.

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And now here I am in my thirties, quite educated and involved in conservation and environmental science and sadly, I think I am becoming pessimistic about our planet’s future. This transition is a culmination of several things.

1)   It still it feels like people (for the most part) blindly ignore environmental issues. Recently many government policies from the US especially seem to be based on decisions that inflict serious damage to our planet. Decades later and I’m still in disbelief that despite scientific advances and improved communication systems, the majority of people on this planet do not seem to be overly concerned about the environment and governments are not doing everything possible to protect it. WTF! The environment is life people! It’s everything we need to survive and humans treat this planet like crap.

2)   The more I learn about conservation or human population trends the more depressed I feel. There are scientific publications (including several of ours) coming out all the time predicting or confirming the extinction of incredible wildlife all over the world. This news makes people sad and even angry, but it still feels like not enough is being done on the ground. Not enough money or support is being invested in conservation.

3)   Finally, I personally feel a bit lost post-PhD. I spent the past 5.5 years completely engulfed in conservation work and research. Now post-PhD I’m ready to sink my teeth into a new project, to fight the conservation fight with gusto, but finding the right job or sourcing funding for research can be a slow and discouraging experience.

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Pimms, one of the leopards we were studying, was killed by a snare in 2015.

Wow, mega big sigh. Take a few sighs if you need. Sigh, sigh, sigh. If an environmentalist feels this way, what does that mean for the planet?

The point is coming up just now so don’t jump off the nearest cliff yet.

I, and we as a society, need to drum up some conservation optimism because that’s what my eight-year-old self would have wanted. Optimistic environmental doers were the people I was looking for as a kid. Yes, everything looks pretty bleak but you need hope and determination to win a battle. As a wildlife enthusiast, a scientist, an environmental citizen, and a mother, I am going to start rebuilding my conservation optimism.

There is a study that suggests that positive messages are more likely to motivate people to spread positivity and take action than negative ones are. There are positive conservation stories out there, really there are.

Here’s a few recent ones to reassure you:

– poaching is down in Luangwa Valley, Zambia because Community Markets for Conservation has been supporting local people in farming schemes and giving poachers alternative livelihood options.

– the lion guardian programme in East Africa has encouraged the Maasai to replace traditional lion hunts with guardianship.

Panthera created a fake leopard skin garment for people in South Africa to wear for traditional ceremonies and these have been widely accepted.

– a breeding population of tigers was unexpectedly found in eastern Thailand recently.

global tiger numbers increased in 2016 for the first time in nearly a century.

– the all female Black Mamba anti-poaching unit based near where we live has reduced poaching in a reserve in Greater Kruger to almost zero.

Here are some people who inspire me:

–       My ever-optimistic-never-give-up husband who is my constant inspiration.

–       My mum who composted, gardened, recycled, reused, and bought non-harmful products.

–       Noggs’ preschool class, the Earthtots (who are aged between 1 and 3 years old). They sort their rubbish and recycle it in bins. They go on nature walks and learn to protect the environment.

–       Several research assistants I supervised who have gone onto do amazing and inspirational conservation work.

–       People who choose to have small families or no children to lower their environmental impact.

–       People like Jane Goodall who share their environmental enthusiasm relentlessly.

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Recycling with Noggs on Earth Day.

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Yesterday was Earth Day and the fact that such a day exists is cause for celebration and optimism. But this Earth Day especially there was a lot of organised environmental optimism going around. Oxford University, the Interdiscipinary Centre for Conservation Science, ZSL and the Durrell Institute hosted a summit on conservation optimism last week. All over the world thousands of people joined marches for science to stand up against funding cuts to the sciences and environment agencies. It was amazing to see so many people getting involved and speaking out. Earth Day 2017 is a reminder that there are enough people who care – three of them live in our house.

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Our mini-bushwalk for Science, Earth Day 2017.


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Sleep and time: you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone

I was told that life would change completely after having a baby. Things are similar except my face looks older and Sam’s hair is greyer. We are more tired versions of our former selves with less time for non-toddler related activities (by the way toddler-related activities like making sandcastles, going to toy stores, climbing on play grounds and doing Easter egg hunts are very fun). But we still live in Africa, we still look for animals, eat chocolate (after Noggs goes to bed), do science, and travel.

I think we have been lucky in general though. Noggs is a pretty good sleeper. At almost two, he sleeps in his own bed – well kind of a bed, it’s a single mattress on the floor. Sam jokes that his bed looks like it belongs in a crack den which I think is pretty funny. Noggs sleeps through the night most nights. He goes to bed when he is told to without kicking up a fuss. But he wakes up at ridiculous times. A late morning for him is 5:30 am. An early morning is 3:45 am. I don’t think we have set an alarm clock since he was born. It has not been required. Noggs is our alarm clock but I wish it wouldn’t go off before dawn or on weekends. We are tired and poor Sam is the least morning person I know. Being tired sucks when you have to work in the day and you are not supposed to nap on the job. Naps should be a human right for everyone. I think it would make the world a better and more productive place.

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Noggs’ DIY bed

Some advice we received upon becoming parents is to sleep when your baby sleeps. This is a good idea in theory but it fails to acknowledge the fact that nothing would ever get done if parents did this. Noggs’ naptime is a window of productivity and opportunity to be embraced. It’s a rare moment to clean up, assemble cloth nappies, work on academic papers, go to the gym, or if you’re lucky, pursue hobbies quietly. We love naptime and plan our weekends accordingly so we do not disturb the sanctity of naptime.

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A day we are not ready for….

Loosing time to pursue personal interests has been another adjustment. I think that trying to carve out time for this is essential as it enables us to retain elements of our identity that are not solely linked with our roles as Mum and Dad. Personal time has become more precious and more appreciated as a result. The other night after Noggs went to sleep, amazingly I wasn’t too tired and also amazingly I was caught up with writing my paper and my postdoc proposal so I worked on my cross-stitch while I watched Home Alone. It was divine. I felt like myself and I remembered how awesome Home Alone is. I have been feeling Christmassy ever since.

I am aware that this sleeplessness will not last forever and that there will be a time when we stop being zombies and slowly morph into humans again. We are, in fact, hoping to implement a solution to the early morning wake up calls soon, thanks to Nanny in England. We are hoping that a toddler training clock will work its magic and encourage Noggs to sleep later or at least play quietly in his bed by himself (6 am would be incredible). A review of the clock on Amazon says, “Every once in a while the human race manages to discover or invent something that changes the future forever….The Gro-Clock Sleep Trainer is one such landmark advancement. This seemingly simple device took just two weeks to train my 23 month old twins to stay in bed and not wake Daddy up at 5am every day…This is the best thing I have ever bought…When my kids have grown up and no longer need this clock, I’m going to build a shrine around it and give thanks to it every day.” We have high expectations to say the least!  Come on Gro-Clock, we are desperate!

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Help me Gro(clock)bi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.

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Parents, like rebellions, are built on hope.

We are also aware that a time will come when we will regain our personal time and we will be able to paint, shoot arrows, learn to code, practice Afrikaans, play guitar, and watch Home Alone 2. The final piece of parenting advice that everyone keeps saying is how fast raising a child flies by. I am sure we will look back one day soon and agree, so for now the plan is to enjoy each day, appreciate all the funny things Noggs says and does, store up all the affection he gives us so we can get through the awkward teenage years, embrace naptimes, take lots of photos, love hard, and sleep later…unless the Gro-Clock works, come on Gro-Clock!

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Easter cuddles with Daddy…who needs sleep when you have this?


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Small boy, big adventures

We live very near one of the most famous areas for wildlife viewing in Africa, nay the world, Kruger National Park. It’s huge – the size of Wales or Israel – and there are loads of animals that could eat you or tear you to shreds. Spending time watching these animals is Sam and my idea of a good time. And we want to expose our son to as much of the wild as we can because what could be cooler for a kid (or anyone) than seeing animals most people only get see in the zoo or on TV in their natural habitat. Noggs has been to Kruger four times and he is under two years old. The first time he was only nine months old. We went again this weekend, just for one night of camping at Satara Rest Camp.

It’s easy to forget just how spoilt we are. I asked Noggs what animal he wanted to see most in Kruger and he said “baby giraffes”. I replied, “Hopefully we will see baby giraffes this weekend but if not, we will see them when get home.” How superbly lucky that this is our reality. Noggs watched a huge elephant for awhile when it blocked the road. He knew exactly what it was. He knows the names of all the animals. Many of the African animals are part of his everyday life. He sees them at home and at school since both places are situated on wildlife reserves. He doesn’t realise yet how special this is and that people fly across the world to see these animals in the wild on once in a lifetime trips. I love that he lives in a reality where seeing incredible megafauna is completely normal.

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Watching an elephant traffic jam while holding elephant.

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We set up our tent for the night. And Noggs loved camping because he got to break all the rules – he stayed up late and played on his bike outside in the dark. He ate lots of steak cooked on the braai and springbok droewors (meat sticks). Then he said “I want more meat”. He loves eating meat so much that we think he might be part Afrikaans.

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Noggs’ I’m breaking all the rules and eating a crisp which I never normally get to eat dance

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Giving giraffe a cuddle before bed

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Story time in the tent with mum

A tourist in the restaurant at Satara asked me what it was like bringing such a small child on safari. She was concerned Noggs would get bored with all the driving in the car. I told her how great Noggs does in Kruger but admitted that yes he does get bored in the car. For example, we had an amazing viewing of lions. At first, all we saw was a tuft of lion mane in the grass.

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Then the male got up and greeted the female lovingly. Awww.

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Then he proceeded to bang her while biting her neck. Less awww and more awesome.

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Noggs was not particularly interested. He had reached his car time threshold by that point in the game drive. When we got back to camp, he found a dirty bottle cap and a cigarette butt on the ground. These fascinated him way more than the lions did. And these items scared us, as parents, way more than the lions did too. “Noggs, put those down now! They are dirty! No, don’t even think about putting that in your mouth!”

But even though Noggs can get a bit bored in the car, Kruger is enjoyable for the smallest humans with a bit of planning – short drives, toys to play with, books, and snacks.

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Sticking out his tongue to concentrate while pushing cars

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Noggs – smaller than a cheetah, bigger than a giraffe

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Using jedi mind tricks to avoid sharing this muffin

Oh and Noggs got his wish and he saw baby giraffes in Kruger.

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Yes, I am aware that these are not baby giraffes. No photos were taken of them, but Sam took this cool vulture pic. Enjoy this instead please.