Always looking for animals

Sam, Katy, and Noggs in Africa


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Old men in Africa

I love how untamed Africa is. The sun scorches, red dirt stains your takkies (sneakers), and spotted hyaenas whoop at night.

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It is still possible to live where there are free-roaming lions, elephants, leopards, rhinos, and hippos. Sadly, this amazing continent is facing major wildlife population declines because of (you guessed it) humans. For example, giraffe  numbers have fallen from around 155,000 in 1985 to 97,000 in 2015. Lions were estimated at 450,000 in the 1940s and now there may be as few as 20,000 animals.

Despite these declines (which conservationists like us are trying to reverse), there is still plenty of adventure left in Africa. I think that the level of wilderness based adventure South Africa has to offer is still pretty high (especially if you go out there looking for it), but I also think that it used to be higher when the country was less developed. I love listening to old men in Africa because they tell the best adventure stories of an Africa where life was tougher and rawer.

Southern Africa has changed drastically in the past century. Now large wildlife is mostly confined to fenced areas (albeit very large fenced areas), many roads are paved, we have maps, phones, and GPS units. Old white men in Africa wearing khaki field clothes and knee high socks tell stories of adventuring across Botswana (Bechuanaland), Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), Namibia (South West Africa), and Tanzania (Tanganyika) in barely running landrovers or on rickety trains. They remember times with no roads or proper maps, just being out in the bush fending for oneself. They had close encounters with wildlife and there weren’t swarms of tourists around. As young men, they were hardy, sun-worn and tougher than nails. They bandaged their own wounds, fought their own battles, and knew how to survive. These men know an Africa that I somewhat romanticise because of the vast expanses of untouched wild areas. I could listen to old men in Africa talk for hours. I hungrily seek out and consume memoirs and stories of life in the Africa from earlier days – books like Mukiwa by Peter Godwin, The Power of One by Bryce Courtney, I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallman.

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Wearing my old man knee high bush socks while camping in an unfenced Big 5 area in Botswana

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The old Victoria Falls train station

I can still find places in parts of Zimbabwe and Botswana that I believe might resemble old Africa. We camp in Big 5 areas with no fences and no neighbours. We wake to find lion or leopard spoor outside the canvas tent flaps. We drive across empty expanses and don’t see anyone for a long time other than battered looking donkey carts and their drivers. Our mobile phones have no reception and there is no power to charge them anyways. Our landy gets stuck in mud and we make a plan to get out which may involve a whole village pushing in mud up to their waists while elephants wade in the river nearby. This Africa does still exist and it makes me feel alive.

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Carrying our own fuel across the country and fueling up the landy bakkie for fieldwork in Zimbabwe

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Hiking in Swaziland, bumping into wildlife, and getting very lost

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Surrounded by elephants in Chobe National Park, Botswana

South Africa is a land of old men remembering a grittier wilder Africa. Not all aspects of this old Africa were good and not all aspects of this new Africa are good. We love South Africa and we think it is ideal for raising a young child. There is plenty of adventure but there are also good hospitals nearby. There are amazing animals you can live amongst but you can chose to live with the ones who are not going to munch up your toddler in one bite. There is food in the supermarket and power. But I also crave the rawer wilder Africa from time to time, the old man’s Africa, and I am looking forward to taking my son there when he is a little bigger. I want him to know this world and tell the stories one day.

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Lucky to be in conservation

I do occasional guest lecturing on my research experiences and findings for college students visiting the Greater Kruger area through African Conservation Experience. It is an awesome opportunity that I love. When I drove out to a lodge to give my most recent lecture, I missed my turnoff and ended up looking for somewhere to turn around. It was a very quiet Sunday morning and I came to a big metal gate across the road. I was about to turn around when I saw someone lying on the ground by the gate. A motorcycle lay haphazardly next to him and he only had one shoe on. It was clear that he had had an accident and that he had been there awhile. I stopped and I helped him. Once I knew he was in safe hands, I turned my car around, found my turnoff, and did my lecture on leopard population dynamics.

At the end of the lecture, one of the teachers asked me to share my advice to the students about how to get into conservation. I talked about doing the right university degrees, working hard, being persistent, obtaining lots of field experience, and networking. I didn’t talk about being lucky, although reflecting on it, I think being lucky has influenced how my career has progressed so far.

Working in conservation is tough. A recently published paper describes the challenges that conservation biologists face including conflicts between family and work interests, and working under stressful conditions that can lead to burnout. It is a tough field but the study also concluded that most conservation biologists enjoy their careers. It is a job people do for the love of it.

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Two tough conservation biologists in the field

In conservation, there is a surprising amount of competition and a whole lot of rejection involved with getting jobs, finding funding, and publishing results. In my experience, no matter how much effort and hard work you put in, rejection is still a big part of working in wildlife conservation. My PhD supervisor told me that I would become calloused to this over time.  I’m getting there but I am definitely still a soft-shelled crab and some days it feels like I’m sandwiched between two pieces of bread about to get munched. A bit of luck mixed with a lot of hard work and determination helps to sway things in the right direction though. Getting my last job in conservation was partially due to luck, and luck was a large component of my PhD funding.

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I think that luck is lots of little interplaying variables that create a favourable outcome through a complex chain of cause and effect. Some of the variables are completely out of your control and others are not. My mum told me that she thought that some people are born lucky. I used to find four leaf clovers all the time as a child and press them in the pages of my dictionary. I have won a quite unattractive sweatsuit, an iron, and 10 pizzas in competitions. I thought I was pretty lucky in general. Looking at my amazing husband and incredible son, I know I’m still very lucky, even though I don’t find four leaf clovers anymore. This could be due to living in the African bush though; there aren’t too many clovers here.

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Career-wise, I am in a position now where I have put in years of hard work and I am continuing to put in more, while waiting for a little bit of luck. On Twitter someone posted about how they were counting their money in terms of how many months post-PhD they could afford to be unemployed. That’s the hard bit, not knowing how long it will be until the right job comes up and you get selected from the hundreds of other desperate and deserving souls, or basically until you get lucky. But here is the thing about wildlife conservationists, we don’t give up, we wait, we work hard, and we put up with a lot of challenging circumstances because we do it for the love of the job and for the love of the planet. We believe in hard work and luck. It is definitely worth it.

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A lucky day when I found my brown hyaena collar that had detached in the bush

The last things conservation biologists need while they are soldiering on are funding cuts and poor environmental policies. This just makes it even tougher for us to get lucky in following our dream career paths and harder for us to make the differences that the world’s wildlife desperately need right now. Everyone should support conservation because well, if we don’t, there will be no future for this planet and its wildlife. I’ll get off my soapbox now.

The motorcycle guy broke a few bones but he was okay. His mum said that God must have sent me. I don’t think so. I think I just suck at following directions and that he got lucky that I found him and that I stopped.


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It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

Every June as winter settles in and it starts to feel crisp and cold, I get a Christmassy feeling. Even after years of Christmases in the southern hemisphere, I still associate Christmas with cold weather. I feel ready to cook decedent foods and exchange presents. In December when we’re super sweaty and hot, I struggle to drum up the Christmas spirit in the same way. The decorations get hung but they look false and out of place. Santa looks hot and uncomfortable in his coat and boots. The advent calendars drip melting chocolate out of their sealed doors.

It is June and I have started singing Christmas carols again. We are wearing long trousers, coats, and jumpers again. I even cracked out the gloves. We have become so acclimatized to the heat that the roughly 13 degree C temperatures at night to 23 degree C day temperatures feel jarringly low. We are very happy though that we are in a proper house with walls and not freezing in a tent on a mountain.

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Wearing flannel Christmas pyjamas again and feeling very excited about toys.

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Thomas the tank engine doing a wheelie.

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Playing with cars in pretend snow (corn flour).

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Snow day.

We’ve been in Hoedspruit for almost a year now and the signs in nature remind me that the time has passed and it’s winter again.

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The big aloey plants at the end of our road are flowering again. My plant id skills have a long way to go.

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The trees are looking sparse as they drop their leaves.

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Zebra poo without dung beetles = winter.

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The impala lilies are flowering again.

It’s been a pretty amazing year and having a small child helps me to appreciate how far we’ve all come. Noggs learned to walk, talk, started preschool, and became a more proper human. I passed my PhD. Sam got a postdoc position. It may not be Christmas now but I’m going to sing anyways. This year I keep singing the John Lennon song ‘Merry Xmas (War is Over)’. I wonder if this has some link to the end of the PhD…