Always looking for animals

Sam, Katy, and Noggs in Africa


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Local is lekker: being a bit more South African

Living at a research centre on the top of a mountain in South Africa for five years was an incredible experience. But culturally, it wasn’t a very South African one. It is sometimes the case that wildlife research and conservation volunteering in Africa is conducted by foreigners rather than locals. Volunteering in conservation can be very pricey (yes, you often have to pay to volunteer which is a bit of a jutaposition in my opinion). This is challenging for young inexperienced ecologists who need to gain experience to advance their careers. The prices inevitably dissuade potential local volunteers. The research assistants who volunteered with us had to pay a fairly high fee to the managers of the property to cover some of their living expenses. These funds are often essential to keep research centres functioning. As a result, we were primarily surrounded by Europeans, Americans, and Australians who could afford to volunteer, rather than South Africans. Research centres situated in remote locations can be quite bubble-like which amplifies the cultures within. When talking to a few of our volunteers who had been in the country for awhile, I was surprised about their impressions and knowledge of South Africa, as these seemed quite limited due to living in the ‘bubble’. However, they were extremely knowledgeable on primate behaviour and troop interactions which they witnessed day in and day out.

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Our international research assistants blowing bubbles on Noggs’ first birthday.

Sam and I spent a lot more time off the mountain than our volunteers collecting data, attending meetings, purchasing supplies, and working with communities. We tried to take our research assistants with us whenever possible. We also had our own car so we could travel more easily in our time off.

In the year since we moved to Hoedspruit we have been living a more South African experience on a daily basis. It is nice for our son to be surrounded by the South African culture to a greater extent. He says ja instead of yes, even though he’s the most English boy in his class. He says eina instead of ouch when he gets hurt sometimes. He has kids who speak lots of different languages around him every day. He eats mealie pap porridge for breakfast at school. Sam eats rusks (hard biscuits) and Noggs shares them. Noggs also sometimes has rooibos (redbush) tea and loves droewors (dried meat sticks).

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Another South African specialty lurking in our fridge – Monkey Gland Sauce.

I think that living here also feels more South African due to the landscape. At Lajuma it was sometimes quite jungly and misty which felt more like Jumanji than South Africa. But here it is sunnier, drier, and we have plains game like zebras, impalas, and giraffes outside so it feels more like Africa, more like the Lion King.

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The misty Soutpansberg Mountains.

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Photo taken from our bedroom window in Hoedspruit.

We braaied (barbequed) by the river at our estate last weekend. The braai is a very South African institution. We haven’t actually been braaiing as much here as we used to at Lajuma. Shockingly, our house doesn’t have a braai stand but luckily there is a beautiful and secluded public one nearby.

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Braaiing by the river.

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The gate down to the braai spot. We often hear hippos calling from our house.

We celebrated Mandela Day on July 18th for the first time. Every year on Nelson Mandela’s birthday, South Africans are encouraged to give 67 minutes (one for every year of Mr Mandela’s public service) back to the community. The message behind Mandela day is that everyone has the ability and the responsibility to change the world for the better. Noggs and I spent our 67 minutes doing a litter pick on a hike to a local waterfall. We filled a whole bag up for recycling and had a lovely morning out.

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Despite signs and monkey proof bins around, we still collected a whole bag of rubbish.

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Helping out with the litter pick.

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Made it to the waterfall. Time for playing.

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Wearing trousers, socks, and shoes didn’t deter Noggs from paddling. Like all mothers of dragons, I mean toddlers, I had spare clothes packed.

Over the past few weeks from within our wildlife estate, we can hear singing every morning and evening. We found out that this is part of a ceremony of boys becoming men (nothing to do with the band, thankfully) during a circumcision ceremony. The teenagers go to the bush to be circumcised and stay there for 21 days in seclusion and away from women. A traditional surgeon preforms the circumcision without anesthetic. The singing celebrates their transition to manhood. Unfortunately, traditional circumcision ceremonies can result in death or serious injury.

The people we meet now are mostly South African or long term expats. Being part of a community means we are getting more involved in national holidays and local events. Also, living off the mountain has made it easier to explore our local area. It has been really nice to feel a bit more South African but I am still very aware that we are mostly experiencing only one version of South Africa. We are involved with a quite privileged, primarily white version of how South Africans live and this certainly does not fully represent the complexity of the country and its many cultural layers and lifestyles. This diversity is something that we want to make our son aware of as he grows and encourage him to explore and embrace.


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Eco-parenting in South Africa

Having children is bad for the environment. A new study found that by far the most effective action a person can do to reduce their carbon emissions is to have fewer children. Having one fewer child equates to a reduction of 58.6 tonnes of CO2 for each year of a parent’s life. Other actions are very important to reduce CO2 but the impacts are considerably less. For example, living car free is the next best action and this saves 2.4 tonnes of CO2 annually. Avoiding one roundtrip transatlantic flight saves 1.60 tonnes of CO2. Reducing CO2 emissions is absolutely essential to avoid severe global warming and all of our individual lifestyle choices, from how we dry our clothes to whether we reproduce, contribute.

I have been aware that having children is bad for the environment for a long time. It seems fairly obvious if you think about the maths. There are already more humans alive than the planet can sustain and the human population is rising at a scary 10,000 net per hour. Children who have highly consumptive lifestyles like many born in America, Europe, and Australia use up far more resources than the majority of children in less developed countries. It is not just about having less people on the planet; it’s also about living more sustainably and passing this lifestyle onto the next generation.

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Haubles of people at the Loi Krathong festival in Bangkok, November 2011

We wanted a family (well I was ready and I gently pestered Sam till he said okay – isn’t that how having a baby works?). As environmentalists, we decided that the way forward for us is to have a small family and to try to reduce our environmental impact. Eco-parenting is also a way to reduce the financial costs of having a child. That was a much appreciated bonus since conservation biologists tend to line their pockets with fresh faecal samples, not cash. After the baby, we were carrying leopard, hyaena, and human poo samples around which felt a bit excessive. Oh, how we hoped the sample bags / nappies were properly secured.

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Wee Noggs

We started our eco-parenting quest with cloth nappies, reusable cloth wet wipes, and biodegradable nappy liners. I remember seeing a picture like this showing how much waste disposable nappies create for just one child and being horrified.

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Disposable nappies take up to 500 years to decompose. I hated the idea that a giant pile of pooey stinky rubbish from our child would be around long long after his lifetime. What a legacy.

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Cloth nappies have been a good experience for us. We had to adapt at first because when Noggs was born we lived in a tent with almost no power. The tent was upgraded and we made a plan to get the nappies clean. We have enjoyed cloth nappies, aside from a few instances of nappy rash that we think were associated with using cloth nappies in a hot country and childcare workers sometimes not changing the cloth nappies as often as we do at home. It has been great knowing that we made less of an impact on the environment. We used disposables when traveling for convenience or if we were ever particularly worried about nappy rash. Now Noggs is pretty much potty trained, we will be thinking about selling our cloth nappy collection soon. It is satisfying to think that we will get some money back. It is like getting a reward for surviving potty training. Congrats, you wiped up enough wee wee and poo poo, here is some money.

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Opening up our box of cloth nappies and cloth wet wipes

If anyone feels nervous or unsure about the decision to use cloth nappies, I would definitely say go for it. Ask me if you want advice. Yes, it is a bit more work but not much, and it is worth it for the environment and for your wallet.

We also personally tried to buy almost everything for Noggs as a baby secondhand. Less impact. His second hand cot was a tad rickety as a result but it lasted. All the toys and clothes he grows out of are passed on to someone else who can reuse them. We made all of Noggs’ baby food ourselves which was more environmentally friendly, cheaper, and probably healthier. Less food miles and less packaging. We try not to buy juice boxes or disposable water bottles. We refill reusable cups and bottles all the time. We have started deliberately consuming less meat. Quorn is awesome by the way. I’m not sure I could fully give up babalas droewors (South African dried sausage-like snacks infused with chili) though. Living abroad makes stopping international air travel difficult but we don’t fly very often.

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Beautiful wooden secondhand high chair Noggs received from a friend of ours

Hopefully, planning a small family and implementing more environmental childrearing choices are reducing our carbon footprint. That way I can save my guilt for other things like occasionally binging on too much droewors.

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Babalas droewors

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Some of the South African delicacies we had at our wedding

Here are some links on eco-parenting and cloth nappying:

Eco-friendly parenting

10 tips for green parenting

How to be an eco-parent

Growing up green

Cloth nappying

What are modern cloth nappies?


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When predators and politics collide

When we’re not busy having an adventure or looking for animals, we spend our time conducting research into carnivore conservation. This ends up in stuffy scientific journal articles, which can be quite heavy going, so we also like to share our findings in more accessible ways. Here is another piece about our research that I wrote for The Conversation. Hope you enjoy it.

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How badly implemented land reform can affect wildlife: a Zimbabwean case study

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Land reform is thought to have caused the cheetah numbers to fall by 85% in Zimbabwe.
Sam Williams, CC BY-SA

Sam Williams, Durham University

Large carnivores are in decline all over the world. Threats like persecution and loss of both prey and habitat are key contributors. The planet’s top biodiversity hotspots have already lost around 90% of their primary (undisturbed) vegetation, driven by factors like growth of infrastructure, agriculture and the removal of natural resources.

These are some of the key factors that have caused the number of wild lions across the globe to fall by over 40% in the past two decades, and have resulted in a decline in the number of cheetahs of 50% over the past forty years.

In Zimbabwe cheetahs depended heavily on private land, but the amount of private land has been reduced by 90% over the last 17 years. This loss has been caused by factors like the country’s land reform programme, which was set out to redress the historical imbalances in land tenure resulting from colonial practices. Under the programme, land previously owned privately by large-scale commercial white farmers was distributed to black Zimbabweans.

But it’s becoming clear that privately owned land plays an extremely important role in conservation, as state owned conservation areas alone aren’t enough to keep large species out of danger. A major problem is that the land reform programme was implemented in a chaotic way. This meant that no consideration was given to how to manage the wildlife that had previously lived in the area. The result was a dramatic fall in the number of carnivores.

Until 2000, 34% of land in Zimbabwe was privately owned, 13% was state owned conservation and forestry areas, and 42% was communal land. The remainder of that was made up of old resettlement areas, state farms and urban developments. Private land supported 80% of Zimbabwe’s cheetahs. But since 2000, 90% of this privately owned land is thought to have been resettled. Large numbers of subsistence farmers – making enough for their homes but not enough to sell – now occupy these farm spaces.

In instituting the land reform programme, the survival of the species that depended on privately owned land was pitted against the needs of the people to survive off the land. This is a widespread problem, not one confined to Zimbabwe. But the solution could lie in how land reform is planned. Instead of replacing successful wildlife areas with subsistence farming, keeping the wildlife while allowing more people to benefit economically could hold the key.

What we found

We recorded animal tracks across 1000 km of unpaved roads on private land that had been resettled, and on adjacent private land that had not yet been resettled. Our aim was to understand how carnivore numbers had been affected by the resettlement process. This research allowed us to draw estimates.

Our studies showed that large carnivores (weighing more than 19 kg) such as African wild dogs had high densities on private land. On neighbouring land that had been part of the same conservancy but had now been resettled, we found no signs of cheetahs, leopard, lion, African wild dog, or brown hyenas. We did however find very few tracks from spotted hyenas.

Similar trends were also evident for all other mammals studied, from baboons to giraffes.

If these trends are representative on a national scale, our models estimated that carnivore populations have declined steeply since 2000 due to land reform. We predicted that the number of cheetahs in Zimbabwe dropped to approximately 120 individuals. A subsequent nationwide interview survey estimated that only 150-170 cheetahs remain across national parks, private land and communal areas. This represents a fall of 85%, thought to be largely due to land reform.

A leopard carries a wire snare around its waist.
Sam Williams

The low abundance of wild mammals on resettled land appeared to be linked to the high density of people that now occupy the land. People have cleared the natural vegetation to grow crops and graze livestock, causing habitat loss, fragmentation, and loss of prey for the carnivores.

Bush meat poaching was also rife on private land close to resettled areas. Between 2001 and 2009 over 4,000 poachers captured and over 84,000 snares removed in one conservancy.

Land reform didn’t just affect the wildlife. We found that farmers on resettled land, reported levels of cattle predation by large carnivores that were three times greater than that of farmers on neighbouring communal land. This was despite resettlement farmers working harder to reduce predation by taking measures like kraaling (enclosing) their cattle at night or herding their animals during the day.

Lessons learned

As land reform programmes progress in other countries, what lessons can be learnt from Zimbabwe’s experiences?

By planning resettlement schemes carefully as opposed to allowing them to develop haphazardly, authorities could focus resettlement in areas of greater agricultural potential. At the same time, it’s important to maintain connectivity within wildlife populations.

Using fencing that cannot be used to make snares could help. Strands of straight fencing wire is often stolen and used for snaring, but other fencing wire materials such as square mesh cannot be easily made into the loops used by poachers.

Importantly, land reform doesn’t have to mean changing land use. Land reform initiatives should maintain wildlife as a land use where it’s suitable, while diversifying land ownership. Leasing resettled land back to the former owners could also benefit wildlife while also retaining expertise and generating more income for a broader array of people than switching to subsistence farming.

The ConversationThe hope is that integrating community members as stewards of the land and helping them to benefit financially from wildlife, could encourage them to protect rather than poach animals. This will create durable solutions to the land issue.

Sam Williams, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology, Durham University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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Having an adventure

A few weeks ago on the drive to Noggs’ preschool we spotted a hot air balloon overhead. We see them many mornings as they fly over us to view the wildlife in the reserve with the mountain backdrop. Noggs pointed to basket of the hot air balloon and said, “Look people, they are having an adventure!”. This surprised me because I didn’t realize he knew the word adventure. We also didn’t realize he knew the word disgusting until we gave him some medicine. It’s like he has a secret dictionary in his head which he is slowly divulging word nugget by word nugget. He also knows words we don’t even know such as ‘poo poo lekker’. We’re not sure what it means but apparently poo poo lekker is naughty. Astounding stuff.

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This morning Noggs and Sam pulled the wheelie bin to the end of the driveway for collection. When they returned after a little while, it was announced that they took longer than expected because they were “having an adventure”. This adventure involved riding Nogg’s bike, going on a bush walk, and collecting rocks and sticks.

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Running through the leaves.

I often consider having an adventure to mean riding in hot air balloons, flying to exotic places, and experiencing something completely exotic, something very big and out of the ordinary. To Noggs though, his definition of having an adventure can be flying in the sky but it can also be picking up a cheese puff he found on the ground outside a shop and eating it. Both are equally thrilling to him.

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Having an adventure.

Although I definitely crave ticking countries off my list and having big adventures, I am starting to appreciate the small adventures in our backyard more because of Noggs’ more open minded definition of having an adventure.

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Climbing in a digger we found in a car park so Noggs could pretend to drive.

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Having giraffes in the backyard and Kruger National Park down the road definitely makes it easier to have adventures.

And to end, a quote…”Enjoy the little things in life because one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.” (Kurt Vonnegut Jr.)