Always looking for animals

Sam, Katy, and Noggs in Africa


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The Easter lagomorph

In January there were Easter eggs in the shops. Yes, January. Noggs noticed. To Noggs large chocolate eggs must look even more enormous. I sometimes imagine being Noggs’ size and his perspective on the world. He must feel like Jack up the beanstalk in the land of the giants with tables at head height and toilets his little bum could easily sloop into. Holding an Easter egg must feel like holding one of the giant’s golden goose eggs. Anyways, occassionally when he sees something he wants in a shop it can be hard to convince him to walk on without a fuss. But with Easter eggs he has gladly accepted that he has to leave them because the Easter bunny is going to bring choccy eggs for him soon. He gives the Easter eggs a mature knowing nod, walks on, and then finds a cucumber to wave around like a sword while making pirate noises. It is nearly time now for the Easter bunny to spring into action and Noggs is counting the days.

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In South Africa, there are eight species of lagomorphs. Lagomorph is an amazing word for any member of the order Lagomorpha which is comprised of hares, rabbits, and pikkas. Don’t get the word lagomorph confused with legomorph which is what Noggs’ duplo does every day as he turns tree houses into cars with towers precariously attached on the back. Do say the word lagomorph in lots of different voices because it is super fun.

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For a short description of the some of South Africa’s lagomorphs, click here. One of these species, the riverine rabbit, is critically endangered as it has very specific habitat requirements and these fragmented areas in the central Karoo are being destroyed or degraded by humans for farming. Conservation efforts, particularly by the Endangered Wildlife Trust, are trying to save the riverine rabbit. We have the more common scrub hare where we live. Although we sometimes photograph them on our camera trap, we seldom see them, as they are nocturnal.

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I think the small stuff like rabbits, hares, mongooses, foxes, etc, are often overlooked when people think about South African wildlife. These species don’t receive the same attention that the big stuff does, but small mammals are really important. Sam published a research paper recently entitled ‘Predation by small mammalian carnivores in rural agro-ecosystems: An undervalued ecosystem service?’ In a nutshell, small carnivores like jackals and mongooses (sometimes referred to as mongeese) are often perceived as a problem for farmers and are persecuted. However, they could actually be providing rural farmers with an important ecosystem service by controlling rodents who destroy their crops. If you want to read more about this research check out Sam’s article in the Conversation ‘From foe to friend: how carnivores could help farmers’. Rabbits and hares are the same. Often undervalued, especially by the big 5 seeking tourist, but super important for the ecosystem. I have seen lions hunting rabbits and hares. They provide a good snack / meal for the bigger things up the food chain. They also eat native plants and disperse plant seeds (and chocolate eggs).

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Domestic rabbits can be small but mighty too. My dear friend Abbie is a licensed mental health counsellor in Massachusetts, USA and she has a therapy bunny called Peanut who works with her to help people. Although rabbits can make amazing colleagues and pets, people often underestimate how much care and exercise they require and how long they live, leading them to be the third most abandoned pet in the US. Easter can be bad for rabbits as young rabbits are often purchased as gifts under the assumption that they are easy to care for short-lived pets. When the reality kicks in a few months later, rabbits are often abandoned. So please do not buy rabbits as Easter gifts. If you need to buy Easter gifts for someone, you can always buy me chocolate eggs, as many as you like.

So that’s my take on rabbits, hares, and Easter eggs. Happy Easter for next week and hooray for all the small but mighty stuff.

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Eco-tips for people with the potential to become legendary

I am so impressed by my friends who have gone vegan or vegetarian for environmental reasons and by my sister-in-law who is incredibly proficient at reducing the amount of plastic she uses. One of my friends from high school posted this photo of all the rubbish she created in six weeks after a conscious effort to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

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That’s it, all of an adult in Australia’s rubbish for a month and a half. Amazeballs. I am proud to know legendary people like this. The planet really needs everyone to live like them.

I’m not quite one of these legendary people yet. Despite trying to live as environmentally as we can, we could certainly go greener. We try to make good decisions for the planet while allowing ourselves to lead healthy, enjoyable, and successful lives. We try to find a balance between it all.

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Going green.

I believe that if my legendary friends and family can adopt eco-awesome ways, just about anyone can. Excuses schexcuses. The environment is not lazy and it doesn’t have time for us to be lazy now. However, I do appreciate that it can certainly feel a bit scary to jump into to the deep end of the environmental pool. I invite you to start small. In this blog, I am sharing eight of our favourite eco-tips / environmentally conscious products. These are not things that require a complete uprooting of your life. You don’t have to become a sandal-clad kumbaya singing healing crystal waving hippy (thank goodness) to lead a less consumptive life. In fact, I hope you avoid kumbaya entirely and opt for some more tasteful and secular tunes. Sandals are good though. I love sandals so wear them if you want. Anyways, back on topic – you can still be you but a more responsible you. These tips require a bit of effort initially (also known as change which can be scary for the Sheldons out there) but not heaps and ultimately you end up saving money too. They are stepping stones to reducing the impact you make on the planet’s overstretched resources. And hopefully by making environmental decisions, you will inspire other people to follow suit. By purchasing environmentally conscious products you also send a message to manufacturers about what is valued in our society. The more people and businesses getting on board with environmental values the better. So here goes…

1. Reusable cling film

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I got an Abeego beeswax reusable food wrap set from my amazing warrior against plastic sister-in-law for Christmas. I love it. I feel so good about wrapping up unfinished food, rather than having a creeping feeling of guilt for contributing more plastic waste to the landfills. I love that we’re saving money by not buying new rolls of plastic wrap all the time. You can even make your own reusable beeswax food wrap which I haven’t tried but definitely should.

2. Lift club

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Guinea fowls in a row are the African version of ducks in a row.

We drive our child to his environmentally themed preschool and back every day. He’s in the Earthtots class. Since we’re working from home that means two trips there and back or just over an hour of driving a day. This feels like a big and slightly ironic environmental impact for one little Earthtot. We have recently started a lift club (carpool) with another nearby family. This has meant that we have both significantly reduced our environmental impact, gained more time in our days, and are saving money on fuel. I also enjoy taking more kids into school. I feel like a mother duck with a parade of ducklings waddling behind me when I drop them off.

3. Cloth nappies

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We used cloth nappies constantly for Noggs. They are better for the environment and have saved us a lot of money. I’m in the process now of selling our stash and I’m looking at getting about 50% of the original purchase cost back making it even cheaper. By selling them on, they will be reused by another family which makes them even more environmentally friendly. Here is a link to a previous blog post I wrote about cloth nappies. Another interesting read about them from a South African mother can be found here.

4. Sun drying clothes

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Getting our field clothes dry on a mountain.

When we led Earthwatch groups for the Primate and Predator Project we would help the volunteers have their clothes washed and dried once a week. I remember one volunteer from America telling her friend in absolute amazement that we are going to sun dry their clothes outside like it was some incredible revolutionary idea that had never been thought of before. I was surprised because sun drying clothes seems obvious to me but I guess it’s not to everyone. It’s hot, it’s sunny, it’s way better for the environment, your clothes, and your wallet than using a dryer. It makes sense. Even in England where it’s rainy and cold we used to ‘sun’ or air dry everything. Hang a line and get some sunshine on your underwear.

5. Pallet furniture

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Almost all of our furniture is second hand, as in belonged to someone before us. Two of our pieces (a coffee table and a bookshelf) are second hand in a different way. They are made from recycled wood pallets. I love recycled furniture. It looks amazing, has a story, and is again better for the planet. If you are up for a bit of DIY, there are plenty of plans and inspiration online showing you how to make pallet furniture yourself (click for an example).

6. Fake meat

Eating meat, especially meat from cows, has a huge environmental impact. Farming beef requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water and results in five times more climate-warming emissions. South Africans love themselves some meat, in fact a lot of meat. Braais (barbeques) are a huge part of the culture. There’s even national braai day on September 24th. I quite like the national braai day slogan ‘Unite around a fire. Share our heritage and wave our flag’. It reminds me of a t-shirt Sam has with giraffes on it which says ‘Giraffes united against ceiling fans. Ban the blade. Protect thy neck’. Two very important messages.

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Anyways, so despite enjoying a braai and a bit of meat, we try to only eat meat only occasionally. We prefer to eat game meat whenever possible which has a lower environmental impact and has enjoyed a proper free-range life in the bush. For Christmas dinner last year we ate a leg of impala which was delicious. We often eat fake meat made from quorn. Noggs like quorn nuggets. All kids seem to be crazy about nuggets. What is that about?

7. Decanting yogurt

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We try not to buy anything with excessive packaging for single serve foods and drinks like small water bottles or small pots of yogurt. They produce lots of nasty plastic waste almost immediately. We carry reusable water bottles everywhere. We decant yogurt into a reusable pot and send that to preschool instead of those little throw away pots. Decant is such a posh word for the transfer of yogurt into a neon lidded receptacle which will be consumed in the company of 20 toddlers. I like it though. I hope Noggs learns the word decant and starts saying it. I like the idea of a 2 year old saying decant.

8. Bamboo toothbrushes

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I always felt a bit guilty about toothbrushes. Their shiny plastic handles are only used for three months and then they end up in the bin. Then they take hundreds of years to decompose. That means that every toothbrush I’ve ever used until very recently (I estimate this to be about 99 toothbrushes) is still out there unchanged and they will remain there long after I am gone. Recently I swapped to bamboo toothbrushes which are designed to biodegrade and come in recycled biodegradable packaging. I feel much less guilt. I also feel like a contented panda while using one. Here are some suggestions for the best bamboo toothbrushes available.


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Roaring for big cats on World Wildlife Day 2018

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It is the UN World Wildlife Day so hooray. The aim of the day is to celebrate and raise awareness of the world’s wild fauna and flora, which is pretty much what Sam and I try to do everyday alongside keeping a small human alive. This year the World Wildlife Day theme is ‘Big cats – predators under threat’. I frankly couldn’t have thought of a better theme. Hooray indeed.

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For us, the last 10 years have largely focused on big cats and helping to reduce the threats they are facing. We have collected, washed, and analyzed hundreds of leopard scats (also known as big smelly and sometimes still warm piles of leopard poo) to understand diet. From the scats, we extracted all sorts of weird shit (pun most definitely intended) including intact baboon fingers, teeth, horns, and hooves. We caught, GPS collared, and tracked a lot leopards. We tried to catch and collar cheetahs for Sam’s PhD but they were too fast. No, just kidding, we just weren’t successful at catching them despite working our bums off as their population was quite low in the area we were working in. We worked with captive cheetahs to test if their spoor (footprints) is uniquely identifiable. We did a heck of a lot of camera trapping to understand leopard population dynamics. We have been involved with a lot of community outreach and education work. It has been fun, interesting, depressing, and uplifting. I hope we have made a bit of difference for predators and will continue to do so during in our postdoc positions.

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We also spend most of our holidays driving through the bush intently staring out the window looking for large cats.

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Even just finding fresh spoor is exciting.

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Why have we given so much of our professional and personal time to big cats? Well, large cats are just incredible. They are at the top of the food chain and are incredibly efficient killers. They keep the ecosystem in check, manage populations, and reduce disease. They remind us that the world is still wild and full of adventure. When you stand in the bush where wild lions live, you are reminded of your own fragility and weaknesses (which is something humanity could certainly use a little reminding of). They humble us. Big cats also inspire us and fuel our imaginations. They are symbols of power and strength. Finally, they are an integral part of the African identity and draw vital tourism to the continent.

Unfortunately, big cat populations are declining as the human population keeps growing. They are loosing natural habitats and prey as more of the Earth’s surface is taken up by human housing, infrastructure, and agriculture. They have large home ranges and as land becomes scarce, this often pushes them into farming or community land where they are killed because they pose real or imagined threats to livestock, game species, and humans. Non-lethal methods such as using thorn kraals and livestock guarding dogs can effectively protect livestock but often farmers are uninformed or uncertain about these methods and fail to appreciate the benefits of coexisting with predators. Greater information and support is required for farmers and communities.

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We found that one of the biggest threats to leopards at our study site in the Soutpansberg Mountains is wire snares. Snares are set up to catch food such as bush pigs, warthogs, and antelopes but non-target species like leopards, baboons, and brown hyaenas will often get caught in them and die.

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Large cats like lions and tigers are killed for their body parts which are used in traditional medicine, predominantly in Asia and Africa. Lion bone is now being used as a viable substitute for tiger bone. Tiger bone wine and cake is believed to have aphrodisiac qualities and cure malaria, arthritis, other bone ailments and rheumatic conditions, although no scientific merit has been associated with these claims. In southern Africa, lion bone trade is frequently linked to farms where lions are bred for canned hunting (animals are bred and raised in captivity to be released into the ‘wild’ a short time before a hunt is planned). Paying hunters often keep the skins and sometimes the skulls as trophies. The bones, previously discarded, have now become a source of commercial income and are legal to trade internationally up to a certain quantity with the correct permits. These farms sometimes offer lion cub petting under the guise of conservation. Unsustainable trophy hunting can also affect large felids. The documentary ‘Blood Lions‘ offers interesting insights into the world of canned hunting and lion farming. Watch it.

Large cats such as leopards are also being killed for their skins which are used in traditional ceremonies. Panthera, a felid conservation organization, successfully launched a campaign to manufacture and distribute realistic faux leopard skins for ceremonial uses in South Africa. This has been incredibly successful and the story is featured in the documentary ‘To Skin a Cat’. I haven’t seen the film yet but I really want to.

That’s all incredibly depressing but the publicity around these issues is certainly on the rise, as is research to find and instigate viable solutions. I hope that greater awareness and information will fuel positive conservation changes. So in honour of big cats and their role in inspiring our imaginations, here’s a poem I wrote about a lion and a boy. It still needs a bit of polishing but it’s a start.

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If you want to support big cat conservation this World Wildlife Day or any day, here are some ways you can get involved:

– Learn more about big cats and share information with family and friends. Remember to use the hashtags #WorldWildlifeDay, #BigCats, #PredatorsUnderThreat, #WWD2018,  #DoOneThingToday, #iProtectBigCats

– Donate to felid conservation organizations. Two organizations that we support are Panthera and the Cape Leopard Trust.

– Avoid participating in lion cub petting experiences (despite the above poem – that’s fiction, folks).

– For more ideas click here.

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