Always looking for animals

Sam, Katy, and Noggs in Africa


We got inked

While living abroad, it feels like we spend a lot of our time convincing the authorities that we are not hardened criminals. Every time we apply for a visa we have to go to the police station and provide our fingerprints so that they can check that we are not tsotsis, which is what we did today.

Katy gets inked

Going to a South African police station tends to be fairly low tech experience. No computers or high tech fingerprint scanners are necessary for our police clearance application, all that is required is a form and an old-school ink pad. Which can be quite fun, if not a bit messy.

Not a crim

Unfortunately this system also has its drawbacks. The payment system was down today, so we have to come back again next week. And when the check is complete, the certificate often gets lost in the post, so you may have to go and start all over again. This process took 6 months for our friend. There’s no hurry in Africa.

Applying for proof that I am no crim

Applying for visas isn’t the only time we have to get our ink on. To our surprise, we found out first hand (ahem) that when foreigners get married in South Africa they also need to provide their fingerprints. It was so romantic.

Getting married or getting sent to jail? 

The South African police is not the only police service to whom weed to prove our innocence. For each visa application was also need to provide police clearance from the UK, although this is a less hands-on process that can be done online. The South African High Commission also once made Katy get clearance from the CIA because when she was a child she lived in the US for a few years. They found no evidence of her childhood criminality. The young criminal mastermind must have covered her tracks well.

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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.


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.


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.


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?



13. Favourite curse word?

Cunt nugget


14. Least favourite word?



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_





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Just don’t be last!

I recently ran the Skukuza Half Marathon in order to raise money for some of the community engagement work that the Primate and Predator Project does. I posted previously about raising money to sponsor a livestock guarding dog to reduce conflict between humans and leopards, so I wanted to update you on how the race and fundraising went.

I haven’t taken part in a running race since I was at middle school. All the pupils had to take part in an annual “cross country” race around the school grounds. No one really cared who won, the real action was the battle between the two slowest kids (it was always the same two) for not coming last. The loser was ridiculed for the rest of the year, but at least their punishment didn’t involve getting eaten…

The stakes were a bit higher in the Skukuza half marathon, held in Kruger National Park, South Africa. A vast wilderness approximately the size of Wales, the park is home to a vast array of free roaming wild animals including approximately 1,700 lion, 1,000 leopard, 3,000 spotted hyenas, 120 African wild dog, 120 cheetah, 14,000 elephant, 37,000 cape buffalo, and 10,000 rhino. At the start of the Skukuza race the announcer said “Beware of wild animals and do not separate from the group. We have had problems with this in the past!”. Predators like to pick off the slow, the sick and the weak from the back of the herd. The rules of the savannah, it turns out, are the same as the rules of the school yard: if you want to survive, you don’t need to be the fastest, just don’t be the slowest!


I run at Lajuma, but here in the mountains it is so hilly that I only run at about 7 km/h. That speed in the Skukuza half marathon would get you disqualified – they cut off the race at 3 hours and pick up any stragglers in a Truck of Shame™ (or at least that’s what I would cal it) for their own safety. My goals for the race were twofold: 1) don’t get eaten; and 2) not to be on that truck.

The start line at the beginning of the race

The start of the race was delayed due to rhinos on route. A couple of minutes later the organisers played the sounds of a lion roaring, signalling the start of the race. Along the way I saw rhino and hippos. There were armed guards patrolling the route to keep the runners safe, and a helicopter to keep an eye out for dangerous animals and chase them off the route. I ran, ran a bit more, and kept running until, just under two hours later, someone gave me a beer and said I could stop. The race was sponsored by Castle lager, so at the finish line they handed out free beer. There were also people handing out drinks to the runners during the race too – water, energy drinks and even beer along the way!


After: beer at the end of the tunnel!

The race was fun but it ended up being part of a strange triathlon. We were hosting a group of international studnents at Lajuma at the time of the race, so I was working on a very tight timeframe. So in two an a half days I had to drive 1,500 km (roughly the distance from London to Lithuania), run the half marathon, then teach statistics all Sunday as soon as I returned. I was a bit tired.

But it was all worth it. We managed to raise R8,000, which should pay for a dog, it’s vet costs, and make a contribution towards food for the first year. We plan to partner with Cheetah Outreach, who will bring their expertise in placing dogs with farmers. Hopefully we will be able to help a local farmer live side by side with leopards without the need to kill them. And I didn’t even die once.

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Sand dunes. Wildlife. Wide open spaces. These are some of the images that are conjured up when we think if Namibia. At least for me. For Katy it has always been that t-shirt that her dad brought for her after a visit when she was a nipper. So off we went to Swakopmund. Photos!

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Mussel beach. Boom boom!

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Namaqua chameleon

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Namib dube gecko. Their feet are webbed like snowshoes, so that they don’t sink in the deep sand.

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Katy in the namib dunes!

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View of the desert and the Atlantic, just before skydiving

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 We kayaked with cape fur seals!

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Then they came to swim with us!

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Quad biking in the dunes

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Still quadding in the dunes

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Sand boardoing!

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 Mammal! We saw a srpingbok in the Dorob National Park.

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The welwitschia is the national plant of Namibia. They are rare, and it could be easy to mistake them for a dying, wilted plant. But they are unique, rare and important – they are the only species in their family, endemic to the Namib desert in Namibia and Angola, and can live for over 1,000 years. They are depicted on the Namibian coat of arms.

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So why not do an impression?

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 Just like Flamingo Land!

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And finally we touched back down in stormy Johannesburg.

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Last month we went to the US to visit Katy’s family. And we took some photos. Here are some of them.

We had 6 hours while we changed planes at Heathrow, so we had the chance to catch up with Sam’s mum and sister who came all the way up from Cornwall to see us for a few hours. What would you do if you could spend a few hours in England? There was never really any debate – we headed for the pub! And on the way we happened to wander past Windsor Castle while they were changing the guard. It was a very British affair.

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Next stop – Seattle! We headed straight to the cabin owned by Katy’s family on the Puget Sound, which had great views of the ocean and Mount Rainier. When Katy’s dad asked what we would like to eat we said seafood – and seafood we ate! Oysters, lobster, acres of clams (even at the baseball game)! I seemed counter intuitive that the unit of measurement of clams was acres, but who are we to argue?

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Asking americans not to shoot at a sign I suppose is like telling Brits not to get drunk and rowdy. It only ever makes matters worse.

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The Pie Minister has spoken.

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It hurts my soul that Americans are largely unaware of the sheer and absolute joy that is meat pie. Fruit pie is fine but it a poor shadow of the tour de force that is the meat pie. I was chuffed that we managed to find an excellent meat pieary in Seattle. A shop in Freemont called Pie. Lap it up if you go there.

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I finally met Katy’s brother David and sister in law Jen and our nephew Patrick! It only took 11 years. And we had seafood!

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There is a troll living under the road in Seattle. you can lean on him. He doesn’t mind.

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Americans are nice but they don’t day abooooot enough so we went to Canada. Victoria to be procice, to see some friends from Durham, Patrick and Betsy. We had fish tacos while watching the seals!

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Time flies, especially when you are eating seafood and pies, so off we bezzed back to Africa. But again we had a few hours in Heathrow – this time it was Sam’s dad that we coerced to the dirty south to visit us. It was my birthday so here we are fighting over my birthday pie (cakes are for southerners).

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Thanks so much to Jack for bringing us to the US, Terri for having us, Katy’s family for visiting us in the US, Sam’s family for coming to London to see us in blighty, and the Russell for granting us time away from Lajuma!

See you later, world.

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Looking for my leopard

“Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”

These nice but slightly gay words were chosen by David Livingstone to describe Victoria Falls after he saw them in the mid 1800s. Where better to take a road trip when our old friends Tom and Sally came up to visit us for a week. On our way back we would traverse Botswana and visit Chobe National Park and the Makgadigadi salt pans in search of large hairy animals.

But first we needed some choones. Sorted.

First stop: Bulawayo, where we used to live. We just stopped long enough to meet some friends and try on a pith helmet, before forging on to the falls.



The falls are found near the point where where Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia meet. At 108 m tall and  1.7 km long, Victoria Falls is the world’s largest sheet of falling water. Locals call it Mosi-oa-Tunya (the smoke that thunders) because the spray raises 400m into the air, and can be seen from 40 km away, before it falls back down as localised rain that soaked us all to the bone. Katy won the wet t-shirt contest. There are rainbows everywhere. Even the moon makes “moonbows”. Maybe that’s what inspired Livingsone.





Taking high tea at the Victoria Falls Hotel, with amazing views of the falls and the bridge, Sally was in her element. It was all rather colonial.



At the Boma restaurant Sam ate the meat of 10 different animals! mmmm… animals.


After eating all the animals, we crossed the border to Botswana to look for leopards and other animals  in Chobe National Park. We never found a leopard, but we did find ourselves surrounded by enough elephants and managed to give Sally a phobia.










At The Makgadigadi Pans Game Reserve and Nxai Pans National park we found eerie salt pans, baobabs and even got to watch lions and cubs.







The road signs in Botswana were pretty accurate.


Cheers Tom & Sally. See you in London!