Always looking for animals

Sam, Katy, and Noggs in Africa


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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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The why phase and playing Taboo with toddlers

Recently we stayed in the UK for quite a while. A few days ago we traveled back to Africa. It’s good to be back in the sunshine and amongst awesome animals again.

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Us in the UK.

Our nearly three year old is learning new words and phrases at lightning speed. He’s always listening creepily closely even when you think he’s not. Kinda like Alexa. If some of his trigger words (chocolate, Bob the Builder, playground, Lightning McQueen) come up in a background conversation, he switches onto high alert and demands more information. Luckily, he hasn’t learned to spell or look in the vegetable drawer of the fridge yet so we can still talk about c-h-o-c-o-l-a-t-e and hide our stash of chocolately goodness amongst the broccoli to sneak into our gobs when he’s not looking.

We have recently entered the asking why constantly phase. I have successfully answered most questions so far. Go me. The majority of questions relate to something occurring in the present rather than deeper and more complex queries. Why are you chopping pineapple? Why can’t I have a snack now? But despite my higher education, I’m pretty sure I don’t really know why the sky is blue. So I’m not looking forward to that one. I have vague idea relating back to my days in Mrs. Wainwright’s 10th grade physics class. To avoid transferring incorrect or completely made up information, my answer will probably be ‘ask your daddy’ or even ‘ask Alexa’. Both of them seem pretty smart. People say that it’s most important nowadays for kids to be able to source accurate information so I don’t feel too guilty about my fobbing off tactics.

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At the moment, Noggs is being Captain Word-Collector and when he hears a new word he wants to know what is means. The other day we read Hansel and Gretel. There’s a bit when the evil stepmother tells Hansel and Gretel’s father that they don’t have enough food for everyone and he must take his children into the woods and leave them there otherwise they will all starve. This story is dark – child abandonment and abduction type of dark. Noggs wanted to know what starve means. He also recently asked me what breathe means. It’s hard to explain these words without using more words that he perhaps doesn’t know or fully understand like lungs, air, and death. It feels like playing the game, Taboo, where you have to describe a word without using the actual word or certain associated words.

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It is definitely an interesting time developmentally as you can see the cogs in Nogg’s mind whirring constantly as he acquires more information. He is essentially being a scientific researcher of the world which is pretty cool. As researchers ourselves, we are pretty impressed. I’m especially impressed at how he remembers every little thing. I forget my shopping list in the car at the supermarket but Noggs remembers every detail about a not particularly impressive green toy truck we lost in an unknown location a year ago with vivid clarity. We will teach him to reference properly and then he can start writing publications on why he’s not allowed to have another snack, why he has to have a bath, and other fascinating findings. I’m sure the journal ‘Toddler Insights’ (which I just made up) would consider it. Peer review would be in crayon.

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I’ll give this manuscript minor corrections.


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More science, Gromit?: Publishing research as a conservation biologist

I submitted a journal article about the contents of poo today. I want to get a big fat marker out and cross that journal article off my to do list. It’s been on my list for far too long. In fact, it was on my finish before the end of 2017 list. Uhh that didn’t happen. Instead it’s been quietly haunting me while I waited for feedback from co-authors and for a long enough stretch of time so I could proofread it properly without a two year old driving a toy car on my head. The last time my son did this, he turned it on and the electric wheels got caught in my hair and I needed rescuing. I did not want that to happen again while I was checking my p-values.

Despite the elation of hitting the submit button (which is bigger than yours by the way), I can’t cross this paper off my list because it might get rejected or get major corrections (my nemesis) or minor corrections. Whatever, happens it’s not over yet.

Publishing scientific research is hard and tedious. In fact, I imagine that getting your research published is kind of like making Wallace and Gromit. Although it is apparent that a fair chunk of work goes into every scientific publication, on first glance a scientific paper looks relatively short and straightforward. You can do a good skim read through a journal article in about five minutes. But the amount of time, sweat, money, and tears that goes into every paper is phenomenal and is rarely ever fully grasped until you go through it yourself. This is why it’s like Wallace and Gromit. Using stop motion animation is really slow and it can take the animators days to create a four second shot. Most of the 30 minute Wallace and Gromit productions took about 18 months to create. And the same holds true of a roughly 16 page scientific paper, it take years of data collection and then a long period of analysis, shouting at R, writing, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting, submitting, waiting, rewriting, resubmitting, etc, etc, ad infinitum.

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And some journals, well a lot of journals, even make the scientists who conducted the research and wrote the paper pay lots of money to publish with them. Maybe you’ve heard of starving artists, starving conservation biologists are real too. I’ve seen them wearing rags and sleeping rough in remote field sites. It’s a crazy old world. And here’s the thing, I’m sure that it costs a lot to make Wallace and Gromit (just like doing scientific research) but after the Wrong Trousers is made, the production team can make money on it. They can sell it to TV stations and they can produce merchandise. I had a Wallace and Gromit stationary box when I was younger. With science, you put in lots of effort and money so you can share your findings with the world and in conservation, so you can make a difference to protecting threatened species. There’s not a whole lot of financial return, which is okay because that’s not the point but it’s a shame that it costs young scientists so much to publish in the first place. Post-publication merchandise is not really a viable option. Somehow I don’t think too many people will buy a t-shirt with a picture of brown hyaena and leopard poo on it.

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In 2003 starting out in wildlife research. A very sweaty Sam and I sleeping in a shelter we constructed in the Indonesian rainforest .

Sam is my science guru. He’s great at producing precise figures, running the statistics that make me want to stab things a million times, and he’s also really great at waiting for peer review feedback and calmly adapting his manuscript without taking it personally. I am more impatient and less forgiving. I think if Sam made a Wallace and Gromit show, he would firstly eat a lot of cheese for inspiration and secondly he would intricately and carefully orchestrate every tiny movement of our clay-molded protagonists. He would get on with it like a champ. I, on the other hand, would try for a bit, get annoyed, and then roll Wallace, Gromit, Shawn the sheep, and that penguin who dresses up like a chicken into one big rainbow coloured ball. But today I submitted a journal article. So until the reviewers get back to me and possibly crush my hopes and dreams, I’m going to give myself and my coauthors a big pat on the back and forget about it.

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Running stats in the scat lab.


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Conserving a childhood outside

We have recently finished watching Stranger Things 2 and it was pretty awesome. The show is homage to classic films from the 1980s like the Goonies. Watching it reminds me of my childhood. No mobile phones, lots of time outside exploring, a group of close friends, bikes, freedom. I lived on short road with a circle at the end. Across the road from our house lived two boys close in age to me. We knocked on each other doors and went out to play. We had bikes and we rode them around and around. We explored the woods, climbed trees, and made forts. I remember the summers when we would play outside until it got too dark to see, the sound of cicadas buzzing in the air. We never fought actual demogorgons but we had lots of our own big and small adventures. Time past, new kids moved to the street and things we’re never quite the same, eventually my family moved away, we grew up. But it made a lasting impression. I’m sure it shaped my career path and my parenting style.

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Research indicates that childhoods like this are disappearing. That we now live in a world where parents are scared to send their kids outside unsupervised. That we live in a playdate society where all play is organized, rather than spontaneous. That children today spend their time in a virtual world, rather than the outdoors. I also read this week that imaginary friends are becoming rarer because of increased screentime which leads to a lack of creativity. In 2001, about half of British kids had imaginary friends and today the number is about 17%.

I’m reading How to Raise a Wild Child by Scott D. Sampson (the paleontologist from Dinosaur Train) and it’s about encouraging kids to get outside again and benefit from nature. It’s pretty good so far but it makes me a bit sad. It’s worrying what this current trend in disconnecting from nature in childhood will mean for future environmental stewardship because often love and respect for nature is fostered from connections built early on. I also find it sad that books like this even need to be written. The first section lays out all the physical and mental benefits of spending time in nature. Scientists have done heaps of research proving that nature is extremely good for us. Of course, it is. The idea that parents don’t encourage their kids to spend time outside or don’t make the effort to be outside with them, seems very foreign to me (but I know, I am the converted!). The idea that we have to teach parents how to spend time outside with children or to send their kids outside seems strange and almost unhuman. No one taught my parents or my grandparents. As kids, we just went outside. Yes, we watched tv but it was limited in my house and that left lots of time for outdoor adventures. All I want to do now is be outside. But I know that outdoorsy people like us are becoming a rare breed so books like this are required and I’m glad that they exist.

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I also just finished rereading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. The story is almost completely set outside and when the characters are inside (like at school or in church), they just want to be outside. Outside is Tom and Huck’s setting for adventures and freedom, something every kid needs.

I hope that our son can have a version of the 1980s / early 1990s style childhood with a gang of neighbourhood kids on bikes. These can’t be extinct yet surely. And if these are heading towards extinction, as conservation biologists, Sam and I are going have to help preserve the outdoor childhood. And Africa has got to the perfect place to do this. We had such adventures outside as kids but with giraffes, zebras, and impalas, it has got to be even better. But wherever you live, if you are a parent, a grandparent, an auntie, or an uncle, I hope you will help conserve this invaluable facet of childhood by taking kids outside. My brother’s family goes birding with their son. My mother-in-law loves taking Noggs to beach. There is nature everywhere. I hope that this will help build a generation who are more environmentally minded. This planet and every living thing on it bloody well needs that.

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Gene-gle Bells

In case you are wondering what to buy someone for Christmas, I have a sciency suggestion. Last year my father-in-law (or bab-in-law as I should call him) bought Sam and I a DNA test each from ancestry.com. My initial reaction was – cool sciencey gift that involves bodily fluid and posting it to a lab, sounds fun. I was excited so we posted our vials of spit off and waited. As scientists, we have posted vials of monkey poo across the world so spit felt relatively tame and required a lot less paperwork.

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After awhile we received our results and found out where in the world our ancestors came from. There was a snazzy map and the results was interesting but not too surprising – no hidden Japanese ninja ancestry sadly. I thought that was it for my present. But it wasn’t. The DNA test also reveals how you are related to other people who have also taken a DNA test. I ended up being contacted by someone who I didn’t even know I was related to and helping them to determine who their biological parents were through sleuth work, DNA connections, and genealogical information gathered by my parents. Being part of this person’s journey to figure out where they came from was an amazing experience and was one my highlights of 2017. It also helped me to learn more about my family tree and become more interested in genealogy. So spitting in a tube is my present suggestion for 2017. Go science and Santa.

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Our spiky acacia Christmas tree in Zimbabwe


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.