Our third team has arrived. They’ve brought along with them good luck and some strange weather. The first night, right on cue after the daily briefings, a rhinoceros family arrived at our waterhole. It’s always fun to watch the comings and goings just outside base camp.
Speaking of watching things, team member Sandra B. even brought her own camera trap, and while she caught mostly images of cows, she did manage to capture a couple of curious jackals sniffing out the trap. We haven’t seen last night’s visitors yet, but just as everyone was going to bed the elephant herd came to our water hole, and I can tell you it was a reverential event. Joerg Melzheimer, the biologist who brought Biosphere Expeditions to this beautiful study site and now makes sure from the wings that our science does what it’s meant to do, had just finished giving his presentation on the elephants and their behaviour, when all nine Okambara elephants arrived. I know we’re not supposed to use smart phones out here in the bush, but I for one am glad he rang them up and invited them 😉
The elephants proved a little more elusive during the day today as the morning team couldn’t quite locate them. It would seem they were on the move all day long, because the afternoon team found them, but they were almost 8 kms away from where we’d tracked them in the morning. Also this morning Vera gave us a presentation on how box traps work, and Gabi volunteered to give us a live demonstration on how the trap works.
Then Suresh took the initiative to get inside and get the job done. The group then split into three teams and we went about our morning activities.
All afternoon it felt like a storm was brewing with dark clouds, shifting winds, and we all got excited when we felt the first raindrop. But after two more drops the rain went away, and we were left with dust storms all over Okambara. It has been two very interesting days!
Vera and I were reminiscing about the first two groups and we decided to have a look at the expedition journal. We’ve had some really original input from team members so far, and it makes us remember you fondly. Thorns? What thorns? Dust? What dust? Waterhole roulette?
Here’s some of what the first two teams wrote, and we look forward to sharing this with the coming teams. Team 3, see you on Sunday!
Wednesday we performed our normal activities in the morning, and the box trap team liberated another curious warthog from Frankposten. The schools here in Namibia are on break this week, and in the afternoon we picked up the farm children and the team took them on a game drive. They all enjoyed the outing, but I think we enjoyed the children’s company more than the game drive. Barbara and Dianne had a sing-along with the children and it was really fun.
Apparently me vs. meerkat was the highlight of the afternoon for Shelagh, since she immortalized the event in the Expedition Journal for every team hereafter to read about: The farm workers have a tame meerkat, which considers them its “family”. When we were picking up the children the meerkat took offense at my presence and attacked my boot, and I clambered up the side of the vehicle. Preposterous as this seems, I’d already seen it attack Vera’s boot the week before, so I was having none of it. (I note with irony that the meerkat didn’t like Claire’s boots any better, but SHE did not get immortalised in the journal!)
Our second Vehicle Game Count was Thursday, and again the teams were ready and eager. Sightings were plentiful and all three teams noted the abundance of oryx calf sightings in the morning hours. While it’s late in the season for the oryx to be calving, apparently they have the ability to postpone delivery while waiting for better feeding conditions, but only for so long. The last rainy season was quite meager (I’m told 70 mm as opposed to the “normal” ~450 mm), and the vegetation is sparse. If we’re, lucky the rains will begin early in December, but that’s a long time to wait. And they may not come early at all. It’s tough conditions in the savannah right now.
Friday morning we said good-bye to Team 2, and after one day here alone I can tell you are sorely missed! I checked all the traps all by myself yesterday, and it was very time-consuming. All the volunteer work here is so important; without you, we simply do not have the reach into the field activities that we do when you are here. So a hearty thank-you to you all! I look forward to meeting Team 3 next week!
This just in: two new species discovered by the camera trap at base camp! Whatever could they be? (An FYI to Paul and Joe, our jokesters in Team 1 – I could hear Vera laughing all the way across the compound when she looked at the photos from this camera trap. Shelagh from Team 1 was there too. Well done!)
The last few days we’ve released a variety of animals from the box traps. One particularly belligerent male warthog refused to leave the trap, trying to punish Vera who was on top of the trap setting him free. We also had a reluctant porcupine in the trap at Frankposten…he made himself rather comfortable in the box and refused to come out. Finally the team left him alone to sort out his own departure.
Waterhole counts reveal large numbers of warthogs, as Claire said, “There is quite a lot of activity in upper warthog-ville today.” (The team counted 24!). Other teams captured on film a family of giraffes coming to drink in their awkward, long-legged way, and at one point an aardvark drinking at the water hole (sorry Joe).
Also in the past days the elephants have been extremely cooperative, taking their baths and playing at the waterholes (Frankposten and Boma) during our observation periods, making for some great photographs. Speaking of elephants, Team 1: do you remember how we thought that the elephants were nestled in at the north end of the farm? Well, look what we found on the camera trap at base camp!!! This was taken on the night before your departure. All missed the tracks that day even though we were standing right there for our group picture!
And as if that wasn’t exciting enough, we have had several carnivores make appearances on the camera traps. We’ve seen a brown hyaena in the pictures from the JM South (or hole-in-the-fence) camera trap as well as another leopard, and this leopard was wearing a collar. Looking at the date of the picture (the same day we had the other leopard in the trap) and ID pictures, Vera realized that this is the leopard that the Biosphere teams caught and collared last year. That makes two collared leopards now on Okambara, and a total of three using the same hole in the fence. Exciting!
Thursday was our vehicle game drive, and vehicle one came across a fresh place where a leopard had made a kill and we saw the drag marks across the road (good eyes Gary!)
This is a really good example of why the work the volunteers are doing here is so important…without all the extra “eyes” in various places all over the farm, Vera would never have seen the drag marks on her own. Her normal path of travel to base camp is on the other side of the bush, and she would never have seen the fresh kill if not for the volunteers. So a huge thank you to the teams for extending her reach into the study area.
It was really a pleasure to watch how team two communicated via radios and SMS, and through everyone’s efforts – and flexibility – we were able to move and set up two box traps at the kill site that afternoon. The next morning we were rewarded with a HUGE male leopard (69 kg) in the trap. Vera and the IZW team weighed, took DNA samples, and collared him. Recognise Shelagh from team 1?
And, this just in from Vera: she has confirmed through ID pictures that the male leopard caught on the camera trap that walked by the hole in the fence but did not come through is, in fact, the very leopard that we have just caught and collared. So, a huge thanks again to team 1 for identifying that hole in the fence and helping to monitor the camera traps there. Way to go teams 1 and 2!
Team Two was greeted the first day with rhinos coming to the water hole at base camp (thanks Claire for the awesome picture!).
Luckily I was done with my briefing for the day, otherwise it would have been stiff competition. The team is now fully briefed and already in action in the field. Monday we did our driver training then checked the box traps. We decided to take the long way home and were rewarded with an extended encounter with a family group of sable antelope. Then just after that we saw not one, but TWO aardvark, and we have determined where they live, which is very exciting.
Tuesday morning the team learned how to change a flat tyre, and were already working well together. Vera brought us all to the box trap at Frankposten, where she gave a demonstration to the group on how the traps work. John volunteered to be the “animal” as long as we promised to release him. Claire did some housekeeping at the trap brushing off the soil so we would be able to see tracks the next day.
After the box trap demo we split up into three teams and went off to our activities: tracks and scats, elephants, and water hole. The elephant team was joined by scientist Joerg Melzheimer and treated to a memorable encounter with the elephants.
Tuesday afternoon the box trap team also found excitement with a female warthog caught in the JM trap. This morning a different box trap team found more excitement with a porcupine in the Frankposten trap. The morning waterhole team was treated to a myriad of animals at Frankposten, including some juvenile giraffes taking a drink. In the afternoon the elephant team had a long encounter with the elephants and was amazed to see the 1 meter branches that the elephants were breaking off the shrubs and eating. The afternoon waterhole team went to Boma, our tree-house hide, and had an interesting afternoon despite Andrew being allergic to the tree they were sitting in. The afternoon camera trap team collected SD cards and looked at pictures and saw heaps of cows but no carnivores in the pictures.
Tuesday our elephant study team had their telemetry skills tested by the elusive elephants. John’s joke of the day was, “how can we ‘lose’ a herd of elephants?” The elephants themselves had not gone missing, but rather we could not follow them into the deep savannah off the vehicle track. We’d located them via telemetry, but could not see them. It was frustrating to know where they were, but not spot them and therefore collect our data.
Tuesday night the team decided to go out for a drive around Okambara at dusk to see what wildlife is around at that time of day. The group that took the western loop was able to watch the night-time ablutions of a male rhinoceros, who took it upon himself to give us a very thorough inspection before moving off into the bush. One the way home the group saw two more enigmatic species, the aardvark (sorry you missed that Joe) and a spring hare. Both were very short encounters, but thrilled the team nonetheless.
Wednesday before dinner Jörg Melzheimer, a very experienced scientist who also works on Okambara, came and gave us a presentation on the ecology of the savannah and the fundamentals of the human-wildlife conflict here in Southern Africa.
After dinner we inspected the camera trap photos that we had collected earlier in the day, and were delighted to see our efforts rewarded.After watching hundreds of cows walk by, we were delighted to see two individual leopards on the camera – two more identification photos to add to her catalog. In addition to the leopards, we also caught a cheetah on a different camera, making Vera extremely grateful to the “Friends of Biosphere Expeditions” who supplied the three new camera traps for her use.
Also caught on camera was an oryx which, after making four attempts to do so finally cleared the small hole in the bottom of the fence, only to turn around and go right back through the way he came. Next up was the porcupine that provided us innumerable extremely close-up pictures of his quills. We went off to bed early for the next days’ research.
Thursday morning was our second vehicle game count, and our intrepid teams left at 06:00 to make it to the beginning of their transects at various points on Okambara. Afterwards the teams checked all the box traps (sadly empty) and came back to base for lunch. After lunch everyone pitched in cleaning up the vehicles and equipment, as well as entering data into the computer for Vera’s analyses.
This morning we delivered Team 1 to the gate and said our goodbyes. Thank you Team 1 for a great two weeks and for all the data you collected. You’ve set a nice example of teamwork for the groups that follow. Your legacy is the field work, and thanks to you we were able to identify 3 cheetah, 5 hyaena and 17 leopard tracks. Without Team 1’s surveying efforts, we would not have found the leopards tracks and the hole in the fence that led to your installing a camera trap in that location. And Vera says thanks for the two “snacks”.
A PS for following teams from Team 1: another reminder to bring warm clothes (even a windbreaker) as it is quite cold on the early morning vehicle game counts. Also bring a large refillable water bottle (or bladder) as it is quite dry here in the savannah and we all need to stay hydrated. And last, to all my fellow Americans, when Biosphere Expeditions says in the dossier to bring a lunch box, what they really mean is a re-usable plastic box to put your sandwich in, like Tupperware, and NOT a lunch box like you brought to grade school. Ask me how I know this when you get here 😉
And a PPS: if you refer to your pants as pants and not “trousers”, be prepared for the giggles from the Brits. Every time. Ask me how I know this when you get here 😉
Friday morning we conducted our first vehicle game count. It was quite cold on the back of the vehicles at six in the morning, but the teams did very well, both sighting the animals and with their identification skills. Each team moved directly into their afternoon activity re-activating the box traps, conducting a tracks and scats walk and observing the elephant herd.
Saturday was a “rest” day, with a leisurely morning including a team doing water hole observation and in the afternoon a walk in the bush with Jesaya, our expert tracker. This group surprised a pair of warthogs in their den, and both parties had quite a fright. Luckily there were no injuries and now that group has a story of a close encounter in the African bush to tell their friends back home.
Sunday (yesterday) was business-as-usual for the research team despite the unseasonal wind, and consequent dust storms, and three groups went out in the morning and afternoon. The morning tracks and scats team came back with two baggies of specimen, and showed off their prize while the other teams were eating their lunch. They are now being referred to as the tracks and snacks team…
The afternoon box trap team changed the SD cards in the camera traps, and last night before dinner we were treated to a slide show of all the animals that trigger the cameras, including team members checking the batteries. Among the most interesting triggers were several troops of baboons, a porcupine, streams of warthogs, a very curious bull and team members making funny faces while checking the batteries. Vera concluded the evening with an in-depth presentation on the subject of her PhD and how Biosphere Expeditions is helping her gather data for that while also enabling her to be one of the community liaisons for human-wildlife conflicts in the area.