From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

William, our new guide, arrived in camp Wednesday night straight from fighting a large brush fire on a neighbouring farm. I have to commend Team 3 on their teamwork and bush relay communication skills, because Barbara and Diane had spotted the fire when they were in the mountains near Kuduposten. There’s no cell phone coverage up there, so they took the initiative to drive back to the lodge and tell Christian about the fire.

Fires are an extreme hazard here in the dry season, and can spread quite quickly. Normally everyone drops what they are doing to extinguish them because they gain speed rapidly. We volunteered ourselves and our team to help, but we were not needed. The fire was on a neighbour’s farm and many people from several other neighbouring farms went to help. Thanks Team 3 for being willing to do whatever is required out here!

bushfire1

Thursday Team 3 got up early and drove out to our respective start points for the vehicle game count. On Route 1 there was much excitement: the entire team heard a leopard in the distance and Ligeus saw it through the binoculars before the animal disappeared into the rocky hillside. Route 2 members saw the baby rhino near CS house. Route 3 members, well, we found an ostrich egg. Fun stuff for every team.

Friday everything hummed along as usual. It’s really getting hot here during the days, and the team suggested we start earlier. Good thinking! We’re now starting our morning activities an hour earlier in order to beat the heat. Those of you at home who have yet to pack don’t need that extra sleeping bag I mentioned at the beginning of the diaries, but still be sure to pack lots of layers because some nights here are still quite cool. The best thing you can bring now is a sun hat and long, light sleeves to protect you from the burning rays of the sun.

Saturday was our “day off”. The team volunteered to check box traps in shifts and then drove to see the rock art. Nothing exciting to report except for a reluctant porcupine that decided it was quite cozy inside our box trap. Monday was a stellar day for tracks and scats—seven cheetah and three leopard scats were waiting for Vera when she came to evening briefing. We’re seeing leopard tracks all over the farm, including some quite nearby our box traps, so it seems only a matter of time….

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

Group 3 arrived on Sunday, and we’re a notable group because we’re all women. (Our male staff are having a blast I’m sure!) Training went very quickly and smoothly, and group three stunned us with their ease at adapting to our tasks. It’s always great to see how adaptable, eager and open the volunteers are to trying new things. We’re having a blast AND getting the science done. Go girlpower!!!

The first night Monika and I got a nickname: Team Gecko, because we shepherded a small gecko out of the lapa using our bare hands as corrals. We finally herded him out and onto the steps outside where we hope he’ll grow large and hearty.

Group 3 is the smallest team of volunteers Vera and I have worked with, so we’ve had to adapt some of the activities in order to get all the tasks done. It’s only this team’s second day out in the field and they make me so proud with their flexibility and willingness to dig right in.

Yesterday, Tuesday, their first task was to collect the repaired box trap (the one that caught the female leopard last week) and install it up at Bergposten. In the afternoon the entire team piled into the back of a truck to learn telemetry and observe the elephants, and was rewarded with a viewing of the entire elephant herd at the Sandposten waterhole for their first elephant encounter.

We got to watch the elephants drinking, then bathing and cavorting around in the water, and then witnessed their sand bath while one clever little one went back to the waterhole and drank from the source instead of the nasty elephant-bath-and-poop water. Team 3 is still in for their bush surprise when they learn how well camouflaged an elephant is and how easily they slip away from our sight. Right now team 3 thinks elephant observation is easy…the elephants will set them straight… J

Both teams stayed out in the field all day today getting a lot done. Our box trap/scats & tracks 3/camera trap/elephants team of Rebekka, Monika and Ligeus came back first and popped three cold ones to beat the heat. Diane and Barbara looked like they, too, needed a cold beer when they came back from the mountains…turns out they’d reset two box traps in addition to changing a flat tire as well as their bit of box traps and camera trap.

If you look closely in the one picture of Rebekka and Monika processing and labelling the scats, well, I can assure you that I’ll be having my dinner on the opposite end of the table.

It should be a very interesting briefing tonight…

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

We’d given the traps at the lodge a “night off” (really an opportunity for the mother and cub leopard not to be bothered if they were still in the area recovering), and Sunday morning Team 2 reset the lodge box trap. John, Valerie, Lesley and Jesaja had quite some work because of the leopard caputre, and we’d actually split into two box trap teams for the task. The trap that caught the mother leopard was brought to Vera’s base for repairs, and we collected the release box out of the field as well. That leaves us three box traps still set (Frankposten, behind the farm owner’s house and the one at the lodge).

John and Lesley set out to (not) find the elephants, frustrating because once again the team knew where they were, but there was no track close enough to view them. Lynne and Valerie checked box traps in the afternoon (empty), while Glenn stayed at base to do data entry.

Thursday’s “Black Mamba” vehicle game count team re-encountered a monitor lizard on their route (thanks Valerie for several nice pictures added to this diary). Lynne had a “magical” encounter with the elephants at Boma, when she single-handedly recorded elephant behaviour. Other pictures are of Team 2 working in the field.

We’re having some maddening problems with the Bushnell cameras. One, the display stopped working. Another, it seems to like to spit out the batteries right after the volunteers set it, so we don’t get any pictures. Super frustrating since these cameras were installed in the mountainous area of Okambara, so that means furtherst away from base camp.

The good camera news is that our Tracks and Scats team found a leopard “marking” place (it’s a place with a lot of defecation, so marking is not the proper term but that’s what we’ve nicknamed it). We set a camera trap up there and once we get the cameras working properly, then we’ll see who’s coming around.

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Other good news is that our partner scientists have flown over the study site, collecting data from the collars of several animals, and our female leopard L074 from Monday was on the download. We were able to see her movements after her immobilisation, and as predicted she laid low until her immobilisation drugs wore off, then climbed the ridge behind and walked off down the ridge.

Team 2 leaves today and it’s hard to believe it’s already been two weeks. It’s been a very productive and interesting two weeks. Thanks for your flexibility and eagerness to get out into the field and do whatever is necessary, including Valerie and Lesley taking a bag of intestines up into the mountains and dragging them towards a trap in order to entice a leopard. Not all of our work is pretty or “nice”, but thanks to all of you for tucking in and getting it done. My favorite Vera quote this week: “Is it my imagination or is everyone getting out into the field freakishly early?”

Team 3? See you on 7 September after the week’s break. We have a box trap that’s ready to be placed back into the field, lots of animals to be counted and elephants whose feeding behaviour we need to record, so pack your sunscreens, water bottles and get ready to roll up your sleeves and get down to the business of catching more leopards!

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

Glenn dubbed yesterday “Double Leopard Monday” because we had an historic event on Okambara: yes, we caught two separate leopards in one go and collared one. Here’s how it happened: Saturday we’d just had a team meeting, brainstorming about why very few animals were going into the traps. We are following all the protocols from last year – changing the meat every 3-4 days, leaving as little human scent as possible around the traps and applying all the good housekeeping methods of attracting leopards.

Sunday morning Glenn and Valerie were the box trap team, and they called in a leopard at the lodge box trap. Excitement! Vera called around for a veterinarian while she and I drove to place a shade net and water for the animal. Sunday was part of a long holiday weekend, and the veterinarian could not come until the following morning. (This is completely okay for the animal to spend one night in the trap—we made sure he was comfortable and safe from other predators.)

The leopard was a young animal about a year old, and since he had to spend the night in the box trap anyways, Vera decided to set another trap next to the cub to see if we could catch the mother.

We met the veterinarian at dawn on Monday, and the anticipation was keen while we waited for Vera to check the trap the next morning to see if we had one or two animals to collar. The beaming smile on Vera’s face gave it away—success! We’d caught the mother as well.

We had a long morning of setting up the field hospital, immobilising the animals one at a time, taking samples of the cub and placing a rice-sized chip in him (the same kind that veterinarians place in pets that can be scanned and read if an animal goes missing, in this case for if he ever gets caught again we’ll know when and where he was first caught.) Too young to collar, we filled him with fluids to ease his immobilisation hangover, and Lynne, our resident (retired) nurse, helped the veterinarian look after him.

Afterwards we placed the cub in the shade in a transfer box so he’d be safe while we immobilised and worked on his mother. In the prime of her life and recently very well fed, the mother was fierce and protective of her cub and took longer to immobilise than her cub. By the time she was collared and placed in the shade with a shot of sedation reversal, it was 13:00 before the team left Vera and the veterinarian watching over the waking up and releasing of the cub and mother together.

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Team 2 stood in the hot sun watching and helping with the immobilisations for hours, but they were wired when we got back to camp for “breakfast” at nearly two o’clock in the afternoon. We’d left bush camp at 5:30 in order to check box traps and meet the vet at first light, but believe it or not they ate a few bites and eagerly jumped into the afternoon tasks that needed to be done. Team 2 you are really terrific. Thanks for all of your helpfulness, good humour and team spirit. You rock!

Vera is extremely excited at having caught and collared her first female leopard on Okambara. Collaring females within the ranges of male leopards has been a goal of hers for the past year, so it’s thanks to you –  all of you – for making that happen. Shall we try for another two next Monday?

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

Well, we have a new record for the number of camera trap pictures the data entry team has to look through. Team 1 was shocked by the 3000+ pictures on the SD card, yet John from Team 2 suffered, er, poured over 9,569 pictures taken at Bergposten. He is now a self-proclaimed expert in baboon behaviour. (John also points out that the card was only half full, so the potential exists for 20,000 pictures for the next unsuspecting citizen scientists to pour through.)

Thursday was our vehicle game count, and the team reported slightly more early morning game activity. Also with the time change we started fifteen minutes earlier than Team 1. My team for that activity is now dubbed the “Black Mamba Team” for reasons of which I cannot discuss in the diary. (Some tall tales need to stay on Okambara.)

Saturday was our day off, yet once again this team wanted to work and volunteered for tasks that normally Vera and I are left to do on the day off. John, Glenn and Mei were rewarded for their efforts by being the team that found and released a beautiful genet. John did the proper thing and stayed far away from the release, yet with his telephoto lens caught the animal at the perfect time in its release for the attached picture.

MDamGenet-1000

Saturday was a sad day for us because Mei left in the morning. She was an integral part of the team the first week and a great volunteer, but unfortunately her work schedule sent her off to South America mid-slot. Mei you are missed!

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

Team 2 hit the ground running. We’re a small group, but full of enthusiasm and have already been trained up on all the equipment. Glenn, Lynne, Lesley and Mei came out with me on the first day and learned how to use the telemetry equipment to track the elephants. They also learned how well the elephants can blend into the savannah and how frustrating it can be when the entire herd is in the exact middle between tracks and we know where they are, but we cannot see them.

John and Valerie walked with Jesaja on the first day on the tracks and scats route #9. The surface was hard for them to read with the pockmarks of the light rain that came down. Yes, rain. We woke up to the unusual sound of the patter of rain on the thatched roofs. This was big and most-welcome news for us since we are now in the heart of the dry season.

Yesterday we caught our first rock dassie (rock hyrax) by-catch. Normally hiding in the rocks, this fellow was found hiding under the trigger plate of the trap. Evidently the animal gave Ligeus, Lynne and Leslie quite a scare when it stopped playing “dead” and raced out of the trap as soon as they opened the door to investigate.

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

We thought we’d share some of our “Best of” camera trap pictures and team photos while we’re busy training Team 2…

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

It’s been a whirlwind week of checking box traps (liberated: one rock monitor lizard, one hare and one porcupine), setting up camera traps, trouble-shooting camera traps (re-aligned by baboons, some not taking pictures, some taking too many pictures), fixing up waterholes (Emil the bull rhino used the one at Gustavposten as a scratching post), doing water hole observations, early morning vehicle game counts (1 cold and one not-so-cold-but-windy), observing elephants, walking around the bush looking for tracks (lots!) and picking up scats (lots!).

We did two evening observation drives and while we did not see any aardvarks, which were my original idea because of the plethora of new holes dug in the farm tracks, the teams reported seeing an aardwolf, bat eared foxes, “loads of springhares” and jackals. Evening entertainment included “Banana Grams”, a simple word game made very confusing by each participant making words in their own language (English, French, German and Italian). Verification was next to impossible. Evening briefings were made more artful by Marco’s pictogram explanations of the day’s activities. Thanks Heinz for letting me post some of your pictures with this diary!

Team 1 has just left for the Josephine Gate and it’s very sad to see them go. They formed a solid working team quite quickly, and really impressed Vera and I with their work ethic and willingness to spend long hours in the field making sure everything got done. Up and out at times before the “regular” departure time, their willingness to go out in the cold and count game animals was remarkable, and their willingness to go out into the field all day working on a smorgasbord of activities got us off to a great start. A big thank-you to all of you for your ability to make hard work fun, and for your contributions to the leopard project. Safe travels home.

Team 2? See you Sunday!

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

How to Set up a Box Trap in 5 Easy Steps

1. Gather 9 citizen scientists

2. Fill buckets with sand and make a nice floor for leopards to walk on

3. Do leopard-liking landscaping inside and out

4. Hang Fresh Meat

5. Install Doors and Activate Trap!

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

Team 1 has arrived and has already had one day of briefings so far. We’ve stuffed their brains full of useful information on bush safety, using GPSs, rangefinders, compasses and other equipment, and right now Vera is going over the datasheets. After lunch everyone will learn how to change a tyre in case of a flat, even the non-drivers. Then we’ll move on to the 4WD training, then straight into field work, because we have three open box traps on Okambara and they need to be checked twice a day.

We spent the afternoon learning how to change flat tyres then went out into the field for our 4WD training. Late afternoon tasks included a briefing on how to check the box traps and some animal identification practice. Tuesday will be our first full day working in the field.

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