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

With the freezing overnight temperatures continuing we decided to deactivate the box traps for a couple of nights. This was to prevent the capture of smaller animals that cannot cope with such low temperatures at times when they are usually in their dens. Thankfully this spell of weather has passed and the nights have warmed up again, so all the traps are fully operative. However, nothing to report in terms of captures. We have tracks of predators walking near the traps, but nothing has gone in as yet…

The elephant teams have been continuing their observations morning and afternoon and getting quite close to the animals now, something that we were unable to do in the first slot. This has meant some interesting feeding observations and also some reversing to maintain our 50 metre distance rule (we should not get closer than this for safety reasons) as the elephants are wandering towards us and have, on occasion, appeared out of the bushes at a closer distance, but always calm and relaxed. It’s amazing that such large animals can be invisible in acacia bushes.

Our waterhole counts have been interesting too – there are a lot of different species here, with everything from giraffe, to cavorting wildebeest and shy oryx, not to mention the donkeys who were a surprise to me. Due to the destructive nature of the elephants here, it is not sensible to build the sort of hides that you can find in Europe – nice wooden boxes for people to sit in with a window slit to look out of.  Unfortunately these don’t last long as the elephants can be very inquisitive and when they want to find out about something they investigate with their trunks and objects often don’t survive very long. So we use adapted bushes with enough foliage to keep people covered and just enough room for three people sitting on folding stools. These have worked very well in fooling one species – the elephant team spent 20 minutes in front of the newest hide doing their radio telemetry work and noting cheetah tracks before one of them followed some tracks right to the door of the hide and three laughing people. It has been more difficult to hide from the other species, most animals seem to know that we are there, often staring straight at the hide before drinking and going about their business. This month is known as the month of changing winds and we more than suspect that the animals can smell us (some team members even claimed to have had showers the same day so they don’t understand it). Our evening camp fire discussions over the last couple of nights have included a lot of debate on hide design – a portable, collapsible design seems to be the most favoured at the moment, but I think we will have a proper design competition before the end of the slot.

Giraffe at the waterhole
Giraffe at the waterhole

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

The temperature has dropped again over the last few nights with ice on the waterholes early in the morning and our water pipes freezing, so there is no water first thing in the morning. The Land Rovers have also refused to move before they have warmed up, but teams have still managed to leave camp by 08:00. On Thursday morning a caracal was found in box trap number 1 (a quick congratulations to the team from the last slot who set this trap up before they left – their third capture, truly box trap setting gods:)). The wildlife vet came to sedate the animal so that samples could be taken, and the usual efficient and professional organisation came with her. She arrives on scene with helpers (some also qualified vets) and a tent is set up with a table for the animal to be taken to once it is sedated. A clock sits over the proceedings and everyone works quickly to ensure that the animal is sedated for the minimum amount of time. Our team members likened it to everything from the set up used by Medicine sans Frontier in the field, to the arrival of a CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) team.

CSI field lab
CSI field lab

Caracals are known to bruise their faces when they are in box traps, something that they quickly recover from, but our animal had damaged its lower teeth, a very rare happening, so a decision was taken to remove it to a large enclosure where it could be watched for some days before release.

One team was very fortunate in finding some big drag marks crossing their path, and on following them into the bush they found the remains of an impala that had been killed by a leopard.  It was a very fresh kill, which means that the leopard will be back to eat more. A decision was quickly made to move one of the box traps to this location and set up a kraal around the kill so that if the leopard wanted to get to the meat, then it would have to go through the box trap and hopefully be captured. The team worked hard with the very spikey acacia bushes to create a kraal that the leopard could not get through. This morning we found the tracks of the leopard coming back to have a look for its kill but it hadn’t tried to reach it  – we are very hopeful that it will ‘take the bait’ within the next few nights…

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

The temperature has been slowly warming up as the team has warmed to their tasks. There were two days of training and yestreday have completed the first two full days of work. The training all went well – the presentation about the abilities of the Land Rovers have obviously been taken on board a little bit too well by Ilka. When she was driving there was a comment at one point, in unison, by the two passengers in the back of the vehicle pointing out, ‘There’s a big hole’.  The response from the driving Ilka was ‘This is a Land Rover’. With no pause, the reply came from the voices in the back ‘It’s still a big hole!!’.

The box traps were disarmed during the team change-over, so that no animals were captured whilst we were busy with training. They were re-armed yesterday and today, and new camera traps have been installed to add to the ones already in the field.

Setting a box trap
Setting a box trap

Already we have found several tracks of predators, and our work to understand the elephant movements has begun with several observations, during some of which we were able to get very close to the animals and see them ripping off parts of bushes.  In one instance we witnessed one of the larger animals working out whether to knock over a tree or not – she decided against in the end, but it was a good example of how the elephants work things out and test out their strength on potential sources of food (pushing hard with the front of their head between their tusks).

The team members are all working well together. They are getting used to the daily planning cycle and the constant changes and adaptations necessary to plans as things develop the way they do on expedition. The showers are hot and the beer is cold, there are a lot of beautiful animals to observe and a lot of work to be done. One team member, Fritz, made a good comment about his normal work that applies well here – he said that it is best to have a vision and to react to circumstances in a way that supports the vision. Plans should follow the vision, not lead it – very ‘expedition’!!

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

Hello I am Kathy, your expedition leader for group 2. My time in Namibia here started with a highlight the day before yesterday. When Kristina and I took outgoing expedition leader Malika to the airport, we saw a leopard crossing the road! Sightings of truly wild leopards in the field are very rare, so to spot one crossing the busy road to the airport was like hitting the jackpot.

We took the same road again with group 2 after assembly (everyone has arrived safely). There were more leopards to be seen, but the giraffes were there to greet us when we arrived at our study site. We were then straight into the training sessions finishing up with more questions (and a beer) around the fire before supper.

Giraffe
Giraffe

It’s still cold but the showers are now hot – fingers crossed it will stay that way.

Today it’s more training and into the field.

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

Group 1 of this year’s Namibia expedition ended on a high with the capture of a massive hyaena on Wednesday and sedation and handling on Thursday, the day before group 1 had to leave.

Collared hyaena
Collared hyaena

At base we’ve gone back to the basics over the last few days. First no water due to a broken waterline and then no electricity due to a generator breakdown. Most of us just skipped showering and instead enjoyed standing around the fireplace in the evening, the only source of light and heat in camp. The sky was amazingly clear and the stars were shininig brightly – there’s no better way to enjoy a night in the African bush?

On Wednesday we also conducted a vehicle game count. The team was ready to roll at 06:00 in about  six layers of clothing, hats and gloves, but the Land Rovers did not want to start up because it was too cold. We finally got them up and running at 07:30, lazy buggers!

Thank you group 1 for all your hard work and roll in group 2!

Trailblazing group 1
Trailblazing group 1

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

Hello from the bush hospital with news of our first leopard capture of the expedition!

A gastro-intestrinal virus is going round and seven of us have gone down. All the rehydration sachets have gone, as have the bananas. There weren’t many people around the dinner table last night. To make things even more uncomfortable, a cold front has moved in, so group 2, don’t forget to bring at least one layer of warm clothing.

These minor inconveniences aside, we’ve had an interesting time over the last three days. Saturday’s box trap team Liz, Stacey, Jay and I found trap BT3 closed. At first it did not look like there was anything inside, but when we approached on foot, we could tell immediately from the noise that there must be a leopard inside. What a great start to the expedition! Pictures from the camera trap next to the trap also showed us that this was a popular place attracting a rhino, a hare and “our” curious leopard who was caught candid-camera-like walking right in on Friday night and then looking somewhat sheepish inside about twelve minutes later.

We called a vet for the sedation, the rest of the team and then set up our field lab. The first (female) leopard of this expedition was named L038, is about 18-20 months old and weighs 25 kg. Her neck circumference is 35 cm; too small to wear a collar (adult females measure about 40 cm). Once we had taken all the samples and given her the wake-up shot, we left her alone for about three hours before coming back to release her. Guess what happened when we opened the gate: nothing! We sat around for 90 minutes waiting for her to come out, everyone with their cameras ready to get THE release shot. Still nothing. And you can’t blame her for being put off by four Land Rovers full of people facing her. So we left her in peace and found the trap empty when checking two hours later. So long L038, we’ll be on your heels from now on, and what a great start for group 1!

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

Four box traps are in place. Everyone worked hard to build leopard-proof kraals around the trap entries by cutting and arranging thorny Acacia branches. The ground was then flattened and the bait hung up in a tree. Leopard-woman Kristina co-ordinated the workers from above (see picture). For the leopard the only way to get to the ‘lekker’ meat is to walk into the trap (‘lekker’ means tasty, good, nice – my favourite Afrikaans word!).

Leopard woman Kristina
Leopard woman Kristina

Kirsty, Philipp & Giles were the first to check the traps this morning. They reported fresh leopard tracks around one of them – very good news! If the leopard doesn’t eat today, he might be hungry enough to walk into the trap later..

Cate, Sanya & Brian also reported fresh leopard tracks on one out of seven walking routes they were on yesterday. Led by Jesaja, one of two local trackers here to share their knowledge with us, they bravely walked 9 km and finished the survey only when it was dark.

Leopard calls were heard at base early in the morning today – they are all around, we only have to catch the buggers if we can ;).

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

The pictures below show survey teams (1) trying to get the elephant herd telemetry signal before leaving base so that they know where to drive to ;), (2) finding the elephant herd and observing its behaviour and (3) filling in the  datasheet (what do they feed on?). This is one of the questions we want to answer with your help this year as surprisingly little is known about the feeding ecology of these magnificent animals.

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

Our trailblazing group 1 has survived introductions, training sessions and a 4×4 driving course and is now out in the field to set up the first box trap. In the last couple of days we learnt a lot about Namibia, the ecosystem we are working in, our study animals and their prey, research methods and safety procedures in the bush.

We also had our first elephant sighting yesterday afternoon – three mothers and six juveniles showed up for us at ‘Frankposten’ waterhole. They were busy drinking, playing and taking a dirt bath when we came across them just as it was getting dark. It was a thrilling experience and unsurprisingly everyone is keen to go out for more.

Elephant
Elephant

I am happy to report that group 1 did not have to join in the dirt bath shenanigans, albeit a minor teething problems incidents at our brand new field base (a broken water pump) has split the group into hot shower wimps and cold shower hardcore expeditioners. The wimps, however, showed great esprit de corps by letting the hardcore contingent use their showers…

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

This is a quick hello from Kristina, our helpers and I. We spent the last couple of days (and nights!) with preparing paperwork and and getting set up with the work you will be doing. Group 1 will be the first team ever to survey the herd of nine (wild!) elephants in the study site. And wild they are indeed, and agressive they can be, so this will literally be no Etosha / Krueger cushy drive in the park where you will know where the pretty tame and vehicle-habituated animals are by spotting all the safari vehicles around them! More on the dangers and how to avoid them when you get here.

Elephants
Elephants

We’re about to move into camp – believe it or not, construction work is still going on all around camp with a small army of workers swarming around in a good termite mound impression. But the houses look good and habitable (sort of). You’ll be glad to know that the furniture has turned up and also the mattrasses. We also think that the bathrooms will be connected soon to the water line, otherwise it’s dust baths for group 1 to get into the spirit of elephant surveys. And we all know that no true expedition is ever complete without getting really dusty. As to the bar, you’ll have to find out when you get here.

These minor comfort issues aside, we are as excited as you hopefully are and we are looking forward to meeting trailblazing group 1 tomorrow morning at Casa Piccolo.

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