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Wild Dog Pups and Brown Hyenas: A Volunteer Adventure in South Africa

Wild Dog Pups and Brown Hyenas: A Volunteer Adventure in South Africa

Oct 28th, 2009, 03:24 PM
  #41  
 
Join Date: Mar 2007
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This is a wonderful report -- brings back some memories (wild dogs and eles) and makes me ready to go again (maybe the brown hyenas)! Thanks for sharing. I'll be watching for the EW installments.
samcat is offline  
Oct 28th, 2009, 04:53 PM
  #42  
 
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Your cheetah sighting was the needle in the haystack. Is his future likely bachelorhood?

Butterscotch pancakes in the bush, what a surprise.

I first learned there were such things as brown hyenas from Cry of the Kalahari.

Looking forward to the PC report, which will continue from this point, and that's not politically correct.
atravelynn is offline  
Nov 7th, 2009, 09:17 PM
  #43  
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Sorry for the long delay -- life has been complicated and busy these past few weeks. Here's another installment...
MyDogKyle is offline  
Nov 7th, 2009, 09:18 PM
  #44  
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PART 5: The Many Sides of South Africa

We had one last game drive at Madikwe this morning, extra early so that everyone in our vehicle could catch the late-morning flight or head off on the long drive back to Johannesburg. The usual suspects came out to greet us in the chilly morning air—zebras, a large group of giraffes with babies, kudu, steenbok and springbok, wildebeest and guinea fowl. I never get tired of seeing these beautiful animals.

We encountered four white rhinos this morning, two of them very close and inquisitive about our vehicle. Then it was time to visit the rhino carcass again, where the scene was starting to get more active. Greg told us that brown hyenas had been seen there earlier, but now the bigger, stronger spotted hyenas had run them off and were having their turn. When we arrived, a large spottie was working hard at the carcass, with a little jackal darting in and out for his share. The hyena was a stunner—a real glamour girl, by far the most beautiful hyena I’ve ever seen. Her coat was golden and shiny with lovely markings, as fluffy as if she’d just been shampooed (aside from the blood on her face, of course). It was so impressive to watch her tear into the tough rhino hide, and to hear the crunching of her powerful teeth. An audience of vultures and pied crows had gathered around to watch, too. We had a nice long viewing, during which another spotted hyena arrived and circled cautiously around in the distance, too nervous to come in to the carcass.

That would have been an outstanding morning in and of itself, but on our way back to the lodge we added a nice coda to it by encountering a group of juvenile lions sleeping on the road. They were calling for their moms with a low moan every now and then, but they didn’t seem too concerned overall as they lounged around on the sun-warmed earth. A “go-away” bird sat in a tree across the road, scolding them.

We had our last delicious meal at the lodge, packed up our bags, and said our goodbyes to our South African vehicle-mates, who were driving back home to Joburg. We had lots of thanks and big hugs for Greg, who was a terrific guide and a lot of fun. He drove us over to the airstrip with our friends, and we joked on the way about how a leopard should walk out into the road and give us our feline triple play… but it was not to be. The four of us boarded the little plane, and it was a quick and uneventful flight back to the city. Then, sadly, it was time to say goodbye to our new friends, too, as we headed off in different directions to explore more of South Africa. Hopefully we will meet up again someday.

At the airport we were met by Patrick, our guide from RNS tours who would be taking us to visit Soweto this afternoon. Patrick was great, and he really made our half-day tour more than just a quick survey of famous sites. He was extremely candid—and often very funny—as he shared his views on everything from current South African politics to the World Cup to religion to crime and South Africa’s future. Most significantly, he told us a lot about what it was like to be a black man growing up under apartheid, and what things were like for him in the “new” South Africa. We appreciated so much having a chance to talk with someone who was willing to share his views, both positive and negative.

Soweto was very much what we’d expected from reading about its history and seeing photos of the anti-apartheid struggle. In some ways, this historic corner of Johannesburg seems very much like numerous other places in poor, densely-populated corners of the developing world—the outskirts of Nairobi or Delhi, for instance. It’s the reasons for this place and its original purpose that are shocking and different: this was not a slum that grew organically from poor people migrating into the city, but a place to house black workers who were not allowed to live elsewhere under apartheid. One of the first things Patrick showed us was the old police observation area, complete with high towers overlooking the township. (Like most stops on this afternoon’s tour, we were only able to view it from the car. I think if you are interested in having a less rushed and more intimate exploration of the place, you really need to take a full-day tour and ask to do at least some of it on foot. But still, this half-day driving tour was very interesting and gave us a good overview and history lesson, at least.)

Inside Soweto itself, we drove past the squalid long buildings which once served as hostels for workers brought in from the tribal areas, usually men who had to leave their families back in the village. These buildings are gradually being torn down to make way for pastel-colored multifamily homes. Next we drove into the posh section of Soweto, where middle class families who own businesses have built large homes out of brick and stucco, with high walls and metal gates around them for security. Patrick pointed out the first house in Soweto to have an in-ground swimming pool—we even caught a glimpse of it through the house’s front window. Some of these homes also serve as B&B’s for tourists, and other have tuck shops in their garages. We saw these little impromptu shops all over Soweto.

We drove past a primary school where some friendly kids ran alongside our van waving and calling “Hello!”, which made me think back fondly to our driving trips through East Africa and miss those long, crazy days of driving, despite their hardships. You really do see a country differently when you travel that way instead by small plane. We noticed a group of children in their school uniforms gathered in a huddle around a big gate at one of the fancy houses, where a sign proclaimed, “A Pedigree Dog Lives Here!” (they were all trying to reach in and pet that “Pedigree” dog), and other kids having fun in a brand-new playground. Other than the security walls, this area didn’t look too different from a suburb back home.

Next we drove down the hill to the “lower class” (Patrick’s term) area of the township, where block houses with tin roofs and many families living crammed in together replaced things like private yards and swimming pools and security fencing. Here we saw lots more people out and about—tending to stalls selling fruit or household goods or car parts, standing in line for goat’s head stew under a tarp tent, or just wandering aimlessly. We stopped and got out of the van to visit Freedom Square, where a memorial stands to commemorate the Freedom Charter. Across the way from this tall tower, a vendor was selling t-shirts with Obama’s and Mandela’s faces. There were lots of small goods vendors crowding the square, and several people smiled and said hello to us. One man commented, “We like to see people like you here, welcome!” (and then he asked Patrick, unsuccessfully, for beer money). There’s also a large hotel here, overlooking the square. “Next time you come to Joburg, you stay here,” Patrick insisted, and then immediately laughed, “No, no, don’t do it, I am joking! They say it’s 4-star, but I say it’s NO star!”

We drove onward past a hospital, where big signs read, “Are you HIV+? Do you need a CD4 count?” and “AIDS is Real!” We talked with Patrick about the grim health statistics in this area, and the 30% unemployment, which he told us many people blame on the influx of refugees from Zimbabwe. He said there is so much hostility toward Zimbabwean workers that people in the townships often beat them up or even kill them. He also told us that while Soweto is the most famous township and now the most visited one, too, it is in some ways less representative of what township life is like today than some of the others, simply because it is more famous and “historic” (and, we suspect, they don’t take tourists to the poorest areas). Tembisa is, he said, “up and coming,” while Alexandra is “definitely not for visitors—if I went there, they would kill me.” Of downtown Joburg, he said, “Everything is there: if you want drugs, you will find them… if you want crime, you will find it there too. The police do not even bother to arrest these guys anymore, they just shoot them.”

After lunch at a little pub we visited some of the landmarks of the anti-apartheid movement, including Orlando West school, where the student protests of the 1970s started, and the Hector Pietersen Museum, which documents the events in photos, videos, and audio interviews, and also memorializes the first child killed by police during the protests. It was a very moving and interesting place. Finally, back in the van, Patrick drove us past the huge new stadium that’s being built in Soweto for next year’s World Cup, and the shiny new transportation hub nearby. He said that the shacks on the hillside below the stadium would be torn down before the games, because “that’s not the image South Africa wants the world to see.” We also got a glimpse of the Mandela house museum, nearly hidden by all the road construction as they get ready for next year’s influx of tourists, but we didn’t have time to go inside. We drove past Soweto’s TV station, which triggered a fun discussion with Patrick about South African jazz musicians.

On our drive from Soweto to the Emperor’s Palace casino complex, we got stuck in rush hour traffic. Patrick whiled away the time by entertaining us with stories of his life, and some of the crazy things he’s had to do for demanding clients. He proudly pointed out the gigantic main stadium for the World Cup, before admitting that while he hopes South Africa plays well, he’s really going to be rooting for “his team”—Brazil.

We said goodbye to Patrick at the Mondior Concorde Hotel, where we were whisked inside by uniformed doormen. This place was quite a contrast, both to Soweto and to Madikwe—a big, polished (and somewhat generic) business hotel attached to a complex of Las Vegas-y casino, food court, and other hotels. This wasn’t the type of place we’d usually want to stay, but Rhino Africa had recommended it as a safe, simple place to get a bite to eat and a good night’s sleep, with a free airport shuttle to get us to our rendezvous with the Earthwatch team tomorrow morning. We got our things settled in the room and plugged in our battery chargers, then headed downstairs to wander around and find some dinner. We had to walk down a long corridor from the hotel and pass through a metal detector to get to the casino area, where we passed some very cheesy “Roman villa”-style frescoes on the walls and ceiling, and then ended up in an indoor “Italian piazza,” complete with a painted sky overhead and a replica of Michelangelo’s David, wearing a hard hat and tool belt. He held a sign that said, “Under Construction: The Empire is Expanding!” Um… okay. Where are we, again?

Trying to feel like we were indeed in South Africa still, we chose to eat at Tribe’s African Grill. We tried a number of small plates that sounded interesting, and made a pretty good dinner of it: ostrich sausages with mielie pap (boiled maize meal), Cape spring rolls with bobotie and sweet chutney, “Congo black mushrooms,” and South African wine. The casino itself was not at all our scene, so we walked around a bit more and found nothing interesting except an odd little shop called Mr. Biltong. It looked like a candy store, but with glass-fronted cabinets filled with South Africa’s famous jerky and—inexplicably—a bunch of stuffed animals and giant teddy bears hanging on the opposite wall, like the kind of stuff you’d win at a carnival. (Come to think of it, this would probably be our dog Kyle’s dream store: dried meat and stuffed toys!) I pondered all the biltong choices: beef, warthog, kudu, wildebeest, eland, impala… We finally chose springbok, and also picked up some local snack food, like we always like to do in other countries: Simba chips, and some weird little candies called “Sour Mini Enerjelly Babies” (they looked like tiny gummy versions of the Easter Island moai—who could resist?). By then our brains were fatigued by all the crazy contrasts of the day—from a hyena tearing at a rhino carcass to the extremes of wealth and poverty in the township, and finally this nutty casino full of light and noise and African antelope jerky. It was time to go back to our room and get some sleep before we met up with our fellow brown hyena volunteers.
MyDogKyle is offline  
Nov 9th, 2009, 10:25 PM
  #45  
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Here are some of our favorite photos from Madikwe and Soweto. I included nearly all of our wild dog photos, since they are so special to me.

http://tinyurl.com/ykadwpf
MyDogKyle is offline  
Nov 13th, 2009, 01:44 PM
  #46  
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bumping... just in case anyone wants to look at pictures of wild dog pups on a Friday.
MyDogKyle is offline  
Nov 13th, 2009, 05:55 PM
  #47  
 
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Why yes I would like to see some dog pics on a Fri. night. You have the whole spectrum of dog activity too. The pups with the mom are some of my favorites. What a fortunate find.

When there are spotted and brown hyenas together are the spotted ones referred to as "Spotties"? I read where you used that term.
atravelynn is offline  
Nov 14th, 2009, 09:17 AM
  #48  
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Thanks, Lynn -- I was feeling like my posts get buried before anyone sees them.

I think "spotties" may be just a fond term used by one of the researchers we worked with on the hyena project, but we picked it up, too. We often heard the rangers and the researchers refer to them as "browns" and "spotties"/"spotteds" rather than "hyenas."
MyDogKyle is offline  
Nov 15th, 2009, 06:09 PM
  #49  
 
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The dog photos in particular are absolutely beautiful. What a great experience.
Leely2 is offline  
Nov 15th, 2009, 07:22 PM
  #50  
 
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You really got close too. Good idea to show the vehicle in some of the shots.
atravelynn is offline  
Nov 21st, 2009, 11:30 PM
  #51  
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I still think of those dogs when I'm having a bad day. Never fails to cheer me up!

Sorry for the delay (no free time for typing lately). Here's the beginning installment of our Earthwatch project...
MyDogKyle is offline  
Nov 21st, 2009, 11:30 PM
  #52  
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PART 6: Home Sweet Mankwe

We slept in this morning until about 8:30, knowing it would be the last time for a while that we’d be able to do such a thing, and had what we thought might very well might be our last hot showers for more than a week. (We were really expecting to rough it at the volunteer camp.) We had an uninspired-but-free breakfast buffet downstairs in the hotel and checked out. The Mondior Concorde was a perfectly nice hotel and provided exactly what we’d needed (a place to sleep, a place to eat, a quick shuttle ride to the airport), but looking out the windows at the parking lot and the freeway, we understood how business travelers get burnt out on this sort of thing—this hotel could be anywhere, in any city. We were excited to hop on the shuttle and head off toward something more adventurous. And I felt a tiny bit of apprehension about meeting the rest of our Earthwatch crew, too. What would they be like? What kind of people spend their vacation studying brown hyenas?

Well, at this point I’m going to edit my personal journal a bit, because I don’t think it’s fair to write too much about the other volunteers on our team and this is our version of events, after all. Suffice it to say, my apprehension was for nothing. We had a fantastic team, a bunch of really nice, hardworking and fun people who helped make this great experience even better. Of course, we didn’t know this the moment we met them at the airport—all we knew was that there would be 11 of us (including my husband and myself), with volunteers from various parts of the USA and the UK, ranging in age from 18 to 65+, a few couples and lots of solo travelers. The travel experience in the group ranged from one person who was on her very first trip away from home, to a woman who’d been to Africa nine times, and several guys who had done more than 15 Earthwatch projects each. Many people were on their first trip to Africa. It was a diverse group in terms of life experiences and careers, and overall I was quite impressed, even in the first few minutes of talking to each of them. What we all had in common, of course, was a passion for conservation, a fascination with African wildlife in particular, and a desire to jump in and do something useful here.

Our transfer drivers arrived a bit late, but it gave us all time to hang around in the airport and start to get to know one another. When the drivers showed up, they apologized profusely for getting stuck in traffic, then quickly loaded up luggage and people for the 2-hour drive to the Mankwe Wildlife Reserve, near Pilanesberg National Park. We split into two different vans for the trip; ours was driven by a tall, charismatic Zimbabwean guy named Aaron, who chatted with us, told stories about his life, and answered questions all the way to Mankwe. One of Aaron’s best stories was about how he’d come to South Africa for a job (“There are no jobs in Zimbabwe,” he’d said, “And that is an understatement!”) and fallen in love with a girl in Joburg, who later became his wife... instead of doing the traditional thing and marrying a girl from his village back home. Evidently he had a LOT of explaining to do with his parents, and the story was quite funny and sweet the way he told it. I thought about what Patrick had told us, how South Africans are often hostile toward people who come from Zimbabwe looking for jobs here, and it was an especially sobering thought after having met one of those people—especially someone as delightful, kind and capable as Aaron.

I did a lot of looking out the window, too, mentally comparing South Africa with other countries I’ve visited. Frankly, a lot of what I saw reminded me of California, particularly the central valley and I-5. Our drive took us past rolling farmland with long irrigation pipes and purplish mountains in the distance. The high electric fences topped with razor wire were something we don’t see around the farms back home, though. Gradually farms gave way to a more dusty, arid region, and platinum mines replaced green fields. Each time our car slowed down, guys would run up to us and try to sell us tangerines, sunglasses, bottled water, newspapers. The houses were smaller and scrappier out here than near the city, but it still looked a great deal more developed than what we’d seen in East Africa. The roads were paved and well-maintained the entire way, and people had glass in their windows, power lines, big school buildings, fences (with that ubiquitous barbed wire). Not to diminish the problems with poverty that South Africa definitely faces, especially in the divide between the very rich and the very poor, but overall this felt like a very different Africa than the ones we’d visited before. (And of course, it wasn’t a surprise – there is not an “Africa,” any more than there is an “Asia” or “Europe.”) But just to mention a few of things that were remarkably different between the East Africa I visited and the part of South Africa I saw: there were so many fewer people out and about here, not nearly as many folks walking alongside the roads, and lots more cars. We also saw very few of the colorful little businesses and shops with their clever signs that I’d loved so much in countries like Kenya and Uganda.

When we arrived at Mankwe, our home for the next 12 days, we were a bit surprised. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. Aaron turned the car into the gates of an old mining explosives factory and drove past a parking lot and some low brick buildings. Was this where our brown hyena project was located?? Thankfully, no—we drove on past it and down a series of dirt roads that took us far from the factory, past several kudu-crossing signs and into open grassland dotted with acacia trees and scrub. We would learn later that this whole wildlife reserve exists because of the explosives factory, though. It’s now closed, with the factory operations moved closer to Johannesburg, but the area that is now the reserve was originally set up as a mandatory buffer zone for safety when the factory was still in operation. Wildlife moved into the buffer zone (as wildlife tends to do), and some of the company’s employees took an interest in it. The land still belongs to the explosives company but it is now a fenced wildlife reserve, and in addition to the wildlife that “volunteered” here, a number of other species have been introduced to the area. Dougal MacTavish, a former employee of the explosives company, manages the reserve, and Project Phiri (our brown hyena study) has been based here for some time. If all this sounds dreadful to some of you who love wide-open spaces, I do have to mention that once you’ve passed inside the gates of the reserve, you’d hardly know there was ever a factory nearby. The reserve is small enough that we did regularly see the border fences, but overall it felt a world away from the developed South Africa we’d driven through to get here. It is quite a lovely, scenic place, and you can walk and drive for miles without seeing anything but wildlife.

When we drove through the reserve’s gate for the first time, we were immediately greeted by a waterbuck mom and baby, then a pair of warthogs and a herd of impala. We got a good view of the double line of fencing, with a mowed fire break in between. Certain animals like jackals, brown hyenas, honey badgers, porcupines, and caracals can easily get in and out under these fences (and in fact we saw some crafty warthogs slipping in and out through their network of trenches nearly every day we were here). But the bigger animals like antelope, zebra, rhino and giraffe are contained by them. Even if the agile antelope species manage to leap over the first fence, they don’t have enough space to get up the speed to clear the second fence line. We’d learn, too, that while these fences helped keep the animals from wandering off into developed areas, they didn’t manage to deter poachers much more than they deterred warthogs.

As we drove through the reserve toward our camp we saw a large herd of blesbok, one of the southern antelope varieties and a new animal for us. They look very much like dark chestnut hartebeests, with bright white blazes down their faces that give them their name—a striking sight when all those faces suddenly turn your way. A few minutes later, we spotted a huge male ostrich in breeding plumage running away through the tall golden grass. We pulled into camp and got our first glimpse of our new home. This would be the longest we’d ever stayed in one place during our travels: 11 nights, 12 days. And lucky for us, it was a little piece of paradise. The camp is in a gorgeous spot, right at the edge of a small lake (which the locals all just called “the dam”) teeming with birdlife and ringed with tall, reedbuck-friendly grasses and reeds. On the dry side of the dam wall is a small pool with warm red rocks, where monitor lizards like to bask in the sun. A grassy area with a large fallen log (perfect for journaling and bird watching), a fire pit, and a volleyball net separates the few camp buildings from the water’s edge. (I noticed that the grass was dotted with the small dark pellets of antelope poop, indicating that there were frequent night-time visitors.) There is a large wooden dining hall with a kitchen in the back, and a smaller building that houses the classroom and field equipment tables, decked out with identification samples (skulls and bones, a caracal skin, lots of impressive horns) and a small field library. Our training and meetings would take place here.

The women in our volunteer group (who outnumbered the men 7 to 4, in case you’re wondering about that sort of thing) were housed in the “chalet,” a cinder block building with a small patio, communal bathrooms, and a boma to one side. Behind that was a similar building for staff and some visiting college students from the UK, who were also working on Project Phiri. The couples and single guys lucked out and got big walk-in safari tents of our own, with attached private bathrooms and showers. My husband and I got really lucky and were assigned to the tent furthest away from the main camp, up a winding little path on a small hill. From the chairs in front of our tent we had a stunning view of the lake. (But really, all the tents and buildings had a darn nice view of it.) Inside, the tents were simple and very comfortable, with shelves for our duffle bags and a rack to hang some clothes, bamboo walls around the bathroom, and three single beds. We pushed two together to put our sleeping bags on, and used the third as storage for our backpacks and gear. We had a generator for light at night until 10pm, and hot water for showers from a crazy old “donkey boiler” into which Alfred, the camp’s handyman, fed wood every morning (or on request at other times of day). In addition to its nice location, our tent was distinguished by a zebra-skin rug on the floor. I felt bad (and startled!) every time I walked across it and felt its shaggy forelock on my bare feet or under my boots, but I’ll admit it was impossible not to appreciate its beauty up close. (Those stripes! I still prefer to see them on a live animal, though.) At some point or other everyone on our team would come by our tent to meet “our” zebra.

Overall, we were pleasantly surprised by how good the accommodations were at the camp – other than the winter cold, this was not “roughing it” at all. We absolutely loved our tent, the camp’s location, the delicious meals, and everything about our stay here. We’ve heard that Earthwatch projects can really vary from one to the next in terms of the quality of housing and food, but Mankwe was outstanding. This was not “luxury” in the tourist-safari sense, but it was a really lovely, comfortable place to call home and a far step above what we’d been expecting as volunteers.

In addition to seeing the camp for the first time, this first afternoon was also our chance to meet our team leaders, or P.I.’s (principal investigators, in Earthwatch-speak). The British scientists who lead Project Phiri were not in residence during our stay, but Lynne MacTavish is the resident P.I. at Mankwe (she’s Dougal’s daughter and is Operations Manager of the reserve). Lynne was assisted during our stay by another team leader, Lauren, who has a background as a safari guide (and a wicked sense of humor), and several British students, including Louisa, a Ph.D. candidate who is doing an extensive study of brown and spotted hyenas and Louis, a graduate student who is studying vultures and coordinates research at the reserve. There’s also an excellent staff at the camp, including Makhosi and Hilda (extraordinary cooks), Alfred (master of the donkey boiler and an expert snake-catcher), and a group of trackers who assisted with various projects. There are multiple Earthwatch groups contributing to Project Phiri at different times of the year so the project leaders change depending on who is in residence, but since Lynne lives at Mankwe she is an important and very positive influence on the project. As we got to know her, I would be constantly amazed and impressed by her wealth of knowledge about wildlife and her bush skills.

After lunch and a short break to settle into our rooms and tents, we all climbed up into the back of a (very high!) open truck and headed out into the reserve for an orientation game drive with Lynne and Lauren. Right at the edge of camp, we startled two reedbucks out of the brush. We saw quite a lot on this drive, and learned more about the animals who live here. One of the noteworthy things about this reserve is that they do not have any resident large predators, other than the occasional passing leopard, and they also do not have elephants. These things have a significant impact on on the way the reserve is managed, on the landscape, and on the behavior and success of animals like jackals and brown hyenas (who will often scavenge off the kills of lions and spotted hyenas in other parks and reserves, like nearby Pilanesberg or Madikwe). What they do have at Mankwe is a huge variety of antelopes, small mammals, birds, reptiles, and smaller predators like jackals and caracals, plus the white rhinos, giraffes, and zebras. There are also nocturnal creatures like genets, honey badgers, bush babies, and porcupines. On our first drive we encountered waterbucks, tsessebe (another new type of antelope for us), vervet monkeys, kudus, a tiny steenbok bolting away in surprise, a herd of galloping wildebeest, impalas, and elands. We also saw one of the two male rhinos, and were introduced to him by name. This one was Patrol, who is notorious for knocking down every sign he finds—Lynne said they have to hang road signs in the trees to foil him in this little game. We also drove past Louis’ “vulture restaurant,” where he puts out carcasses and camera traps, and studies the huge birds from a hide. On our way back to camp, we spotted a jackal trotting through the grass. It was good to get this initial overview of the reserve and its wildlife, as it would be one of three different places where we’d be gathering data for brown hyena research (the other two being Pilanesberg National Park, which is also fenced but does have large predators including lions, leopards, wild dogs and cheetahs; and Kgaswane Mountain Reserve, which does not have the predators or the variety of animals found at Mankwe).

Before dinner, my husband helped to shoo a bat out of the chalet, where it had decided to take up residence in the ceiling and completely freak out our youngest volunteer. He was able to use a badminton racket to block the bat’s path as it was flying around the room, eventually steering it out the door and into the night sky. This little game of “bat-minton” was a funny was to kick off our stay here (and don’t worry, no bats were hurt in the process).

Dinner was the first of many delicious feasts involving local game (although we did have a few vegetarians in the bunch, this is definitely not your project if you aren’t okay with the concept of game meat)—in this case, it was wildebeest stew. We brought our bottles of Madikwe wine to share, and after dinner we all lingered around the table and each person talked a little bit about themselves and why they’d chosen to work on this project. Eventually the conversation moved outside to the campfire, a bright spot of warmth in a bitterly cold winter night. The sky was a riot of stars over our heads, and I was already feeling like I was beginning to have friends here. I couldn’t wait to jump right in and start working tomorrow—to start experiencing Africa in a whole new way.
MyDogKyle is offline  
Nov 23rd, 2009, 04:01 PM
  #53  
 
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I am relieved that no bats were injured as you drove through California to get to the zebra rug!
atravelynn is offline  
Nov 28th, 2009, 11:42 PM
  #54  
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PART 7: Mankwe by Foot and Spotlight

My husband started a new habit this morning—asking the ladies in the kitchen for some words in Tswana. (As it turns out, some of the guys on the staff speak Zulu too, so he learned a bit of both.) Today’s most useful words were “ke a leboga” (thank you).

The first thing we did (after breakfast) was a large mammal transect on foot across the reserve, to collect data on any wildlife we saw. This kind of survey work, combined with aerial surveys from a helicopter, helps them manage the reserve by providing rough population and density information for the larger animals (it obviously doesn’t work well for the nocturnal creatures and underground critters… but is surprisingly useful as a data-collection tool for things like antelopes, zebras, etc.). We set off in two teams toward opposite sides of the reserve, each with a leader (either Lynne or Lauren) and two trackers who knew the area well. First we had a briefing on what to do if we encountered white rhinos, the only dangerous large animal in the reserve (basically, what you do if you encounter a rhino is this: stay put and do whatever you guide/tracker tells you to do). Then we hopped down out of the vehicles and set off into the bush. Even though I knew we weren’t going to encounter lions or elephants, I was still thrilled to be walking in Africa again. I quickly relaxed and began to focus on all the tiny details of the bush that you never really get from a vehicle, loving the feel of the dirt under my boots.

We each had a job to do for data collection, and as the days went on we would all take turns so that eventually everyone got a chance to do all the different jobs. This time, I was the “scribe” who recorded everything on the data sheets, while my husband was responsible for using the rangefinder to determine how far away the animals were from our GPS coordinates. Another person counted our strides, and still others were engaged as spotters. It was trickier than it sounds to keep moving forward at a useful pace, while still sweeping our eyes over the grasslands and patches of scrub to watch for animals (who usually didn’t want to hang around when they saw people approaching on foot). On our drive out to the start of the walking transect, we’d spotted waterbucks and tsessebes, ostriches, warthogs, a steenbok, and wildebeest from the high vantage point of the vehicle. But it was a very different thing to see the wildlife on foot, and we marveled at the spotting abilities of our tracker, John. Someone in the group would point to the horizon and say, “Something, there…” and all the binoculars would go up as we attempted to ID the animals and count numbers. More than once, before we even had our binoculars focused, John would say something like, “Two elands and nine impala,” while looking with just his naked eye – and he was always right.

Our official transect data animals (since we couldn’t count those that we’d seen on the drive in) included a jackal, ostriches, warthogs, and lots of hoof stock. These were the most challenging, as they were often far away and on the move. We needed to do some quick thinking and fast binocular work to be sure we counted them all… and didn’t count the same animals twice! Altogether, we collected data on tsessebe, elands, zebras, wildies, blesboks, impalas, waterbucks, gemsboks (oryx), and kudus. Some of these were in huge herds, and others in smaller groups of 3 or 4. Our data ran onto multiple pages.

Despite the challenges of the work, the time flew by. We loved walking in the bush—the warmth of the African sun after a chilly winter morning, the thorns that reached out occasionally to lift hats off heads or snag our pant legs, the crunch of dried grass beneath our boots, the fresh, wild scent of the air. No trails here, just hoof prints, dried scat, tiny wildflowers showing the first hint of spring coming. It was the dry season, so the branches on the trees were bare and everything was silvery and golden brown—the better to see animals, even far away. We didn’t see any rhinos this morning, and though we diligently watched our steps we didn’t see any snakes, either.

All too soon we reached the road and the transect ended. We’d walked for about 2 hours, but it felt like 10 minutes. If this is “work,” sign me up for more! On the drive back to camp we saw even more large mammals (which we couldn’t count for data, darn it), including a breeding herd of giraffes with 5 juveniles, galloping blesboks, a tsessebe very close to the road, and two fuzzy baby waterbucks. A group of 3 female ostriches were watching a big black male do his mating dance, spreading his wings and hopping madly around before hunkering down low to the ground. As we pulled in to camp, we startled the mountain reedbucks who like to hang out nearby.

After lunch we had an afternoon of training for the project, learning how to do various things like estimating distance in kilometers, working the GPS and rangefinder, and different data collection strategies. Broadly speaking, the basic goal of Project Phiri is to study brown hyena behavior and distribution in several different types of places: a fully protected national park (Pilanesberg), a fenced private reserve with no large predators (Mankwe), and unprotected or partially-protected areas like farmland or the nearby Kgaswane Mountain Reserve. While our main purpose as volunteers was to gather data for the brown hyena study, we also assisted with various wildlife-management projects for Mankwe. And since the brown hyenas are such an important part of Mankwe’s ecosystem, there were many instances where the data gathered would be useful to both the scientific study and the management of the reserve.

The data collection methods we used included latrine surveys (recording GPS coordinates of hyena and jackal latrines, and collecting scat samples for DNA analysis at the University of Pretoria); spotlight transects at night from an open vehicle (recording all nocturnal animals, not just hyenas); baited call-ins from a vehicle at night, at different sites in Mankwe and Pilanesberg (this only happens at certain times of year, so we were lucky to get to do this); camera trapping with drag bait; and den searches. Project Phiri also has radio collars on three hyenas in Pilanesberg, but our group did not do anything with that aspect of the project.

After the hands-on training with data collection gadgets and methods, we gathered in the classroom for Lynne to give a talk on brown hyenas. She explained all the objectives for our group and what our daily schedule and workload would be like. It sounds like a lot for 11 days (and it was): den searches with vehicles and on foot, more than 80kms of latrine surveys in the 3 different reserves, 12 spotlight transects at Mankwe, 14 call-ins at Mankwe and Pilanesberg, 6 camera trap sites with a total of 12 cameras to set up, putting up hyena awareness posters at all the gates and visitor centers in the national park, an anti-poaching patrol, a course in tracking and bush skills, and (optional) participation in a controlled burn. By the end of our trip we would accomplished all this, and learn so much along the way… and yet, we were amazed by how much fun we had, too, and how much time we had each day for watching wildlife above and beyond the research projects. The group leaders did a great job of balancing fun and exploration with the tasks we had to do for the project.

Fortunately, we got to start right away with some of the most enjoyable tasks. After the morning’s walking transect and the afternoon of training, we had some time to kick back at camp before dinner. And then around 8pm it was time to head out into the reserve for our first spotlighting adventure. We were all bundled up in layers against the freezing cold night air—driving around in an open vehicle on a winter night is definitely not for the faint of heart. Long johns, sweaters, fleece, jackets, gloves, boots, ski hats, scarves pulled up over our faces… and still we were shivering. Lynne appointed my husband and me to be the spotlighters, standing up behind the cab of the truck and swinging the lights in slow, steady arcs alongside the moving vehicle. When we saw something, we were supposed to thump on the roof so Lynne would stop and the team could record it. I was really excited, until my spotlight’s bulb burned out only 10 minutes or so into the drive. My husband ended up being the Spotlight Champion and doing both sides for the rest of drive, while I helped the others as a spotter, looking for the tell-tale eyeshine in the darkness.

Off-transect (as we were driving to our starting point), we spotted a number of animals. But since they were not nocturnal they didn’t count for our data, anyway: impalas, duikers, zebras, kudus, and rhino with her tiny baby. Thanks to the cold, most sensible nocturnals were tucked away in their dens. The only animals we spotted that were on our official transect route and could be counted as part of our data set were two scrub hares. We dutifully recorded their GPS location, distance and angle from the vehicle, species, number, and activity. Then, far too soon for me despite the chill, we’d reached the end of the transect route and it was time to head home. No brown hyenas tonight, but there were still many more night drives to look forward to.

Back at our freezing cold tent, now past 11pm, the generator was already off for the night. We got ready for bed by headlamp, checked the sleeping bags for snakes (seriously), and crawled in. It had been a full, exciting day, and we fell asleep under layers of goosedown and blankets, to a chorus of jackal calls somewhere out in the darkness.
MyDogKyle is offline  
Nov 29th, 2009, 09:26 AM
  #55  
 
Join Date: Dec 2007
Posts: 291
Forget the New York Times - I spent my Sunday morning catching up on the adventures of MDK. Thanks, as always, for a very entertaining read and photos!!
anita
aknards is offline  
Nov 29th, 2009, 10:15 AM
  #56  
 
Join Date: Nov 2004
Posts: 14,440
A multilingual spotlight champion, who has attended to the health needs of visitors in the past--what a guy you have to take on safari!

So your duties continued into the night drive.
atravelynn is offline  
Nov 29th, 2009, 05:52 PM
  #57  
 
Join Date: May 2008
Posts: 8,493
Hi MDK,
I'm so glad to see new chapters. I'll catch up next weekend or if I'm lucky sometime this week. Hope you and DH had a great Thanksgiving. Weather has been beautiful!
Leely2 is offline  
Nov 30th, 2009, 11:52 AM
  #58  
 
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 12,839
I just got caught up too! Looking forward to the next installment.
Patty is offline  
Nov 30th, 2009, 05:44 PM
  #59  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Jun 2006
Posts: 788
Thanks, everybody! As always, I apologize for taking so long to do this. (Too bad I can't just scan in my hand-written journal and be done with it.)

Anita, you're so sweet. Glad it's entertaining. Just wait until I start talking about the latrine surveys!

Lynn, it's so true -- I couldn't ask for a better travel companion. (And you made Mr. MyDogKyle's day by writing that.)

Leely and Patty, hi! We did have a very nice Thanksgiving (2 of them, actually). Kyle got to run on the beach in Santa Cruz with his doggy friends after the turkey dinner. Hopefully you guys had a good holiday weekend, too!

I'll try to add another chapter to the saga in the next few days...
MyDogKyle is offline  
Jan 10th, 2010, 06:20 PM
  #60  
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Join Date: Jun 2006
Posts: 788
Hi to anyone who's still interested... Sorry for the long (holiday- and work-related) delay. Back to my story, and I promise to get this thing finished before I head off on my next adventure.
MyDogKyle is offline  

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