The power of collective experience

Wendy Panaino

I recently had a most wonderful experience visiting the UK to attend a workshop at The David Attenborough Building, Cambridge, to develop ecological monitoring methods for pangolins. Having never attended a workshop before, I was not too sure what to expect, but from the agenda sent out by Dan Challender, Chair of the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group, I knew it was going to be challenging. Scanning through the list of participants, I recognized only a few names, none of whom I had ever met. I was excited to meet and engage with several of the conservation champions I had read so much about.

pangolin workshop group photo

IUCN Pangolin workshop group photo in front of the David Attenborough Building, Cambridge.

The morning of day 1 comprised of meeting the group of about 40 participants. I was blown away by the diversity of people from all around the world, and from so many different organizations, but all having the same goal – conservation of pangolins. Presentation sessions followed, where nine experts had the opportunity to discuss the various techniques used to detect and monitor one or more of the eight extant pangolin species. I had the privilege of discussing my own research in the context of the use of telemetry to track and monitor Temminck’s ground pangolins (Smutsia temminckii) in South Africa. I was surprised to learn about the struggles that participants go through on a daily basis to conduct their research on the other seven pangolin species. Perhaps I had known that detecting pangolins was difficult, but the most surprising of all was how easy my overall experience had been relative to those trying to achieve similar goals.

Wendy presenting

Presenting my research on ground Pangolin in South Africa. Photo credit: Elisa Panjang

I could not help but feel guilty that my time tracking pangolins and the information I had been gathering over the past few years had come with relative ease, when there were so many people sitting in that room dealing with the problem of just finding one pangolin to work with. I felt relieved when an anonymous participant came to me after the talks and said that “it was nice to have a happy, optimistic story to add to the workshop”. In all that we are trying to achieve, and through all the struggles that these conservation heroes face, it certainly felt good to be able to add some optimism to create a more positive outlook to our conservation goals.

Day 2 involved discussing key questions that we, as conservation scientists, should be asking to achieve our goals. In Africa and Asia, tons of pangolins are being taken out of the wild and illegally traded each year. We cannot assess whether that trade is sustainable or not if we do not know how many pangolins are in our wild populations (See my blog on pangolin conservation). Day 2 and 3 then allowed us to discuss and devise various methods that could be used for each pangolin species to answer that big question – how many pangolins are in the wild? We asked which techniques can be used to monitor individuals and populations at a regional scale so that we may ultimately begin to understand the species as a whole. Each participant had the opportunity to add their input and talk about their experiences with a particular pangolin species or a particular method. We soon realized that it was not a single method or technique that was going to answer our questions, but rather a combination of methods, whether they were social, ecological or technological methods. It was at this time that information started to flow – information that people possessed that may not necessarily have been written down anywhere.

Workshop brainstorming in action

Brainstorming in action.

Suddenly, connections started forming in my mind. I was able to link my own knowledge and experiences with the global experts in the room. I soon learned how similar, yet very different each individual pangolin species is, whether it was a behavioural or physical attribute under discussion. I still get chills when I think about the energy I felt in that room when our simple individual experiences became massively exaggerated as a group. In just three short days, we had put our minds together to produce a very powerful and significant output dealing with the most effective ways to answer our questions. I walked out of The David Attenborough building on the third day having just witnessed a beautiful phenomenon – the power of collective experience. And I got to be part of that. What an experience!


My Tswalu Kalahari Experience

Valery Phakoago

Valery with giraffe

Growing up in the rural dusty area of Ga-Nchabeleng Village in Sekhukhune, Limpopo Province, I never thought I would love nature as much as I do. I remember 15 years ago as a kid, my friends and I would go and play on top of Mmatadi and Mothopong mountains within the rural settlements and I was never aware that it would be some form of “training” for the future. When we visited these mountains we would get to view our home area and while doing that we would enjoy the fruits (velvet raisins) of the Grewia flava shrub known as Dithetlwa in the Village. We also enjoyed the cherry-sized fruits of the Shepherd’s tree (Boscia albitrunca), popularly known as Ditlhopi in the Village.

I grew up being afraid of dogs but, oddly enough, I completed my studies in Zoology and realized that it was the field I am passionate about. Having completed my Master’s degree, I knew I wanted to work in wildlife conservation and ecology. My family never understood my passion for wildlife, nor anything that comes with it. They have always thought I am the odd one in the family as most of them are scared of owls, monkeys, and a variety of creepy crawlies, including snakes. Instead, I love to touch and hold them and show these beautiful creatures the love and respect they deserve. Little did I know that my dreams would come true and that this year I would get an opportunity to actually do what I love, which is experiencing wildlife and having encounters with wild animals.

As a current DST-NRF intern based at Wits University, I had never heard of the private nature reserve known as Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, which is based in the Northern Cape. My wonderful mentor Prof. Andrea Fuller offered me the opportunity to visit the reserve as I had told her that I prefer to spend more times being outdoors in the wild rather than being in the office all of the time. She suggested that I go and assist one of her PhD students, Wendy Panaino, with some of her fieldwork and also to learn more of the ecology of the reserve. I did not think twice. I immediately said yes and will never regret that response. I googled the reserve and felt slightly scared, excited and nervous at the same time. The reserve is big and few people get the opportunity to visit it. It is unique, beautiful, has variety of wild animals and, above all, the biodiversity found there is amazing. I felt quite intimidated thinking about what kind of people I might find there. Will they be welcoming? Well guess what? Tswalu is a home away from home. I received a warm welcome from research centre director Dylan Smith and his wife Theresa. Not to mention the craziest one of them all, Wendy (AKA the Kalahari kid). The very first thing I observed about the researchers at the research centre is their love for tea, which is one of their warm welcomes at “home”. I thought I loved tea, but they appear to be addicted. I suppose it brings more enthusiasm and energy to each day.

As for Wendy. Where do I even begin to describe her? She must have been God-sent specifically for me. I have never met a person in this world who loves what she does with such integrity and passion. She is beyond description. I remember saying to her that she should be called an “Ecology textbook”. She can teach you about any kind of species you can think of; from invertebrates to vertebrates, birds of prey, different grasses to flowers, and big trees. Wendy is there to teach you. Let me not forget the stars. Wendy is there to teach you that too. I have never met an individual who has such a hunger for education and imparting knowledge. Wendy is patient, she listens, and if there is something interesting she wants to know more about, she asks questions and does further research.

It is also because of Wendy that I now know how to track animals, like pangolins, using a VHF receiver and antenna. I know how to do ant and termite counts, I know how to handle animal scat samples, I know how to react when I encounter a wild animal, and how to listen to animal sounds in case of danger. My knowledge of ecology has become broader because of her. I know a bit on how to use the sky at night for directions to go back “home”. When I pointed initially in the opposite direction of home, we would laugh about it and Wendy would patiently repeat her knowledge on how to master directions in the bush at night. I am now more comfortable walking in the bush at any time (day or night) freely and I don’t feel the need to ask her to accompany me as I did during my first few days at Tswalu.  When I walk at night tracking pangolins, I always feel like I am walking through the thick Vachellia thickets of Ga-Nchabeleng Village. I am comfortable and even forget that there may be puff adders that we might encounter while venturing along the sandy dunes of the Kalahari. Sometimes one can get so excited tracking animals, and even forget about other potentially dangerous animals that may be around.

Valery tracking

Learning how to track pangolins in the Kalahari

I remember a few days back, while trying to locate a pangolin by tracking its foot prints, and without telemetry, I saw an aardvark. I was delighted to see it and before I knew it there was a second aardvark just a few metres away from the first one.  I followed the second aardvark, walking slowly after it. Little did I know that it would direct me to the missing pangolin we had been searching for over several days. I stood calm and listened to the sounds around me, and realized that I was standing between an aardvark and the missing pangolin. Pangolins scales make a distinctive noise as the animal moves. I jumped with joy when I saw that pangolin.

Wendy and Valery with pangolin

Success! Finding a pongolin after careful tracking.

Let me not forget the pack of wild dogs that I also saw the other day close to the research centre, merely 5m away from me. I also got a chance to see a brown hyaena crossing the road and had unforgettable experiences with pygmy falcons, ant-eating chats, meerkats and boomslang tracking.  Walking with the meerkats, I was amazed to see how they can detect a worm deep underground.

Valery with meerkats

Meeting up with some Kalahari meerkats.

I will never forget the good times I experienced being around the fire after-hours at night. Getting to interact with other researchers based at the reserve tops off my great experiences. The fire is the best place to relax and to share research experiences, and to learn more about other researchers and what they do. I will forever be grateful to my mentor Prof. Andrea for giving me the opportunity to experience the reserve, to Wendy for being such a wonderful teacher and a friend, and to Dylan for the incredible opportunity. I will cherish the Tswalu experience for as long as I live, although I hope to return again soon, hopefully to start my own PhD there.

BFRG Research Day 2018

Arista Botha

This week, on an ice-cold Monday morning, we held the third annual BFRG Research Day. It was a great opportunity to get together and share our research. With many students and honorary staff working off site, it is a rare occasion to have so many of our group together. We even had some former BFRG students joining us for the day. One of my favourite things about the BFRG is that we are such a diverse group of people with such different backgrounds. It means that, while our research interests complement each other, we can learn so much from one another. The presentation topics included sleep, pain, wildlife physiology and even geophagia.

Group photo research day 2018

The group photo from our research day.


We grabbed our jackets and our mugs, and settled in for some great research.



Staff and student members of BFRG, listening attentively to Leith’s talk on hypoxia during wildlife immobilisation.



Our research day just so happened to fall on one of the coldest winter mornings.

Our invited speaker, Leith Meyer, gave a fascinating talk on hypoxia during immobilisation of wildlife. Prof Leith Meyer is currently an Associate Professor in Veterinary Pharmacology and Director of the Centre for Veterinary Wildlife Studies and a senior honorary research fellow of the Brain Function Research Group. He completed his PhD through Wits with the BFRG, and thereafter continued to work for the BFRG and then for the Central Animal Services at Wits. Even though he is now at the University of Pretoria, he is still involved in BFRG research. Leith’s research interests include the behavioural and physiological consequences of veterinary management procedures in wildlife, such as capture, translocation, and anaesthesia. Leith’s research has a direct impact on wildlife conservation and management by helping to improve animal welfare and the success of capture operations.

Leith white rhino

White rhinos are one of the large mammals that are the most sensitive to immobilisation.

Leith’s talk explained the physiology behind opioid-induced hypoxia. Even though it is widely known that opioids can reduce breathing rate in animals, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Since opioids have a list of other effects, such as narrowing of the airways, stiffening of chest muscles, reducing the uptake of oxygen into the blood and increasing cell metabolism, it is possible for an immobilised animal to have hypoxia, despite breathing normally. Add to that the weight of the animal’s body pressing down on its own lungs while lying down and the stress and physical exertion of an animal being chased by a helicopter before being darted, and the situation looks very grave indeed. All of these factors need to be considered when monitoring immobilised animals and when thinking of treatments and interventions.

Kyle sleep fragmentation

Kyle explaining the sleep fragmentation protocol he followed for his honours project.

Kyle Gilday was an honours student with the BFRG last year. He presented data from his honours project and explained that taking a nap after a night of fragmented sleep can improve attentiveness, but not working memory. Results that highlight, once again, the importance of a good night’s sleep. Following onto the topic of sleep deprivation, Kirsten Redman explained the rationale and background behind her current PhD project looking at the effect of fragmented sleep on cardiometabolic disease risk factors on HIV positive patients. Kirsten has worked with the Sleep Lab since her honours year. She graduated from her Masters’ last year. Master’s student Bennedicte Futi presented on the effect of sleep fragmentation on pain perception in males.

Natalie Benjamin

Natalie Benjamin, demonstrating the exercise intervention that was used for children living with HIV sensory neuropathy.

Andani and John

Andani and John co-presenting their research projects investigating factors affecting the experience of pain, pain disclosure, and physical function in a rural South African cohort.

We had various interesting presentations on the topic of pain. Anne Ioannides presented her findings on factors that affected cold pain sensitivity in a healthy population. Gender, anxiety, depression and resilience indexes did not affect pain sensitivity, but ancestry did, with people of African descend having a greater rate of increase in cold pain and therefore lower pain tolerance compared to people with European ancestry. Natalie Benjamin showed how exercise improved the health and lives of children living with HIV sensory neuropathy. Temitope Fagbohun presented a systematic review of the literature on the demographics of neuropathic pain studies as part of his PhD. Imraan Patel gave the winning presentation of the day entitled “Comparing Sub-Saharan sensory thresholds in the second and third decades of life”. For his PhD, Imraan has been compiling sensory thresholds in healthy South Africans using (a standardised German method with fancy expensive equipment) with the aim to compare these to healthy European populations as recorded in the literature. Andani Ratshinanga, our NRF intern from last year, gave us insights into her Master’s project that she started recruiting patients for this year. She will be investigating factors affecting the experience of pain, pain disclosure, and physical function in South African women. John Mohale will be doing a similar project, focussing on South African men.

Wendy pangolin

Wendy Panaino presenting preliminary results from her PhD on pangolins.

We also had interesting talks on animal physiology. Postdoc Edward Snelling (better known as Ned), told us about his trip to Ethiopia, where he compared heart mass of sheep at different stages of their development. Interestingly enough, there was a sudden increase in heart mass right after birth. Gareth Zeiler presented early data from his PhD looking at intravenous infusions for the treatment of blood loss in anaesthetised cats. Arista Botha’s PhD results showed that goats on a restricted diet showed lower minimums and greater amplitudes in their daily body temperature rhythms compared to when they were fed a normal diet. Wendy Panaino has been studying pangolin in the Kalahari for her PhD project. In total she has collected body temperature data spanning over four different calendar years. She showed us some of her preliminary data. Not only do pangolins have much lower body temperatures than most other mammals (33 to 34 °C, compared to the normal 37 to 38 °C), but they also showed some interesting patterns across different seasons and between years which received varying amounts of rainfall. Further data analysis will hopefully soon give us more insight into the physiology of this elusive mammal.

Valery introduction

Valery Phakaogo is our DST-NRF sponsored intern working for the BFRG this year. We asked her to tell us about her Master’s project on the practice of geophagia.

Valery Geophagia

Valery explaining how and where people collect soil for consumption.

In addition to the BFRG research that was presented, we asked our DST-NRF intern of this year, Valery Phakaogo, to tell us more about her Master’s project on geophagic practices. This concept was new to many of us, but apparently this is a very common practice in some areas of South Africa. These people, mostly women, eat soil, not only because they believe it has health benefits, especially during pregnancy, but mostly because they crave it and enjoy the taste. They are also very selective to the type and the location of the soil they collect for consumption.

Our two prize winners, Imraan Patel (1st place) and Edward Snelling (Ned, 2nd place) with our judge for the day, Leith Meyer.

It was an inspiring day, filled with informative talks, lots of coffee to fight off the cold, and, most importantly, great company. Thank you to everyone who made this day possible, especially Prinisha Pillay for all her hard work planning this day, and, of course, to everyone who attended.

The ups and downs of the Kalahari dunes

Arista Botha

The Kalahari is an exceptionally beautiful place and one of my favourite places in South Africa. The rolling dunes go on and on forever. The soft sand is scattered with thorn trees, thick bushes, shrubs and stretches of golden grass that ripple in the wind like the mane of a giant lion. The air has a dry taste that leaves your lips chapped and your throat parched. The sun pelts down on the earth with a raging heat. The night, in stark contrast, is unforgivingly cold. Life here is a struggle. Food is scarce. Water even scarcer. The animals that live here face extreme fluctuations in air temperature on a daily basis. I find it incredible that this place, with its harsh terrain and extreme climate, is full of life! That, of course, makes the Kalahari the perfect place to study wildlife physiology.

Giraffe landscape

Giraffes across the dunes. Photo by Arista Botha


Gemsbok. Photo by Arista Botha


Aardwolf. Photo by Arista Botha


Meerkat. Photo by Arista Botha

Recently, I was invited to assist on a research trip to the Kalahari River Reserve (or KRR). KRR is a research site just outside Van Zyl’s Rus, where researchers study meerkats, mole rats, ground squirrels, bat-eared foxes, various bird species and, now, also wildebeest.

On our first day we went out to capture wildebeest. We drove around for quite a while with no sign of any wildebeest. We had some nice game viewing: springbok, steenbok, gemsbok, red hartebeest, eland, but no wildebeest.

Gemsbok herd

Gemsbok herd. Photo by Arista Botha

IMG_4512 (2)

Red hartebeest. Photo by Arista Botha

Finally, we found a large herd of wildebeest. We approached them slowly with the vehicle so that Leith Meyer, our head veterinarian for the trip, could get a good shot. Once darted, the wildebeest sped off. Now the real chase began: The tranquilisers take about three to five minutes to take effect and it is difficult to keep an eye on one while the whole herd is running.

Wildebeest herd

Wildebeest herd. Photo by Arista Botha

The chase

The chase. Photo by Arista Botha

The wildebeest gave in to the effect of the drugs, decided to lie down on the soft sand and was soon fully sedated. Everyone jumped off the vehicle carrying boxes of surgical equipment to the anaesthetised animal. Field surgery has its challenges, but our veterinarians and support team are experienced and the surgery went smoothly.

Field surgery

Everyone hard at work. Photo by Arista Botha

surgery sunset

The end of a successful day. Photo by Andrea Fuller

The wildebeest was implanted with temperature, heart rate and activity loggers and fitted with ear tags and a collar. After the surgery was completed, the wildebeest was given the antidote to the tranquiliser and he soon got up and ran off to join the rest of his herd.

We drove back to the road through the Kalahari bush, optimistic after our first success and ready to catch our next wildebeest. Suddenly a gushing of air stopped us in our tracks. We all got out to see a huge splinter in our right front tyre.


The culprit. Photo by Arista Botha

How many vets

How many vets does it take to change a tyre? Photo by Arista Botha

After changing the tyre we drove to the workshop to get the punctured tyre patched up. While we were there we took the chance see the mole rat laboratory, which contained multiple Damaraland mole rat colonies living in see-through tunnels. It was fascinating to watch them working, cleaning out their tunnels and digging through saw dust “obstacles” to get to food. What happens when two mole rats meet each other head on in a tunnel? Easy – they simply climb over each other. Or, if they are too big to pass each other, the biggest one simply pushes the smaller one backwards. Unfortunately, the hiccup with the tyre meant that we could not capture another wildebeest that day, so we went back to our camp and ended the day with a pleasant braai. Tomorrow is another day.


The sunrise over my rondawel. Photo by Arista Botha

The next day was indeed successful: we got two more wildebeest, and the day after that, three more! We were overjoyed with our increasing success. However, the wildebeest soon caught on to what we were up to. By the fourth day, the wildebeest recognised our vehicle and we could not get close to them. We spent the last day driving around, following wildebeest along the road, off road and over dunes: All in vain.  We had a few short moments of hope, but each time the wildebeest would speed away just as Leith got within darting range. As the sun reached the horizon we decided that our luck was out and that six wildebeest for the week could still be considered a success.

Since it was our last night we had some sundowners on the Big Dune. As we watched the sunset, we talked and laughed about our week’s successes, disappointments and surprises. From our view on top of the dune we looked out over the Kalahari with its soft sand and its thorns. The rolling dunes went up and down, and up and down…. The Kalahari sky seemed to stretch on forever. We watched the blazing sun go down. The horizon was all aflame. We felt the cold of night slowly creeping in.  As the last rays of sunlight disappeared, the first star appeared in the sky.


First star. Photo by Arista Botha

The harsh beauty of the Kalahari reminds us why we love wildlife research, despite all the ups and downs.

Light and thorns

Thorny sunset. Photo by Arista Botha

My internship with the Brain Function Research Group

Andani Ratshinanga


After doing my Honours degree in physiology at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) I swore I would never return to the university. Honours year was no joke, I tell you. So, instead of applying for a Master’s degree, I decided to apply for the DST-NRF internship, an internship programme run by the National Research Foundation in South Africa. Imagine my shock when I got placed at Wits, in the Brain Function Research Group, or BFRG, for my internship. The BFRG is the most intimidating research group in the Physiology Department, or so I thought, because of its size (it has four different labs) and large publication output. But when I started working in the BFRG I realised I had misjudged this group. As I assisted in numerous projects I started to realise how exciting the BFRG’s research was. Not to mention how friendly the people were!

One of the things I like most about this group is their coffee addiction. Let me not call it an addiction; rather a coffee enthusiasm. Whenever you enter the BFRG communal room, whoever is there will offer to make you a cup of coffee. When I came to the BFRG, I was on a coffee fast, but thanks to the BFRG coffee enthusiasts, my day now starts with a cup of coffee.

Okay, maybe their best quality is not their coffee enthusiasm, but rather their willingness to teach. For example, I now know how to work with a bomb calorimeter, which measures the energy content of food. I’ve learnt about the science behind the Morris water maze, which assesses learning ability in rats. Having helped out in the animal unit during Wildlife Conservation Physiology projects, I’ve learnt how to pack a set of surgical instruments. I am fully confident with my graph drawing skills now thanks to Emeritus Professor Duncan Mitchell and, by the end of this month, tent pitching will also be added to my list of skills.

After my introduction to the stats programme, R, during my Honours year, I was scared of learning new computer programmes. I was ready to continue the rest of my life using only Excel and Graphpad Prism. When I started helping on a Pain lab project, recording the anatomical locations of pain in people living with HIV, I was introduced to Redcap, a smart data capture package. I thought it would be R all over again. However, as we speak, I know my way around Redcap (well enough, anyway) and I have a new computer programme I can add to my list of skills. I also faced my R fears and did another course with the Group. You know what? It was easier second time round, and without the pressure of an exam, I felt I was learning it for fun.

Overall, accepting the DST-NRF internship with BFRG was the best decision I have ever made. I thought I would regret not applying for a Master’s straight away but this internship has been one of the best learning opportunities I have ever had. The research skills that I am learning will prepare me for taking on a Master’s degree next year. My knowledge of physiology gets broader every week. Every morning I wake up excited to go to work because learning has never been this much fun! EVER! Thank you to the BFRG team and the NRF for giving me this great opportunity to learn and to grow as a young black woman in science.

Who is Dr Ben Loos?

Arista Botha

Ben 2016 (1)

Dr Ben Loos is a Senior Lecturer at Stellenbosch University and is the head of the Neuro Research Group (NRG). He is originally from Berlin, where he finished his undergraduate studies. Then he came to Stellenbosch, where he did his honours, masters and PhD in cellular physiology. During his PhD, he studied the molecular mechanisms of cell death during ischemic injury. He also started the fluorescence imaging facility at Stellenbosch University, which is now a state of the art facility. This formed the basis of his research background. After his PhD he chose to stay and build on the work he started during his PhD, instead of doing a postdoc overseas.

Dr Ben Loos kindly agreed to do an interview ahead of the BFRG research day, where he will be the invited speaker and judge the young researcher presentation competition. I asked him a few questions and this is what he had to say:

  1. Quickly explain your research for those of us who are not experts in your field.

Autophagy is a protein degradation pathway and has received lots of attention in the last 10-15 years. It is the first stress response in cells. My specific interest lies in autophagy in neurons. Neurons have a very high protein turnover rate and when the autophagy process gets distrupted, it results in a build-up of toxic proteins, which leads to neurodegeneration. The ultimate aim is to manipulate the pathway so that we can control or predict cell death.

  1. Why did you chose to go into this field of research?

During my PhD, my supervisor, Anna-Mart Engelbrecht, gave me a paper on autophagy and said “This is going to be something new”. At the time, there was not a lot of research being done on the topic. That was a pivotal moment in my life that directed me into the field of autophagy. From there on I moved into the field of neurodegeneration.

  1. Any exciting research projects you are currently busy with?

We are currently working on live cell microscopy to accurately measure the process of autophagy. We use a technique called micropatterning, which is a way of manipulating the substrate so that the cell cultures only grow in a specific area or in a specific pattern, and then we use fluorescence imaging to observe the process of autophagy. This way we can measure time-related issues and, because it is a controlled setting, we can tweak the system to see which conditions have a protective effect on the cells.

  1. What are the big questions in your field that still need to be answered in the near future?

One big question that still needs to be answered is how to measure protein degradation activity in in vivo  models; firstly in animal models, and eventually in human patients. This would allow for clinical applications. For example, in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, which is caused by protein aggregation, how much do we need to activate autophagy to cure Alzheimer’s?

  1. Who is your role model?

There are so many, I am afraid to single out any one of them. I have a few collegues that I really look up to and from whom I have learned a lot. Two of them include Noboru Mizushima from Japan and Dan Klionsky from Michigan. Of course, Anna-Mart Engelbrecht, my former PhD supervisor, is also my role model.

  1. What do you enjoy outside of work?

I love spending time with my family. I have two boys, one and five years old. I also have many other interests and hobbies, even though I don’t get much time to practise them that often. I like music, art, nature and photography. I also really like anatomy, and one of my hobbies is to collect skulls of animals, such as springbok, from people who hunt and then construct exploded skull models.

Mammalian skull model (1)

Exploded skull model of a carnivore

  1. Do you have any advice for postgraduate students or young academics on how to succeed in research?

To be globally competitive you need to use excellent techniques to answer important questions. Therefore, in the beginning of your career it is really important to develop niche expertise in techniques, publish in high impact journals and to be globally connected.

  1. Any last comments?

Thank you very much for this opportunity. The biomedical field is so important and it is a growing field with so many questions that still need to be answered. I guess what I am trying to say is that the biomedical field is a good field for the future.


It was fascinating to talk to Dr Ben Loos and I am looking forward to meeting him in person at the Brain Function Research Group Research Day. His talk titled The role of autophagy in neurodegeneration and proteotoxicity promises to be very interesting.


To find out more about his work, here are some of his latest publications:


Wendy Panaino

The original article was published on


A Pangolin caught in the spotlight. Photo Wendy Panaino

Field research was not something I ever imagined myself doing (partly because I didn’t even know it existed as a kid), but boy did it grow on me. The best part of my research at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve is tracking pangolins every day, and then sharing my experiences with as many people as possible. Not only do I wish to tell people my stories, but I would like all to experience them with me, with the same passion and enthusiasm that I feel when I am out doing what I love. So walk with me, as I walk with pangolins…

Here, I will not describe my typical night out, as I did here. Instead, I’d like to share one extraordinary occasion with you; an adventure where the most unexpected events happened. Having followed pangolins for well over a year now, one might think that I should know just about all there is to know about their behaviour, yet they continue to surprise me. One starry night, while waiting for a pangolin to emerge from its burrow, Dr Alexander Sliwa told me “I only started to really get to know my species (the black-footed cat) after about a year of studying them”. “Bizarre”, I thought, not realising at the time how true those words would prove for my own work.

To put the appropriate picture in mind, I want you to close your eyes for a second. Place yourself in the Kalahari semi-desert, under a dark sky illuminated by billions of stars, smudged by the Milky Way. Feel the warm breeze brushing your cheeks, hear the buzzing of the immeasurable insect life, smell the purity of raw, red earth. This is my reality every night. In what starts out as a typical night, I begin an hour-long journey to reach the home range of a female pangolin that I have been tracking for little over a year now. I stop my vehicle and scan for the elusive creature using my telemetry set, which allows me to find the pangolins tagged with tracking transmitters.

Kalahari Kid tracking (2)

Tracking pangolins in the kalahari. Photo by Wendy Panaino

As it is only 8pm in the middle of summer, I expect to find this female cooped up in her burrow, where I can sit and wait for her to emerge. To my surprise, the tracking equipment tells me that she is already active. I hop back into my vehicle and follow the signal in a northerly direction. I triangulate the signal, park the vehicle, grab my backpack (stashed with essentials– a flashlight, water bottle, notebook, jumper, and little bags for pangolin poop), and set off on foot into the darkness.

My heart racing and my hands gripping the telemetry gear, I listen as the signal gets stronger and stronger as I get closer to the pangolin. What a thrill – knowing that very soon I will lay eyes on one of the world’s rarest animals.

I am close now. I slow down, remind myself to breathe (I have stop breathing while straining my ears to catch the smallest noise), and then stop. GOTCHA! A sound like no other! I turn off the telemetry equipment and listen to the distinctive rustling of the scaly creature moving through the bushes. Following my ears, my eyes eventually focus on a little figure moving under the moonlight. I grin with satisfaction, my heart racing (yes, even after a year, I still get overly-excited when I see the little critter).


A Pangonlin walking through the bushes on its nightly business of foraging on ants and termites. Photo credit Wendy Panaino

As if that was not enough, the pangolin took the opportunity to feast on a species of ant that I had not previously recorded. I frantically scribble some notes. In all my excitement, I think “what a night!”. It can’t possibly get any better than this. The night starts to settle, as does my heart rate. The pangolin starts heading in the direction of her burrow, pausing every now and then and sniffing around more than usual. As she gets closer to the burrow, she hesitates slightly, and then enters. I stand quietly for a moment, wondering why she might be acting so strangely. My gut tells me to wait and see if she decides to come out again. Half an hour later, I hear that distinct sound of scales brushing against each other as she comes back out. I give her some time so as not to scare her back into the burrow. The moon glows against her perfectly sculpted scales. I grab my notebook and start scribbling down some notes on the pangolin’s behaviour. Walk, eat, walk, eat, walk, eat – the life of a pangolin. As she becomes more comfortable with my presence, I move closer to see exactly what it is that she is eating. Ants – she LOVES ants! Could you imagine all your energy coming from tiny ants and termites? As I walk alongside this peculiar creature, with pen to paper, I shake my head in disbelief. How did I get so lucky? I get to WALK WITH PANGOLINS every day. I breathe a sigh of appreciation and continue. Suddenly I am stopped in my tracks by a sound unfamiliar to my ears. “Is that a jackal lapping water?” I ask myself, confused. But the sound is coming from the pangolin, so I edge closer to investigate. To my utter surprise, it is indeed the pangolin drinking water. The recent rains had deposited water into pockets at the bases of some black thorn bushes, and this pangolin took the opportunity to lap some of it up, something I had NEVER seen before.


A rare sighting of a pangolin drinking water. Photo credit Wendy Panaino

I did not anticipate what happened next. In the moonlight, a tiny figure rises from behind mom, who has decided it is time to move house. I bounce up and down like a child that is about to open a Christmas gift, holding my hand over my mouth to stop myself from letting out a squeak. Is this REALLY happening? Am I REALLY watching mom bring baby out of the burrow? I am disappointed that there is nobody around to share this experience with me (I do sometimes have human company at nighy). I pull myself together and scribble more notes. Mom is as gentle as any other; she waits for baby to climb on board (yip, pangolin mothers carry their baby on their back!), and walks off. Nothing could wipe the smile off my face now. Walking side by side with TWO pangolins. Mom is perfectly comfortable having me around, and does not pause for a single moment to investigate my presence. For the next hour-and-a-half, I follow the two as they head due west. Mom does not stop to forage on this journey. She occasionally stops to allow her fallen passenger to climb back on board, but other than that, she has her mind set on a new home and nothing can distract her.


Baby pangolin climbing onto his mother’s back. Photo credit Wendy Panaino

Eventually I decide that I should let the two carry on peacefully, without me stomping around after them. I take a step back, inhale deeply, and watch this enigmatic duo disappear into the darkness. I look up to the sky, relax my shoulders as I exhale, and release a tiny giggle. “THAT WAS AWESOME!” I exclaim. Walking back to my vehicle, I find a renewed passion burning in my heart. This experience just magnified my excitement for my work ten-fold. I look forward to spending the next year continuing with my research, being endlessly surprised, and doing what I love most… walking with pangolins.