An internship in the Kalahari

 

Juliet Everson

Juliet Everson is an undergraduate from Cambridge University who recently completed an internship with the BFRG, helping our researchers in the Kalahari. She shares her experience with us:

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Photo credit – Wendy Panaino.

“Between the 15th of July and the 12th of September, I was lucky enough to travel to Tswalu, Kalahari Reserve, to assist the researchers there, which were primarily Ph.D. and Masters students. My aim was to gain field research experience and to learn about the impact of climate change on the Kalahari ecosystem. I spent most of my time assisting researchers working on pangolins, bat-eared foxes, and sparrow weavers, but being at the research centre meant I was also lucky enough to talk with other researchers that passed through. I met people who were studying a range of different topics, including snakes, zebras, geology, and archaeology.

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A pangolin walking across the sand dunes of the Kalahari, searching for ants and termites. Photo credit – Juliet Everson.

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Bat-eared foxes are shy, nocturnal animals, making them difficult to spot and even more difficult to habituate. Photo credit – Wendy Panaino and Nora Weyer.

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A sparrow weaver in the early morning sun. Photo credit – Juliet Everson.

I had an interesting time doing field research, as I was able to experience what researchers do on a day-to-day basis and how they must adapt to changes in circumstances quickly. I learned how to use radio telemetry to track pangolins. I spent a lot of time habituating bat-eared foxes to vehicles. I also collected behavioural data on sparrow weavers; recording waking and sleeping times and noting their thermoregulatory behaviours throughout the day. At the research centre, I helped to prepare faecal samples from pangolins for analysis to determine the pangolin’s diet.

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Juliet Everson tracking pangolins in the Kalahari using a radio telemetry system. Photo credit – Wendy Panaino.

My favourite activity was tracking and walking with pangolins, with either Wendy or Valerie, two Ph.D. students working with pangolins at Tswalu.  Luckily, we had to do this frequently. We would go out, track one of the tagged pangolins using telemetry, and stay with her for as long as possible to record behaviour and to habituate the individual to humans being present so that she would continue her normal behaviour without being disturbed by our presence.

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Pangolins are very elusive and can be difficult to find if you don’t know where to look. Photo credit – Juliet Everson.

Without a doubt, one of the most unforgettable experiences was tracking and marking a new pangolin individual, which we spent several days trying to do in September. The first part of this experience was driving out to the dunes before dawn – the earlier the better, as tracking a pangolin and knowing it’s still in the area depends on finding the tracks first thing in the morning. The first time we tried, Wendy led me into a thicket where the thorny bushes caught on everything. We proceeded to march from bush to bush following some trail which to her seemed obvious but to me was barely visible. I just tried to keep out of the way and be helpful, and after an hour or so, after another one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve seen, we emerged on the other side of the thicket. We tracked the pangolin track to two burrows and marked their location.

 

We came back to the two burrows later that afternoon, hoping to see our quarry emerge. We set up camp between the burrows a few hours before sunset, but as the hours ticked by and the sun sank towards the horizon, it began to look like maybe we had been waiting for nothing and the burrows were empty. A few minutes after the sun had disappeared altogether, in the rapidly darkening twilight, Wendy turned to me with disappointment in her eyes, looking like it might be time to call it a night. That was when I saw a long thin nose appearing from behind Wendy’s head. I was too afraid to speak in case of startling it (and probably unable to if I’d wanted to), but it must have been obvious from my face that I’d seen something. Wordlessly, Wendy and I rejoiced that our efforts had not been in vain. The pangolin set off into the darkness and we followed triumphantly, practically dancing down the hill with delight.

 

While I was at Tswalu I participated in a workshop on Thermal Biology, where we discussed thermal physiology and climate change. The week consisted of talks by researchers, students and myself on a variety of topics, including biologging, capture hyperthermia, and metabolism. There were also practical workshops, where everyone spent the afternoon tracking a pangolin with radio telemetry, and another afternoon where we set traps for a small mammal survey. It was really interesting to be part of discussions about the potential impacts of climate change on the ecosystem, with inputs from people who study reptiles, birds and mammals and have very different but equally valid perspectives.”

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Juliet’s talk on selective brain cooling at the Thermal Biology workshop. Photo credit – Arista Botha.

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Group photo from the Thermal Biology and Climate Change Workshop. Photo credit – Paulo Ribeiro.

 

Thank you for all your help and enthusiasm, Juliet. It was great to get to know you. All the best for your studies and we hope to see you doing research here in South Africa again in the future.

 

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