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.


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.

Kruger behind the scenes

Malek J Murad


When the student protests finally ended, we went to the Kruger National Park, the biggest national park in South Africa (the park is as big as Belgium), to collect data for a research project on buffalo. I was looking forward for our trip really badly and I was so excited when we finally got there.



First time in Kruger! Photo by Malek Murad


How did it feel to be in Kruger for the first time? Incredible! We were sitting outside, having dinner, while a gecko was catching a moth and some mosquitoes by the light of the lapa. A perfect symbiosis. I hate mosquitoes.


In Kruger, it is never quiet. You fall asleep to the sound of the crickets chirping. You wake up in the middle of the night and the crickets are still chirping. Then you lie awake for two hours, because you are so excited. There is always an animal calling somewhere. Was that a hyena maybe? In Kruger, it is never quiet. And your heart isn’t either.


If you have never been to Kruger you should add a visit to your to-do-list. On our way to our camp, we watched an elephant herd taking a bath from 100 m away. Readers who have seen an elephant bull from up close will know what I mean; he’s not just big, he’s huge! And at that moment in time I did not yet know how close I would get to an elephant bull during my visit…


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Elephants enjoying the water on a hot day. Photo by Arista Botha


After a short night in Kruger Vetcamp, we left early the next day to start with our research work. So this is how wildlife research works: You get up at 4 o’ clock to start work at 5. What is the benefit of that? You have to work in the cooler morning hours and finish before noon to prevent heat stress for the animals during immobilisation. What is the benefit for yourself? You can go for a game drive in the afternoon!


So why did we go to Kruger National Park? What did we do there? Arista Botha, PhD student at BFRG, is currently doing research on African buffalo. The buffalo have to be sedated so that we can collect samples and weigh them. No sooner said than done. The well-rehearsed team of the Kruger State Veterinarians sedated, weighed and measured all the buffalo and collected all the samples well before noon. The Kruger veterinarians allowed me to help out where I could.



The buffalo were immobilised to collect samples and to weigh them. Photo by Malek Murad


The director of the BFRG, Professor Andrea Fuller, asked the senior manager of Kruger Veterinary Wildlife Services, Dr Peter Buss, if I could help out with any other projects during my stay in Kruger. Luckily, there was an elephant bull that had to be routine-sampled the next day. So we went into the bush with a 4×4 vehicle and a helicopter to look for the bull.



The helicopter manoeuvres into position to dart the elephant bull. Photo by Malek Murad


I was very close when the one ton elephant bull was darted from the helicopter. It was incredible to see how accurate the helicopter pilot controlled his machine. He was able to position the helicopter perfectly for the veterinarian to dart the bull from up there. Shot – Strike! You could easily see that the dart had hit its mark by the pink feather on the end of the dart. We then had to follow the elephant, who was running away from us into the bush. The effect of the anaesthetic is not immediate; it usually takes a few minutes before the animal goes down. We drove through the bush for 1,5 kilometres until we found him. As soon as we were there, we started routine sampling, measurements and a general health check-up on the elephant.



Elephant bull undergoing routine sampling and health check. Photo by Malek Murad


My first trip to one of the South African National Parks (SANParks) was fantastic. Not only could I enjoy the wonderful scenery, but I was able to observe, from up close, the SANParks Veterinarians doing their job with their impressively elaborate and professional routine. It is the dream of every veterinary student to be a part of that.


“I think you get born with the spirit of a vet. I don’t know anybody who decided to become a vet at the age of 18. I mean there are many other possibilities to earn more money without getting that dirty.” – Lou (24), qualified in veterinary medicine this June.

At the end of our last day in Kruger we watched the sunset at Lake Panic. We watched the hippos playing in the water and just enjoyed ourselves and Kruger.


Sunset over Lake Panic. Photo by Arista Botha


I am so glad that I had made the decision to come over to Africa. I was very lucky – I met the right people who gave me the help and support I needed. People who gave me the opportunity to develop and to use the skills I have. Not only here in Africa, but also at home in Germany. They taught me to be confident. I especially have to thank my parents who always support me and back me in everything I do. I can always rely on them. There were many hurdles to overcome before I could get here. My wish for everybody who has a dream in life, is that he will take his chance and that he will find people who will back him when he needs them.

Tiger Paws and heart beats

Malek Murad

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Tiger Paw. Photo by Malek Murad

Malek is a veterinary student from Germany, who is currently visiting us as part of his internship. He is writing up some of his experiences in South Africa for his own blog (in German), but he has agreed to translate his thoughts into English to share it with us. For those German speaking friends of ours, you can find the original article on his blog at

Because of the nationwide protests at South African Universities (including Wits University) during the first few weeks of my internship, we had to find an alternative solution for me until the student protests ended. So, I went to assist the veterinarians at the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa (NZG) in Pretoria. Getting there from Johannesburg seemed like it would be a little trip around the world, since I did not have a car, but the Gautrain got me there within an hour. Luckily I could stay over at a friend’s house. My German friend Whincents, who is working in Pretoria at the moment, is a heart-warming fellow. He cared for me like a mother for her son: he organized an air bed and made breakfast for me.


At NZG I was able to assist Dr. Bruns, the local zoo veterinarian. Our purpose for the next few days was to collect sperm from different species in the zoo, including tigers and several antelope species. This task required a team of experts: A sperm-researcher from Cape Town, an expert on in vitro fertilization, sperm collection and embryotransfer and the whole veterinary team of the zoo. The animals were sedated and then stimulated to ejaculation using electric prostate stimulation. Success was not always guaranteed, due to bad sperm quality, weak erections or failure to get an erection. I guess that is similar to how things work in nature…


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Due to the student protests we had to find an alternative solution for my internship, so I went to assist the veterinarians at the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa (NZG) in Pretoria. Photo by Malek Murad.


“What do you know about wildlife sedation?” was Dr Bruns first question while she was preparing the dart for the tiger sedation. “I know the drug you normally use – it’s etorphine, isn’t it?” Dr. Bruns just continued to prepare the dart for her air gun: “For tigers? You can use it.” She turned over to me, looking into my eyes. “Once. And it will be the last time. It’s too potent for cats.” For those of you who are interested: while etorphine hydrochloride is commonly used to sedate many ungulates, cats are usually sedated with a combination of Zoletil (a mix of tiletamine and zolazepam) and medetomidine.


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Dr. Bruns, the local zoo veterinarian, was a keen teacher and allowed me to help out where I could. Photo by Malek Murad.


I have learned a lot about wildlife sedation during my time in the NZG and I had my first experience working with wildlife. Dr. Bruns was a keen teacher and allowed me to help out where I could. Those were experiences I will never forget in my whole life. How many people have heard the heartbeat of a tiger before?


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How many people have heard the heartbeat of a tiger before? Photo by Malek Murad.