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.

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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

Gemsbok. Photo by Arista Botha

Aardwolf

Aardwolf. Photo by Arista Botha

meerkat

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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