Born to be a Kalahari kid

Wendy Panaino

 

Pangolin face

A pangolin looks up from its ant meal. Photo by Wendy Panaino

It’s hard to think that almost a year ago, I had barely even heard of pangolins, and now I get to spend most nights with these incredible creatures in the most beautiful place. My MSc research involves investigating the body temperature and activity patterns of free-living ground pangolins (Smutsia temminckii) at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve in the Northern Cape Province. It has taken me a while to sit down and put into words the incredible journey I have been on this year. As I sit and wait for a pangolin to emerge from its burrow, I have plenty of time to gaze at the stars and reflect on my 2015 adventure. How could I possibly put this incredible year into one blog post? So many spectacular stories can be told here, but for now I’ll stick to telling you about my daily field work life at Tswalu.

 

After a successful week of surgery to implant pangolins with temperature data loggers, my adventure into a mind-blowing world was to begin. I’d be away from home longer than ever before, and fending for myself for the first time. I could never have dreamed that I would end up here, living in such a spectacular reserve. I dived right into things, venturing over the sandy dunes of the Kalahari, tracking the pangolins each day with a VHF receiver and antenna. There are few things more thrilling than hearing that first beep coming from your receiver, indicating that the animal you seek is nearby. Whether it takes you five minutes or an hour, you can’t help but feel the excitement boiling inside you when you know you’re getting close. There it is… a beautifully structured burrow that houses the precious scaly creature you’ve been seeking. I place a camera trap, mark the burrow on my GPS and get a slight sense of victory as I walk away.

 

Kalahari Kid tracking (2)

Tracking pangolins in the Kalahari. Photo by Lizelle du Preez

Camera trap

A camera trap in front of a pangolin burrow. Photo by Wendy Panaino

 

Daylight passes and the glorious night sky awakens. The way the moon rises over the mountains is more spectacular here than anywhere I’ve ever seen. This is my FAVOURITE part. I arrive at the burrow that I had marked earlier in daylight hours. I use the VHF receiver to ensure that the pangolin has not left its burrow yet. Providing that it is still in its burrow, I carefully position myself somewhere close by and down-wind. Here I sit and wait for the sound of the pangolin emerging from its burrow. Such a unique sound it is for a mammal, with the scales brushing against each other, a sound that could easily be mistaken for grasses rustling with the evening breeze. However, after spending many nights with these little animals, I have finally developed an ear for the unique sound. The moment I hear the animal in motion, my heart starts to race and the butterflies in my stomach emerge. I am about to lay my eyes on one of South Africa’s most elusive animals; the animal that I have chosen to devote an entire year to study. What a privilege!

 

Pangolin tracker (2)

A pangolin with a tracking device attached. Photo by Wendy Panaino

 

After the pangolin emerges, I follow the scaly critter from a distance as it forages for ants and termites through parts of the night. Recently I have managed to catch a pangolin in the act of laying a scat. How many people have seen a pangolin in the wild, let alone seen its scat? That’s a component that is lacking in most “tracks and signs” wildlife field guides. To take things even further, I have had the most incredible experience of being able to watch a female pangolin emerge from her burrow with her offspring. This may be the highlight of all my experiences here at the ever-so mesmerizing Tswalu, and I’ve only just begun! I cannot wait to see what lies in store for me in 2016.

 

Pangolin baby (2)

A pangolin female with her offspring clinging to her back. Photo by Wendy Panaino.

 

When I am not tracking or following pangolins, I am sitting counting ants that have been collected from pitfall traps. Although this takes many hours out of each day, it somehow gives me a sense of peace and I have learned to embrace it, since I am so fortunate to be doing it in this beautiful reserve. I never thought I’d end up working with insects, but I’ve recently taken it upon myself to learn as much as possible about the various insects and other little creatures that I find in these traps. The endless urge to keep learning and my continuous curiosity is what drives my passion for science and research, and so I encourage myself to embrace every opportunity that comes my way, no matter how small. Looking at each day with utter optimism is what makes my journey so special to me, and is what drives my excitement for this project and this place. And what would such an adventure be without the people I get to share it with? Living with such a diverse group of researchers has been a whole new world of fun, and each person (albeit unknowingly) drives my passion and excitement even further. I have met some of the most incredible people in this spectacular place. Tswalu is possibly the best place I’ve ever had the opportunity to visit. It is so unique and different to any other place I know and I have now started thinking that maybe, just maybe, I was born to be a Kalahari kid.

 

group photo

A few of the researchers and students at Tswalu that inspire me every day. Photo by Wendy Panaino.

 

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Royal’s capture

Anna Haw is our Group’s veterinarian and research officer. She is also busy with her PhD on respiratory depression during opioid-induced immobilization of wildlife and is involved in a few other research projects. One of the projects is a collaborative study with Oxford University on thermoregulation in lions in Zimbabwe. The lions were caught in 2013 and implanted with temperature-sensitive data loggers. For the next year, while they were free-living on a reserve, the lions’ body temperatures were measured every five minutes. The lions were recaptured in December 2014 to retrieve the data loggers. However, one lion’s capture, Royal, was delayed due to her newly born cubs. She was captured only during a second field trip in February 2015, and this capture proved to be quite exciting…

One of the male lions, captured for a research project on temperature regulation in free-living lions, with a dart in its shoulder. Photo by Anna Haw.

One of the male lions, captured for a research project on temperature regulation in free-living lions, with a dart in its shoulder. Photo by Anna Haw.

 

Royal’s capture

Anna Haw

The last rays of golden light were kissing the earth goodbye as we headed out into the heavy humidity. Straight ahead of us, we could see magnificent lightning in front of a backdrop of black cloud. We stopped on the top of a crest, taking in the beauty of this intense electrical storm. Byron, with antenna in hand, looked at me and said “she’s about 3 km that way”, while pointing directly towards a massive fork of lightning that divided the sky ahead of us. As the gusty wind blew straight into our faces, we contemplated our options. Either we turn back and try again tomorrow, although time is running out and if it rains hard tonight, our destination may soon be inaccessible. Or, we push on, while keeping a beady eye on the storm clouds above to see if we can somehow escape the downpour.

Thankfully, we chose the latter option. As we honed in on the VHF signal, it became evident that the storm had skimmed the area and was now dissipating somewhere off in the distance. By now, the golden light had disappeared, being replaced by moonlight that was eagerly trying to find a gap in the heavy clouds. Our options were not fantastic, but we settled on a somewhat flimsy mopane to hang up our bait and moved the vehicle into place to start our little game.

As the speakers vibrated with the sound of a squealing pig, we waited, eyes squinting into the dark. Two lionesses approached from behind the mopane, but they slunk off seemingly uninterested in the bait. A few minutes later, I heard heavy breathing over my left shoulder, getting louder and louder. As I turned my head, the unmistakable silhouette of two adult lionesses padded past me as I sat just metres away. They were coming in for the bait. As we watched the mopane getting pulled almost horizontal, we readied ourselves for some darting action. The spotlight hit a stunning lioness standing perfectly, broad on, exposing multiple potential dart sites, totally engrossed in the meat and unphased by the light, or our presence. The only problem was that she didn’t have a collar. It was the wrong lioness. Our lioness was cunningly lying low behind her sister, nibbling at the back end of the bait.

With a combination of skill and luck, we finally got a shot at the right lioness and a few minutes later our collared lioness was lying sound asleep. Her sister, with six cubs at her heels, thankfully decided to move off as we approached with the vehicle. Just as Byron and Amorai had their hands on Royal, my spotlight fell on a magnificent male lion coming in for the bait, a mere 30m away from us. As I alerted Byron, another male came in, and then another, bringing this spectacular coalition to three. We tried to push these boys off a bit with the Cruiser, but these manly felines did not seem too bothered by the big, noisy, clumsy Cruiser. There was no other option but to move our surgery someplace else.

Somehow, we had to load Royal while also keeping the male lions at bay. Amorai was given seconds to take off the Cruiser’s tail gate, I kept the spotlight firmly on the lions, while Byron, gun in hand, stood between Amorai and the lions. Next, Byron had to drop guard to help load this hefty lioness. As I was giving running commentary about the whereabouts of the lions “they’re coming in, closer, probably about 20 m away…”, Byron and Amorai were cursing the height of the Cruiser.  “Anna, we need your help”. Grabbing the handle of the stretcher from above, I cast a quick glance over my shoulder and thanks to the strength of Amorai and Byron, we somehow managed to get Royal onto the back of the Cruiser without getting eaten. I sat, straddling this sleeping lioness trying to keep her from slipping off the back of the vehicle as Byron bounced the Cruiser through the thick, elephant-trodden bush.

Finally, we were ready to start the surgery. I got busy, nervously asking Amorai if he had picked up any other predator eyes, while also keeping tabs on Royal’s anaesthetic depth, hyperthermia, flying insects and other obstacles that bush night surgery may throw in your face.

It went smoothly; logger out, collar changed, samples taken, all while the welcoming progressing night alleviated some of the heavy lowveld heat. We injected the antidote to the tranquiliser and moved off to enjoy the night under a now cloudless sky. I revelled in the moment; the moon so bright that a dove apparently thought it was the rising sun, while the other creatures of the dark noisily celebrated the coolness that comes with the deepening night. Sitting in the middle of the bush, watching a lioness slowly raise her head, stand up and slink off into the darkness is a feeling and experience that each time fills me with utter awe. We have successfully retrieved all our data loggers, but I sincerely hope this is not the last time I have that incredible feeling.

With the data loggers all successfully retrieved, Anna is now busy analysing the data. Judging from a quick glance I took at the initial data, the body temperature patterns of these lions seem to tell an interesting story. Hopefully we will be able to share that story soon…