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Before 2013 I had been a volunteer with Biosphere Expeditions (BE) 6 previous times, each time in Namibia but in varying locations (Khomas Hochland, Caprivi and Omaheke) as the scientists whose work we were supporting came and went. The model used by BE is to fund a scientific study both by financing infra-structure, scientific equipment, manpower and sometimes the scientists themselves. The money for these activities comes from the volunteers who pay both for their accommodation and a contribution to the research fund as well as offering their time to collect data. This means that BE's projects are at the upper end of the price range for conservation holidays, but they are of high quality. The typical project is a scientist collecting data in the field for a Masters or PhD or involved in a long or short term study related to conservation which might otherwise have difficulty getting funded due to being in the early part of their career.


Projects are selected which fit BE's pattern: Quality scientific data should be collectable by interested volunteers with a modicum of training and with activities capable of being divided up so that small groups of volunteers can have both morning and afternoon activities each day over a 12 day period. Results must be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.


BE currently has expeditions to


Amazonia (cats, primates),

Arabia (oryx, wildcat),

Australia (marsupials),

Azores, (whales, dolphins, turtles),

Kyrgyzstan (snow leopard),

Malaysia (coral reef, sharks, dolphins),

Maldives (coral reef, whale sharks),

Musandam (coral reef),

Namibia (leopard, elephant, cheetah),

Scotland (whales, dolphins, basking sharks),

Slovakia (wolf, lynx, wildcat)


BE describes its Namibian expedition as a game of cats and elephants but its more formal title is a working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa.


Before I went on my first Namibia expedition I searched for reports from people who had already taken part and found one by a BBC Radio 4 travel reporter. He recommended the "holiday" to anyone who wanted to work on a conservation related project gathering scientific data but to forget the idea of ever seeing the target species in the flesh. You do see their presence in the form of their tracks, their scat and sometimes the remains of their meals and it is your job to record this, take samples for genetic analysis in the case of scat and to count their potential prey. These data can give realistic information about predator densities and what they are eating as well as sometimes genetic information of individuals.


This first expedition in 2007 was on a former cattle ranch converted to game farm called Okomitundu where the main study animals were cheetahs and leopards (we saw none and the collared cheetahs were out of telemetry range). The cheetah study had moved around several locations under the auspices of Okatumba Wildlife Research, and contributed to the 2007 Namibian cheetah status report for the Cat Specialist Group of the IUCN authored by Laurie Marker et al.


After that the study site moved to the communal conservancies in eastern Caprivi (sorry, the Zambezi Region) for two years before returning to a game farm, Ongos, near Windhoek which I wrote about in 2010 and 2011. That farm was sold for redevelopment so the study moved yet again to the present site in 2012.


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Okambara


Okambara Elephant Lodge is 3 former cattle farms merged together to form a game farm of about 15,000 hectares with guest accommodation in a lodge and activities including photographic game drives and (non-predator) hunting. Game is also harvested for food.


Cattle, donkey and horses were rounded up and removed from the farm when it was converted from a cattle farm and the farm stocked with game. The round up of the stock at the time of the conversion was less than perfect and so there are (small) herds of wild cows, horses and donkeys still on the farm along with the imported antelope species (both black and blue wildebeest, impala, springbok, eland, sable, duiker, steenbok, oryx, giraffe, kudu, waterbuck). Some antelope will have been on the farm during its time as a cattle farm as the fences were then quite low and easy for the antelopes to jump. Now the farm is surrounded by a game fence but holes in the fence made by warthogs quickly become enlarged and used by other animals. Even the oryx manage to get through quite small holes.


Leaving...


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and returning...


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The aim of the scientific study on Okambara is to gather data about big cats (leopard and cheetah) on game farms in Namibia especially their diet, numbers and ranges. In addition Okambara also has a breeding herd of 9 elephants and part of the study is to determine the area needed to sustain such herds in what are much smaller areas than national parks such as Etosha. So we find and follow the herd noting its behaviour especially its choice of grass, bushes or trees for feeding. The "game" is to find the study animals. It is surprising how easy it is for a herd of 9 elephants to vanish in the dense thorn bush areas even when the matriarch is wearing a VHF collar.


Target species of cats are captured for collaring using box traps (fat old men can be used to test them :rolleyes: )


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which are baited to attract leopards or set up as gateways to marking trees for cheetahs. The IZW has some quite fancy box traps which can send sms text messages when animals are captured but they need solar panels to power the electronics and the elephants trash them so we have to use old fashioned mechanical traps which need checking twice a day. Hence one of our activities will be driving round the farm to all the active traps releasing non-target species and reporting in any potentially interesting captures.


Collars cost a couple of thousand euros but store and send frequently-recorded gps positions so give a much more detailed picture of the animal movements than old fashioned VHF telemetry which would give a single position provided you have the time to get three bearings to triangulate the animal. We still use telemetry with the elephants to find them for the observations of their behavious and for the safety of the people working on foot.


To give some idea of the likelihood of coming into direct contact with the target species here is my experience in the 6 previous years, and I am considered lucky. I am only counting study species trapped whilst I was present on the expedition. In year 1 we trapped no leopards or cheetahs but caught a brown hyena which was immobilised and collared. Of course we also caught baboons, porcupines, a honey badger, warthogs which were not being studied. In year 2 we free darted a leopard and a lion. In year 3 we trapped no animals. In year 4 we trapped no target animals. In year 5 we trapped a male leopard but he was too young to collar so genetic information was taken (blood, hair, semen, scat). In year 6 we trapped a brown hyena which was too young to collar and a large male leopard whilst another group on the same farm trapped four cheetahs which we were invited to help with the data collection. Occasionally other predators are caught such as caracals, jackals or honey badgers and then we will try to contact other scientists in the region to see if they want to come and take samples.


Okambara is located past the Hosea Kutako International Airport south of the B6 from Windhoek to Gobabis and which goes on to the Botswana border. The study is in partnership with the Berlin IZW and two of their scientists guide what we do. J\"org who is involved in long term studies of cheetahs and elephants trains us to observe the elephants, and Vera, who is working on a PhD on leopards, is our field scientist in day to day charge of our activities. There is much less known about the leopards in Namibia than cheetahs; for example over the years IZW has collared over 400 cheetahs but less than 60 leopards.


The ecology is semi-arid thornbush savannah with water holes filled from boreholes. The pumps were originally driven by windmills but when the elephants arrived they proceeded to trash them so now water is pumped electrically either from mains electricity or via solar panels (the latter have also to be protected from the elephants by high voltage wires also powered from the solar panels).


There was again to be a journalist in my 2013 team, Matthew Havercroft from the Wild Travel magazine plus the 12 paying volunteers from Australia, Austria, Germany, Norway, UK, USA; with ages ranging up to 81. The assembly point is at Casa Piccolo in Windhoek and those who arrived early enough went off with me to Joe's Beerhouse on the night before to sample the game and and beer. Early on Sunday morning we were picked up by a minibus and driven to the farm gate on gravel roads where our scientist (Vera), expeditition leader (Alisa) and tracker (Jesaja) are waiting to meet us with three Landcruiser pickups to drive us across another farm to Okambara and our bush camp base in the south of the Okambara.


The expedition is housed in a camp located well away from the tourist lodge, consisting of 5 twin bed huts and a lapa with additional rooms and a kitchen. The buildings are unheated so a bit chilly when the expedition starts at the end of winter in August.


The lapa


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Inside the lapa


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The huts


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Inside my hut


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Namibia has introduced a requirement for volunteers to obtain what they call a work visa. Not as rigorous as a work permit, it is a chance to charge £28 for a stamp in the passport. I used an agent in Windhoek to obtain the visa and email it to me as we were told we had to apply directly to the ministry. Others managed to get the visas through the high commission in London but for me that would have cost double due to the train fare to get to London from home even taking the agent's fee into account.

I flew SAA from London to Johannesburg and had allowed plenty of time for catching the onward flight to Windhoek which paid off as several wide-bodied aircraft arrived at the same time as we did so the queue at immigration for transit passengers was huge and took over an hour to get through followed by another long queue at security for access to the departure lounge. I heard that some transit passengers missed their onward flights. I eventually caught the evening flight which was a 737 so many fewer passengers than the earlier airbus flights. Windhoek has a small airport so has trouble handling the containers in which baggage comes from large aircraft and it may take an hour or two for the bags to arrive. Thanks to my visa I was sent to the diplomatic channel to get my passport stamped and the baggage from the 737 was already in the arrivals hall when I came out so I was walking out of the terminal 20 minutes after landing. My lift to Casa Piccolo was waiting and off we went.

After the bus drive to Okambara on Sunday morning we were assigned rooms. I got the same room as last year and will share with Gary from New York (State). We were given just enough time to drop off our bags and then returned to the lapa for introductions to the staff and the facilities before starting a long series of briefings/training. We broke for lunch which was a vegan meal of salad and pasta. We were told that BE aspires to serve vegan food as much as possible. I was ready to get on the next plane back as I am happy to eat vegetarians but have no desire to be one. After a lengthy risk assessment (most dangerous activity was the drive here/more people die of d.i.y accidents than on expedition, etc) and some presentations on the scientific aims of the studies, we had dinner of Zebra steaks -- the lack of water means Namibia is not the country to base your diet on salads.

 

Towards sunset a family group of 4 rhino came to the waterhole in front of the camp to welcome us. Last year the waterhole was new and used mostly by some cows and horses so it was a pleasant surprise that wildlife was now using it.

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Edited by JohnR
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JR, thanks for this. I've always wondered about these volunteer scientific holidays and am very much appreciating your report and the level of detail on the practical matters (visa, housing, food, etc.). Seeing the above rhinos would have made the whole journey worthwhile for me. I look forward to more. Also, what did zebra steak taste like?

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Good information @@JohnR thanks

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@@PT123 Zebra is a dark meat and very similar to horse (not surprisingy) if you have eaten that. Very low in fat so quite healthy to eat. I used to be able to get it in the UK before our local South African butcher closed down :(

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Monday

Monday morning was our first breakfast which consisted of cereals with milk or yogurt, bread/toast, hard bolied eggs, cheese, fruit, tomatoes, biltong and a surprise, smoked giraffe which was delicious - one of the best smoked meats I've tasted. Flasks of tea and coffee and jugs of fruit juice are available and there is also an electric kettle with a supply of teabags and instant coffee which is available all day.

So far as hydration is concerned, in this semi-arid area with the early groups arriving in the dry season, we are at 1800m above sea level with mostly cloudless skies and a humidity in single digits. So it is important to drink frequently. We are advised to bring at least a 2 litre bladder or equivalent in water bottles and to carry it (and drink it :rolleyes: ) whenever we are in the field. The cars have a jerrycan of tapwater as an emergency reserve. I filled my waterbottle from the tap in my hut without problems and kept a can of coke in my backpack in case I also needed some sugar. There is a cooler in the lapa well stocked with beer and soft drinks, and plastic bottles of mineral water for those hooked on them.

After breakfast more training, this time the serious bit on collecting and recording data including how to use a GPS, compass, binoculars, rangefinder, identification of target species. Initially we will have staff with us until we are familiar with what is wanted. A fair proportion of the group are complete beginners with GPSes for data collection even if they have brought their own with them though using the compass to take bearings is also a struggle for many.

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The activities we shall be conducting are

* Box traps moving, installing, checking (and resetting them if triggered by a non-target species)
* Putting out or moving camera traps, changing batteries and bringing back SD cards
* Searching for tracks and scats on foot
* Waterhole observation
* Elephant behaviour
* Vehicle game count
* Data entry (into spreadsheets on the computer)

Anything which happens or is found has a location which is recorded on a data sheet from a GPS (Garmin GPSMap 60). The GPS also contains a map of the farm roads and landmarks which was created by driving round the farm with the GPS set to record and saving waypoints. So using a GPS proficiently is one of the first skills to be learned. We also need to take bearings with a compass and use range finders to get the position of things we cannot drive to or reach on foot or record the direction of a predator track.

When we are presented with all the data sheets relevant to our tasks at one go as happens during the training they seem overwhelming but when we go out on a specific task we will just be taking the relevant ones and each sheet has instructions how to fill it in. There are some sheets which we always take such as carcasses to record any we come across (location, species, cause of death) or another to record any predators actually seen (a very rare occurrence).

This male kudu probably died of rabies.
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In the afternoon those interested in driving the Landcruisers will be taken on a test drive. About half wanted to drive and those like me who didn't went with Jesaja to check the boxtraps at Frankposten (a waterhole halfway up the farm) and Bergposten (a waterhole at the very top of the farm so more than an hours drive away) which are already active. Since the cabs of the Landcruisers only hold two people the rest ride in the back. There is a speed limit of 30kph on the farm's roads at all times and a limit of 20kph if there are any passengers in the back.

 

Some passengers
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On the way back to camp we drive more slowly and look for some of game so people can practise their identification skills.

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Dinner was roast warthog (similar to pork but to my palate more flavourful) and today's waterhole visit at sunset was some wildebeest.

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Tuesday


The first full day of activities so we will divide into groups. Instead of fixed groups we can bid at the evening debrief for the following day's tasks which interest us, with some moderation by our expedition leader Alisa who wants everyone to have a chance to try all the activities that interest them. Usually there are separate morning and afternoon activities but the team checking the boxtraps takes a packed lunch and stays out all day also checks camera traps. There are restrictions on the teams, for example a vehicle must have a minimum of two pwople and preferably three. The boxtrap team must include a male in case a baboon is in a closed trap. You climb on top of the trap to release the baboon and a male baboon would never accept a female in a dominant position. I chose box and camera traps since there is a chance to do some tracking and I've had reasonable success in the past.


Before we set off we first had a lesson on changing wheels of the Landcruisers as the previous group had had a number of punctures. The official method is to use a bottle jack


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but I am the son of a car mechanic and hate the little things which can so easily tip over. I have experience changing wheels using the hi-lift jack on previous expeditions so am permited to use it here.


A second group lesson is how box traps work so everyone now drove to Frankposten where there is a boxtrap so those who had never seen them could learn about the mechanism, its dangers and correct setup. I volunteered to walk into the activated trap to trigger it. Any time a trap is set up it must be tested as it would be a disaster to miss a capture of a target species due to wrongly setting the plate or trigger.


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Then we split up and started our individual tasks. We drove to the Lodge in the north and out of its back gate into the area called the mountains to swap the SD cards in the existing camera traps and drove south to Kuduposten where Vera wanted to place another camera trap but would only do so if there was some evidence of predator activity.


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Our noses soon found a carcass but no leopard tracks around it. So we fanned out and started to search along nearby antelope trails. Eventually I found


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heading towards the water hole. We followed it along the track until we came to a crossroads of animal tracks and placed a camera on a tree using some test animals walking on hands and knees to get the angle of view right.


We were now in a bit of a quandary as it was getting late and we were out of radio range and in a dead spot for mobile phones. We still had tow box traps to check so tried to take a short cut through the mountains. It existed on the map so someone must have driven it last year. But they were different people in different vehicles (Land Rover Defenders) and the "road" was becoming just a series of large boulders and thorn bushes so we turned around and drove back to take a longer short cut. When we came within radio range we reported we were going to be late back and thought we heard confirmation of our message from base.


So we carried on to the western fence of the farm near to the IZW base at JM House (one of the farm houses of the 3 merged farms). There are two boxtraps next to the fence so we checked the northern one first. To lessen the stress on animals potentially in the traps we approach quietly on foot using binoculars to see from as far away as possible if the trap has been triggered. It has! (Elation!) So Vera moves forward until she can see the fierce beast -- a warthog. (Despair) But it is not just any warthog, it is a huge male and it has bent the door of the box. It must have used huge force as the bars are 1cm steel. We go to help Vera clear the thorn bush branches from around the trap and then move to the back of the trap whilst she climbs on top and raises the door. The warthog escapes and we decide to deactivate the trap as with a broken door there it might not work correctly.


We then drive south along the fence until we come to a camera trap, swap cards and then on to the last boxtrap. We again park and walk until we can see that it is open. We trun back to avoid bringing human smells to the trap, go back to the car and start the drive back to camp. On the way we see headlights coming towards us and are curious what is happening -- it is a search party coming to look for us and we get shouted at for not radioing in that we would be late.


The rule is that everyone is back at base before sunset and anyone getting delayed must radio or SMS or phone or else a search party will be sent out. What we realised was that there had been no instructions how to use the radios and no-one was using call signs. So the message we had heard which we thought was confirmation of our message was actually from one of the other groups and our message had not been heard. So we sorted this immediately and also noted that if you can hear someone else and they can reach base but you can't then they can relay the message for you.


At the evening debrief we decided we would use call signs with the radios and relay messages :) . I again chose to do box and camera traps for Wednesday as it had been such fun.


Dinner was a braai of game meat served with home made bread (and salads for those that eat them).


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I like the caged human picture for some reason. Very interesting report and sounds like a very good experience, although something I might be pretty useless at (unless they wanted more pictures of things like humans in cages!) since I would drift off into reverie being out in the bush and forget to do my job.

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@@pault You would not be the first to drift into reverie <_<:rolleyes: especially on the long drags to an activity at the opposite end of the farm.

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Wednesday

This is the first day with our activities starting on the standard schedule since the lessons are now over. Breakfast is at 7 so my room mate Gary and I have decided he uses the bathroom first and then goes off with a couple of other early risers to see what game they can see as the sun comes up. At breakfast we also make our lunchtime sandwiches to keep in the plastic boxes we were told to bring. Most days I make a cheese, tomato and smoked giraffe (or other game) sandwich with a boiled egg, an apple and some biltong.

By 7.30 we have collected the equipment we need for the morning task, including the data sheets and filled up with water. We go to the cars and check them over for deflated tyres, any thorns in the tyres especially the sidewalls, and we check underneath the car for any combustible material especially around the exhaust which could get hot enough to ignite it. In this arid land fire is a major hazard so we must be permanently on guard.

Being a non-driver I climb in the back with my equipment, put my binoculars around my neck and if I have brought it, my 7D camera along with a telephoto lens which I have on a long strap from Peak Design which easily attaches to any of my cameras or binoculars. My compact camera (Panasonic TZ30) is in my top pocket for recording spoor or anything else we come across without warning. Last year I wrecked my 100-400mm lens with dust by keeping it in the open to have it ready at all times so this year I have brought a ThinkTank toploading shoulder bag which extends sufficiently so that I can put camera, lens and lenshood into the bag without removing anything and have it ready for action in a couple of seconds as I also leave the camera switched on.

We start our day by driving to Frankposten to check the boxtrap which is closed :) but no sign of movement :angry: and a large predator would certainly let is presence be known. Vera leaves the vehicle and walks round until she can see the length of the trap and there is a porcupine in the back. These are a pain in the arse whether they shoot quills or not as they can be quite reluctant to leave a trap. This proves to be the case when Vera opens the front door. She asks someone to go to the back of the trap and try to shoo it out but it just sits there shaking its quills at us. I tell Vera that when this has happened to me in the past, opening the second door at the back has been the only way I could persuade the porcupine out. It's a bit of a nuisance in this case as the trap is embedded in a thornbush making the door difficult to raise but after a struggle we get the back door up and off goes the porcupine. Stubborn little buggers.

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After this we drove east to the waterhole by the boma where the the cattle had been assembled when the farm was being converted. When we tested the boma camera trap we found it wasn't working properly. Boma is one of the elephants' favourite waterholes and they had clearly been adjusting the camera. So we removed it and then took a break for lunch.

Next job was to go back to the trap near the JM House and replace the bent door. We found an intact door in the IZW store and rebuilt the box trap which had been sufficiently disturbed by the large warthog that we had to set it up again from scratch finding buckets of sand, grass and thorns.

Whilst picking up the gate we got a general call from the Tracks & Scats team asking for a message relay back to base, which we did as we had line of sight to base from the hillside. This time we used the tightened up radio procedure and everyone knew what was happening.

We then checked the second box south of the JM House which was open and swapped the Bushnell camera trap opposite a hole in the fence for a Rekonix since the elephants cannot reach this area and the Bushnell can go to replace the faulty one at boma since they are more expendable.

Some photos from the Rekonix camera over the next few weeks; everyone seems to be using this hole in the fence...

Leopard collared by my group last year
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Honey badger. They are often in the traps so data is collected for other studies.
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Caracal. Likewise there are scientists studying caracals which are also highly disliked by farmers.
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African wildcat. Some animal knocked the camera.
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In the evening debrief we learned we would do the weekly vehicle game drive the next day with 3 teams chosen by Alisa for a spread of skills and the team needing the most time to reach their starting point leaving first so that the three teams driving from south to north along parallel routes will be in step to avoid the risk of double counting of fleeing animals.

Dinner was a curry with sweet potato, pasta and beetroot.

 

Tomorrow is an early start so we are in bed even earlier than usual at 8.30. Normally I read something soporific on my Kindle like a @@tonypark novel to lull myself asleep but I don't need it with the long box trap days.

Edited by JohnR
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Nice camera trap picture of the caracal @@JohnR. Nice to hear about how the project functions.

 

If I am not mistaken that is you in the trap? At least they let you out!

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Thursday


Morning was the vehicle game count where everyone except the driver is in the back of the vehicle who sees nothing but the track ahead, drives at around 10kph under our intructions, trying to stop the moment we tap on the roof of the cab without sending us flying. I don't take a camera as I want to concentrate entirely on scanning for and counting prey species. Although they can be prey we will ignore the cows, horses and donkeys, elephants, rhino. The equipment used includes the GPS, rangefinder, compass, and the data sheet. Vera is in my truck and will write the data down, I have the compass and stand right at the back as I have to decide whether animals are in the forward 180 degrees as those behind may have already been counted.


We have the shortest route starting from the southeast corner and ending at the fence about 2/3 the way up. When we have finished we shall switch to checking box traps on the way back. The west-most group have the longest route and will check the Bergposten trap in the north afterwards.


Everything is going to plan and we are seeing quite a lot of game in the lower part of the farm. Our route will eventually start to climb and the thornbushes get much denser so we expect things to tail off. About half-way Vera gets an SMS from Jesaja saying that on the way to their starting point they found a leopard drag track crossing the road and gave the GPS position. Since they could not stop to look as we all have to do the game count at the same time we will go and investigate when we have done.


When we got to the GPS location it was a very clear track going north to south across the road the the JM House. Gary was driving and saw the track first and was mystified as it reminded him of tracks he had seen in the snow in the US. Jesaja identified leopard spoor alongside the drag mark. Vera and I started to follow the track into the bush and we went 150m in before I saw a carcass under a bush with one leg eaten (an oryx calf) but most of the meat left. The stakes are now quite high as we need to get a trap set up immediately and get out of the area before the leopard comes back. The opinion of the scientists is that so long as we don't frighten off the leopard we will capture it. We immediately look for a way to bring in a truck to within walking distance. We don't want to move the carcass and it is mid-way between two parallel roads with a lot of aardvark burrows sprinkled around. Whilst waiting for the scientists to decide what will happen I followed the track back to where the kill took place, about 120m to the north of the road making a total of 270m from beginning to end. I couldn't see any difference in the surroundings at one end from the other but I suppose the leopard had its own reason for going that far. Its mistake was in crossing the road when we were around.


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Once we have decided it is possible to drive close enough we head for the JM House to fetch the box trap we repaired yesterday. We have to strip the truck down as the bench in the back will block loading the boxtrap. While we do that Ivan, from the cheetah group, drives to the trap and starts to dismantle it. When we have our truck ready we reverse along the track and strongman Ivan stands the trap on end so that it can be just tipped over and pushed onto the back of the truck.


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When we drive back to the carcass the process is reversed and Ivan keeps the box stood on end and walks it into position facing the carcass. The team which found the drag has finished their transect and were due to switch to tracks and scats but Vera gives them our GPS position and the road from which we drove into the bush and asks them to go to Frankposten and bring the trap from there so that we can make a large kraal with two entrances. It would be a tragedy if there was only one trap and it was triggered by a mongoose/warthog/aardvark/porcupine before the leopard got there. In the mean time we worked to collect thorn branches, grass and sand to bed the traps into the bushes and ground. The ground in front of the trap must merge smoothly into the ground inside the trap and the plate connected to the trigger should not be visisble but move freely. Ivan wanted the traps to be as natural as possible so we also collected some antelope scat to add to the sand and grass in the bottom.


The first trap completed


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Building the kraal of thorn bushes around a second trap


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Collecting scat


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Testing the trap door


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When all is done we head back to JM house to fit our bench, pick up our equipment and leave Vera who will try to sort out some of the logistics in case we are successful. The two teams then head back to base and finally have lunch at 3pm. The third team is still out as they went up to Bergposten to check the trap and have lunch in the field.


At the evening debrief we set up the following day as normal. I chose elephant survey in the morning and waterhole observation in the afternnoon. Vera pointed out that in the normal course of events when there is no BE team present no-one drives the road where the track was so it would never have been noticed. There is a big advantage for the scientists to have many pairs of eyes observing things all over the farm and seeing much more than the 2 or 3 scientists normally in residence.


In the evening we had another visit from the wildebeest herd


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Friday


Vera joins us at breakfast trying to keep a straight face but is soon grinning from ear to ear. She stopped by the trap on the way to the camp and we have a leopard in the trap! Does this mean a change of plan (we are told to stay flexible and expect the unexpected as part of our initial briefing)? Well, there is a problem, the IZW vet is away so now they have to find an alternative wildlife vet so we carry on with our scheduled activities for now.


My group went on elephant survey. We drove to the main farmhouse to pick up one of the guest farm drivers, Michael, and passed fresh elephant spoor on the way. To practise telemetry we pretended not to know where they were and used the antenna to find them.


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To be honest, the signal from the collar is not particularly strong (the collar needs replacing) and it is often easier to find them by tracking if you know roughly where they are or have recently been. Whilst looking for them Alisa spotted a leopard track which turned out to be leopard and cheetah tracks (presumably not at the same time) walking in the soft sand on the road.


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When we found the elephants they were browsing some bushes and drifting towards a ridge and into dense thornbush where we could not follow them. This is all we often see of the elephants, just the tops of their backs in the distance.


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After half an hour or so we lost contact and returned to base for lunch.


At lunch we heard that a vet had been found who can come the next day so the leopard would be collared if large enough. Christian, the farmer, was sure it was a large leopard and that would match the spoor I saw.


In the afternoon we took the waterhole box (tools for cutting bushes, work gloves and folding chairs) and were dropped off at Gustavposten a waterhole near the camp inhabited by a large number of guinnea fowl. In 2 and 3/4 hours we counted 24 warthogs, 7 giraffe, 4 eland, 4 zebra, a skittish oryx, and 2 horses. Some baboons passed by without drinking and small birds were constantly giving away our presence as there was no roof to the hide. There was a constant wind blowing a lot of dust directly into our faces so it was not the most comfortable of experiences.


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Saturday


Since the farm does not have a gate near the camp on the gravel road from Windhoek Alisa drove out the southern gate of the farm to pick up the vet and bring him to Okambara while we had a late breakfast and a visit by the blue wildebeest herd.


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When everyone was ready we drove along the powerline road to where the prey drag crossed it and started to set up the processing area. It would be too congested in the dense bush to try and process the leopard near the trap.


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The IZW vet's car contains all the equipment needed including a gazebo to keep the sun off and which provides some entertainment while people try to assemble it without any instructions. Eventually Ivan intervenes and the gazebo is swiftly assembled along with tables, a clock and clipboard.


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It pays to have someone tall if you don't put the top on before extending the legs...


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Finally we are ready


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The vet and scientists walk into the bush to assess the leopard who tells them what he thinks about being kept in the the trap. The vet prepared an immobilisation dart and took the airgun to deliver it.


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After 10 or so minutes they went back to look at the leopard and signaled to Ivan who was standing on the roof of one of the cars to bring the stretcher for the patient.


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When he arrives at the gazebo he is first weighed


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and turns out to be 69 kilos which is a bit heavier than anticipated and so the drug dose is a bit on the low side. Rather than top up the drug it is decided to work quickly. First he is photographed for picture ID


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and then moved onto the table. He is assign the name L051.


To speed up the work, the vet and and Joerg will take samples whilst Vera fits the collar (he is 5 years old according to his teeth so fully grown); Ivan notes down the data and two volunteers monitor life signs (heart rate and rectal temperature). This means there are a lot of people around the table. More of the volunteers are also needed to hold legs out of the way or to pass things to. I stand behind Joerg to receive the vials as he fills them with blood and I invert each one 10 times to homogenise them.


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The collar used stores GPS positions at intervals set by the scientists and releases the data when it gets a signal from a low flying aircraft which one of the IZW staff pilots.


In just over an hour we are done and he is loaded onto the stretcher to be carried back to the trap.


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He will be left on the ground near the bait in case he is peckish when he wakes up. When we have all gone back to the cars the vet gives him a reversing drug and beats a hasty retreat.



After lunch at the lapa I went on elephant survey, picking up driver Michael from the farm. As we were leaving we saw some oryx run towards the escarpment and Alisa says she has so far not seen any klipspringer. Magically we see them immediately on the rocks of the escarpment


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The telemetry to find the elephants was inconclusive so we drove to a nearby waterhole which they often use, Frankposten, and saw 3 rhino and some giraffe along with elephant spoor.


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We set off in roughly the direction of their track but keeping to the road. Eventually their track crossed the road and the spoor was very fresh so we soon found two of them. They were 168 metres from the road and we could not see the other seven. The density of the bush meant we could not really observe their behaviour though we could hear them breaking branches so we knew they were eating and so unlikely to come out of the bush for a while.


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After a while trying fruitlessly to find a better position we decided to call it a day and took Michael home before returning to base via Frankposten where we disturbed some kudu.


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Edited by JohnR
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Really good pictures of the leopard collar fitting - telling the story, which is interesting. But what is someone doing with pliers in one picture? Looks like he's screwing in a spot, but I presume he is just resting his hands there while waiting?

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Really good pictures of the leopard collar fitting - telling the story, which is interesting. But what is someone doing with pliers in one picture? Looks like he's screwing in a spot, but I presume he is just resting his hands there while waiting?

 

No, @@pault, he's unscrewing a spot for a DNA sample :P

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What a fantastic experience this is!!!! Thanks for sharing....

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Sunday


The middle Sunday is our day off. Sort of.


What we do varies. If there is an urgent job to be done volunteers will be asked for or someone will be volunteered <_<:P:D


For my first three years we went on safari in Omaruru, Lianshulu and Camp Kwando respectively. We paid a basic fee (although the CEO of BE made such a big snafu that he paid for the trip to Lianshulu), drove to the lodges and were handed over to their guides. It was also a chance to buy postcards and souvenirs in the lodge. By far the best of these was Lianshulu as we took a boat safari on a bird and game rich section of the Kwando River.


For the next 2 years we were on a farm in the outskirts of Windhoek so some people chose to spend the day in town. Otherwise we could take a car and drive around the farm (oh, if you are doing that please check the boxtraps so the staff can have the day off). We took lots of equipment with us and completely cocked up triangulating a collared leopard due to not thinking about the topography. The first year on that farm, when we got back four of us made the mistake of going to the lapa for a drink. We ended up doing the weekly service of the 3 Land Rovers in the camp.


Last year we took a car to drive around and our tracker Jesaja came along as a guide as we were trying to find some ancient rock carvings.


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The rock art excursion group



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This year I decided to be lazy and stay in the camp doing some laundry and writing up the diary this report is based on.


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Some people wanted to sit at a waterhole but with only three cars, staff using two and the third at the rock art they were stuck, so Jesaja took them on a walk in the bush until dusk.


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Shortly after they got back a jackal came to the waterrhole and seemed quite unconcernd with our presence apart from the human smells the hikers left behind.


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We are also told we shall not be checking the Bergposten boxtrap for a few days as a hunter has a set up a hide by the waterhole and the farm staff will check the trap for us.


The wind has been steadily picking up speed and the air is getting very dusty so we have a string of red sunsets


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@@JohnR What a great report, as much as I enjoy all the reports on ST this one is has a different slant and make very interesting reading. I could see myself doing something like this in the future, please keep it coming.

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