Rain is cancelled!

Almost everyone who owns a smartphone and has a vested interest in the data collection at the project has a weather app installed. It is highly unlikely that several different weather apps have the ability to control the Kalahari weather, but they tend to have the power to cancel meteorological events such as rain, thunderstorms and snow at will….yup, my weather app predicted snow several time last winter (which was ironically one of the mildest we’ve had) and then cancelled it the day before. It’s doing something similar with the rain this summer. It begins with a prediction of about a 50% chance of rain 10 days in advance and as you get closer to the predicted date, the % likelihood decreases until it is 0 and ends up a sad, hot and sunny day just like any other!

We are currently in the middle of one of the worst droughts the project has seen. My first year at the project, (coincidentally another drought year) was severe and we lost more than half of the population. This year it appears to be a lot worse. Not only have we had less rain and higher temperatures, but the groups were unable to recover after 2012 and therefore had fewer individuals in each group before the drought started to claim them! One of my friends started his PhD in 2012 and I remember him being upset that his animals were dying. Sure, it was sad to watch it happen, but now that I am in the same position and my sample size is dwindling before my eyes, I can vouch for how extremely heart wrenching that is. Especially when you stand aside and watch your data point die and then pick its limp body up and stick it in the freezer. The joys of working with a wild population, eh?!

We have had a couple of brief showers this season. But have received a total of 21 mm of rain while our neighbouring farms have had about 70 already! Most rain predicted days are characterized with excessive sand storms and really strong winds! NEVER leave your windows open during a sand storm or else everything you own will be covered in sand. And however hard you try, your clothes will never be sand free again! Three years later, I still find sand in clothes that haven’t been back to the Kalahari after my volunteer year!

We do have excellent thunderstorms where it looks like the clouds are having their own private party! It is of course, slightly terrifying when attempting to track your meerkat group in the evening. Aerial in hand, outstretched to the skies, with not very many taller structures around, hoping to get a signal from the radio collar at the group, it’s basically an open invitation to get struck by lightning!IMG_9515

We have several days when the skies threaten us with dark, gloomy clouds (which make excellent sunsets, no doubt), but there is very rarely any rain. However great it is to photograph the pre-rain skies, when it does rain in the Kalahari, it pours! We are yet to have a massive shower, but there’s rain predicted in March, hopefully it floods!

In my next post, I will talk about how actually depressing the heat can get and some of our (mostly unsuccessful) coping mechanisms!

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Proof that it occasionally rains in the desert, and when it does, it pours!

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Return to the real world!

It’s been a while since I’ve written, mostly because I’ve been telling myself I’m busy PhDing, but mostly because I’ve been lazy. It’s been a hectic five month field season this time, and by the end of it, was I keen to get back to the outside world (and this is coming from someone who would run from the real world at the drop of a hat)!

It didn’t take more than a minute in civilization for me to realize that I miss the desert already. Especially, after all the unnecessary bodily contact and the creepy Indian man who insisted on breathing down the back of my neck whilst we stood at passport control in Heathrow. Personal space and boundaries, people!

The highlight of the season was most definitely the pangolin sightings. Not one, but TWO and that too on two CONSECUTIVE days! Pangolins are incredibly rare and elusive creatures. People who live in the bush can go their entire lives without ever having seen one! There have been a couple of sporadic sightings on the reserve since the start of the project, but none in the two and a half years I’ve been there so far. I was convinced I was going to leave the Kalahari never having seen one. There had been one pangolin sighting on the reserve the year before I arrived. The project collared it an attempt to keep tabs on it and very smartly forgot to activate the collar once they released the animal!

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My short two week holiday was an absolute welcome. It was a perfect blend of mountains, wildlife and sea. I had great company and definitely some great stories for life!  I now have an actual ice breaker story if I ever need one, but more on that later!

Some of the prey items eaten by meerkats

I did a bit of work too. A majority of my time was spent focalling meerkats. As I am interested in understanding how individuals differ from one another in the way they develop their foraging skills, I need to attain a very detailed picture of their eating habits. I follow individuals right from about when they are two to three weeks old, all the way in to adulthood. We’re extremely lucky at the project to have such a well habituated population. Not only are we able to monitor daily weight gain, we can actually calculate a pretty accurate caloric intake for the animals. I have therefore been collecting and weighing prey items in order to determine the weight of the prey items in addition to using some of the bomb caloric data from work done in the past. This has actually been a very interesting learning exercise for me. I have always been fascinated by creepy crawlies, but never spent time trying to learn more about them. Now, not only can I now identify and differentiate
between similar species, but also know that a beetle larvae can bite and draw blood, so you don’t want to be poking it in places trying to look for “gonads” like I was!

I have a lot planned for the next three months before I head back to my desert home. I have tons of data to analyse, so that I can plan my experiments based on that. I have also been emotionally black mailed into visiting family in India. I’m not going to lie, I am looking forward to all the love and good food! When I return to South Africa, I would have put an end to my endless winter curse, and start something I really look forward to-two years of endless summer 🙂

It’s nearly holiday time!

Less than a week and I’ll be on holiday! It’s been about 8 months since I took a proper break and I tell myself that starting a PhD, settling into a life shuttling between two continents and working long hours in the field totally justifies one.

Despite having spent most of the last three years in South Africa, I must admit that I’ve been to very few places outside the reserve! Besides passing through Jo’berg and Pretoria, I spent three days in the Kgalagadi TP and a week in Cape Town last year.

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park spans 38000sq km over three countries (SA, Namibia and Botswana) making it one of the few parks worldwide, unique both in terms of size but also one that allows free movement of animals irrespective of political boundaries. As the park is tucked away in the remote north west of the country, it is often forgotten by tourists who come to South Africa enthralled by Kruger and other parks closer to the big cities. Luckily for us, this well-kept secret is a quick 90 minute drive from the project and a popular option for those in need of a quick, short holiday.

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Some of the wildlife spotted on the trip

The habitat is fairly similar to our reserve; vast, rolling red sand dunes and the two dry river beds of the Nossob and Auob Rivers. (We have the smaller Kuruman River which last saw flowing water in the 70s). The Kgalagadi was my first South African safari and I was almost giddy with excitement before the trip in anticipation of ALL the awesome animals we were to see. Tales of all the big cats and other wildlife sightings from friends who’d visited it previously, the hunts they’d witnessed and the confidence with which they said we’d see so much that after day 2, we wouldn’t bat an eye lid if a cheetah crossed the road set the standards quite high.  It was a massive laugh when we returned three days later having seen ZERO big cats! (We were probably the only people from the KMP with such a terrible record and those who went after us saw a pride of sixteen lions. SIXTEEN!!!)We did see lots of awesome birds-including a Tawny eagle pick up a slender mongoose, but no big cats. All I wanted to see was a thick-maned lion roaring! There was a wild cat and some leopard tracks, but no luck otherwise. We did see plenty of giraffes though. I love giraffes! Maybe I should say obsessed, they actually make me tear up. They do have a strange effect on me. Cheesy as it may sound, the rest of the world ceases to exist when I’m watching them. It’s like time takes on a strange, slow pace and there’s just me looking at this tall, elegant animal going about its day. It sometimes makes me feel strangely…… voyeuristic. Moving on. The camping was great. It was the start of winter, so mildly chilly. My tent erecting skills were tested when one night the wind blew away the outer shell of our tent. We did freeze, but watching the stars move and the shooting stars cascade across the sky was totally worth it. It was like a private show at the IMAX!

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The markets and the scaaaarves!!!! So many scarves!

South Africans love talking about Cape Town or the Mother City as they call it and I soon realized why. I don’t like big cities, but CT definitely ranks among my top five. There’s simply so much to do and see. And the food! A Master’s student from Zurich apparently on her return to the real world, commented on how people at the KMP fight for food. Sure, when dinner is called, we do make a beeline to the kitchen, but that’s because we want to be the first to get the most bacon bits or the cheesy layer on the spaff, it’s not like we’re starving or anything! Nevertheless, after living on a staple of beans, more beans, potatoes and cheese, having the option to “decide” what to have for a meal that didn’t include any of the above mentioned was almost unreal. There was much face stuffing, the farmers’ markets both in the V&A and the Old Biscuit Mill are a must in CT. The Beer House, Addis in Cape (their honey wine, called Tej is absolutely delish!) and Mama Toutou’s are few of the many places that made our bellies smile! Also, much to Sky’s dissatisfaction, the inner handicraft and scarf lover in both Charli and me made many, many appearances!

The week sped past extremely quickly and we had to rush to make sure we didn’t miss out on Table Mountain, Robben Island, Kirstenbosch, the wine tastings in Stellenbosch, a road trip to see the penguins, Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. Now looking back, CT was all about igniting the senses. There was so much to see, smell, taste and feel and hear. We couldn’t unfortunately make it to very much live music like we’d planned but at least this way, there’s still plenty for me to do on my next visit.

I am really looking forward to hiking in the Drakensberg, amongst other wildlife photographing this thick maned lion that’s been evading me, and spend hours lying on the beaches of the East coast whilst eating delicious seafood. In preparation for this trip, I have come to realize how much I enjoy planning and arranging things. The anticipation of the new experiences, places to see, food to eat and people to meet is extremely stimulating. I hope this holiday will be everything I need to recharge the batteries and help me power through the following months!

KMP so far

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Devil’s thorn in bloom

Eighteen months ago, I left the Kalahari Meerkat Project (KMP) saying my goodbyes to the people, animals and the place, fairly sure I wasn’t going to return. It was heart wrenching to say the least! I had just completed a year as a Research Assistant and was leaving the bubble of safety, love and my home as I knew it, for the “real” world yet again. The KMP is a research station run by the Universities of Cambridge and Zurich since 1993 and along with the adjacent farms is home to almost 20 groups of absolutely fascinating meerkats (more on them later!).

Maintaining my trend of landing up in the most remote of places, in December 2012 I found myself being driven 300km away from Upington the nearest city to a small reserve literally in the middle of nowhere. The nearest “town”, Van Zylsrus is a 20 minute drive away. Besides the solitary hotel (serving the best steak ever!), two booze shops, a post office, a petrol station and a handful of houses, there isn’t very much there and it is in a true sense an oasis! I had the most fantastic year there- right from arriving in the thick of night and being introduced to 30 odd people to leaving before the crack of dawn a year later, it has been one great journey for me. The motley bunch of people you meet, some of whom soon grow to be your closest friends for life, the inside jokes, the cakes, the beautiful Kalahari desert, always full of surprises around the corner, the twice daily explosion of colour in sky that were the sunsets and sunrises, randomly bumping into the wildlife on the reserve and last but by no means the meerkats themselves, it had indeed been a special place for me and I was sorry to have to go.

Luckily for me, I was soon offered the position of Project Manager for the University of Zurich. It was indeed a tough decision. I had just been applying for PhDs and was quite keen to carry on with my “scientific career” and was not entirely sure if I wanted to put that on hold for another two years. I am a strong believer that everything happens for a reason and for the best. Before I knew it, I was packing my bags for another 6 months in the desert as a stand-in Project Manager till someone permanent was found. It was not easy hiding the spring in my step and the big, wide grin on my face. It had been a long and fairly dry month at home and I was itching to get on with my next adventure.

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Morning at the Baobab burrow

Since November 2013, I have been back to the KMP in two different roles, as the Zurich Manager and now as a PhD student with Prof.Tim Clutton-Brock at the University of Cambridge. The idea of returning to the warmth (and bone-chilling winters) of the KMP for the next three years makes me immensely happy, not to forget exploring more of the natural beauty that Southern Africa has to offer.

My research focuses on the causes and consequences of individual differences in foraging success which means I get to play with meerkats of different sizes and ages. I will be primarily focusing on pups this field season and following them for the next three years. I will soon be setting up some of my own experiments that will help me answer the many questions as to why and how meerkats forage the way they do and how it affects their survival and reproductive success.