Dan Perlman passed along these notes from Briana Abrahms ’08, a Brandeis physics major whose focus has shifted to conservation issues and is in currently working in Botswana. Briana’s blog has more information, you can read it at http://www.conservationconnections.blogspot.com/
My Crash Course in Large Carnivores (Aug. 1, 2011)
Dear family and friends,
Greetings from Botswana! As many of you know, I’ve taken a six-month research position with the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust (BPCT) located outside the Moremi Game Reserve in northwestern Botswana. BPCT is a non-profit organization that works closely with the Botswana government to study and protect Botswana’s five large carnivores: lions, hyenas, African wild dogs, leopards, and cheetahs. (Read more at www.bpctrust.org!) A quick note about African wild dogs because its name can cause some confusion: African wild dogs are a distinct species (Lycaon pictus) just like the Gray wolf or the Spotted hyena, and do not refer to feral dog populations, as the name suggests. Because of habitat loss, disease, and competition with other carnivores, African wild dogs are one of the most endangered predators in Africa, with less than 1% of its former population remaining.
Within each of the five species that BPCT studies, several ‘representatives’ – usually one of the dominant animals in a pack – are radio collared and collect GPS data on their movements. So most of what we do on a day-to-day basis is drive around, see what animals we can pick up with our radio antennae, and then track them. We are the only organization who are permitted to go off road to look for animals, so we do a lot of exciting off-roading into the bush! Once we find the animal(s), we download the GPS data from its collar and make observations about what they are doing (eating, hunting, resting, caring for offspring, etc.) and what other animals it’s with at that time. The purpose of this is to collect data on the basic ecology and behavior of these species, for example: How much space does this species use? How does it share the landscape with other species? What does it eat? How do animals rise to dominance in a pack? The list goes on and on.
I got incredibly lucky on my first day here to witness a successful wild dog hunt that led to a steenbok kill (steenboks are like little antelope). Apparently this is really rare to see – the director of BPCT who’s been working here for over 20 years says he can count on one hand the number of times he’s seen a wild dog kill. And I saw it on my first day! Here’s a crudely edited video that I took with my camera, with footage of the camp I’m staying at, the wild dog hunt, and some of the other things I’ve seen. Be sure to check it out and notice the radio collars on some of the animals. Warning!: the video includes lions copulating and wild dogs killing and eating the steenbok, which can be a bit gruesome. (If the link doesn’t work for you, just search for ‘Botswana Day 1 – Wild Dog Hunt’ on YouTube).
A Tale of Three Leopards and a Shower (Oct. 15, 2011)
Here goes again with another monthly email. Last night I had what was probably my most exciting night at dog camp. Now that the dry season is in full swing here, we’ve been seeing more non-human visitors to our camp in search of water, which is generally found either in a bird bath near our kitchen area or our shower. Yesterday evening I came back from the field and met my coworkers Krys and Neil on their way out to find Chalak, a collared male leopard whose signal they had picked up very close to camp. We’d been very eager to find him because earlier this week he’d been seen mating with not one but TWO uncollared females within minutes of each other, which is very unusual because leopards are solitary and same-sexes generally don’t tolerate each other, at least from what BPCT researchers have seen.
Sure enough, about a half hour later I got a radio message from Krys saying they’d found Chalak and his two lady friends walking towards camp. It was dark by then, and I was alone in camp getting dinner ready in the kitchen. A few minutes later, I hadn’t heard anything more from Krys, but I did hear the loud snarling noise that one only hears when leopards are mating close by. It was obvious that they were somewhere in camp, though I couldn’t see them. The good thing was that I could localize where Chalak and one of the females were from the sounds of their mating, but I had no idea where the other female was.
As I stood in the kitchen near our radio, that question was solved as I saw one of the females emerge out of the bushes and head over to our bird bath, twenty feet away from where I was standing. Our kitchen (which is open, no walls) was the only structure around and there was nowhere safer for me to go, so I radioed Krys to let her know the situation and then I stayed put and kept an eye on the female. She didn’t seem interested in my presence. Then, just a few minutes later, I saw Chalak follow her out of the bushes and lay down by the bird bath. That really got my heart going – Chalak is a huge leopard, almost twice the size of the females, and I was standing twenty feet away from him with nothing in between. Again, though, his promiscuous evening had made him very thirsty and he was only interested in getting some water. After a few more minutes, the other female came, so now camp was occupied by three leopards and myself by my lonesome! I had quite the adrenaline rush. Not long after Krys and Neil finally came and pulled the truck right up to the kitchen. I climbed over a fridge in order to not exit the kitchen near the leopards and hopped into the truck. That was a huge relief. We tried to scare Chalak and the females off with the car to discourage them from using our camp as a drinking hole, but Chalak was so habituated to cars that he wasn’t bothered by it approaching him. Eventually he and the females made their way to the shower, where we heard some (probably hot and steamy) leopard mating roars. Krys and Neil ended up driving me to my tent and then parking the truck next to their tent so nobody had to walk around by themselves. This morning the leopards were out of camp but I saw one of them from my tent in the grassland behind camp, so they are still around. And thus the saga continues!
On another note, I decided to make a little “Day in the Life” video (shot very unprofessionally with my tiny digital camera) to hopefully give you a better sense of what I actually do here, how I spend my time, etc. I made this on October 7th, which turned out to be a pretty good day to choose for this project. Enjoy!