A Different Kind of Christmas

I was staring across the valley, taking in the thousands of acres of beautiful bushland we’d been exploring the day before.

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I’d finally arrived in South Africa. Elephants roam these hillsides and I was scanning every gap in the acacia trees to see if I could spot them. This was my Christmas Eve. I was just thinking how lucky I was, when somebody called my name. It was my turn to put an impala dropping in my mouth and shoot it as far as I could.

I’m volunteering as a researcher in Kwa Zulu Natal with http://www.africanimpact.com. It’s detailed work and it’s fascinating work. Did you know that leopards smell like buttery popcorn? Me neither. The idea is to monitor the Big Five for conservation purposes. Most days involve a three hour game drive across the Thanda reserve. Using GPS and identification kits, we log the movements of every single animal. Some are identified by the notches in their ears, some are identified by their whisker patterns.

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Imagine the triangles above are a lion’s nose. The two lines on either side are the top two rows of whiskers. The circles show the whisker dots and the ovals show the smudges. We even monitor the lion’s behaviour every two minutes. Has it greeted the others? Is it playing with them? Is it grooming itself? There’s a reason for this. Some of their parents were brought up in captivity and we need to know if that’s affected the way they live.

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On Christmas Day, we came across Skhondla Khondla. He’s a bruiser isn’t he? He was brought in to the northern part of the reserve to rehabilitate the lion population. Sadly, that means the male cub there will probably be killed – he’s the offspring from a previous male and won’t be tolerated.

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Conservationists here say around one thousand rhino have been killed in South Africa over the past year alone. That’s because in some parts of the world, their horns are believed to be a cure for almost anything – indigestion, low libido and even cancer. Rhino horn is also used for jewellery and is said to be more expensive per gram than gold. Around 85% of people living in this region are unemployed. Poaching is inevitable. Monitoring them is essential.

imageChristmas Day was also special because I finally met the mammals I was searching for the day before. It involved a close inspection from Sawubona. His name means ‘hello’ in Zulu and that’s exactly what he does:

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We’re keeping an eye on the elephants because some of the cows are on the immunocontraceptive PZP to try and stabilise the population. So, if there are no new calves coming in, how does that affect the existing ones? Are they being spoiled? Are the cows getting distressed because they’re not getting pregnant?

I’m staying here for a month and every day I’m surprised and informed. Sometimes, not in a good way. I’ve bumped into a baby boomslang and woken up to find a scorpion on my leg, but even that has it’s upside – I have a genuine fear of spiders and those bath dwelling beasties back home don’t seem half as scary now.

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