Hide and Seek

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Take a look at this. It’s the first photograph I took of an elephant on the Mduna side of the Thanda Reserve. Its blurry because she was rushing back to the others after giving us a good telling off. She came right up to the truck and angrily shook her head. In my mind, her huge ears made a slow, deep, flapping sound but I’m not sure if they really did. That’s another reason why the photo’s blurred – my hands were shaking a little.

This encounter was just a few seconds long, but it was a massively important one. Twenty two elephants were brought onto Mduna back in 2011, but sightings are rare. That makes it difficult to follow their progress.

Our job was to take photographs to build up an ID kit. We also had to monitor their behaviour – but when elephants don’t want to be found, its an impossible task. That’s why a small team of us asked if we could go back to Mduna day after day to try and locate them. We had three things at our disposal 1) Camera traps 2) A telemeter and 3) Good old fashioned tracking skills.

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The trick with putting up camera traps is trying not to get poked in the eye by a branch or get a photograph taken of your nostril. We set them up to take pictures every fifteen seconds after they were triggered by a movement.

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The telemeter got us into a few scrapes. Quite literally. Mduna is very wild – that’s why the elephants can hide so well. After picking up a signal, we followed them through thorny sickle bushes, dozens of spider webs and thick, thick mud. On one occasion, we abandoned the truck altogether and got a tractor to pull it out. After hours and hours of trying – still no sighting.

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My favourite method was using tracking skills. Just looking for signs. Could we see footprints, dung, or a tree being flattened with one single step? We logged the GPS of incidents like these, but still no sighting.

After days of scratches and close encounters with golden orb spiders (one so big, that our guide actually stroked it), we were beginning to give up hope. Then, one morning, we discovered that a camera trap had come up trumps. After photos of a few rhino bottoms and an inquisitive Nyala, came this:

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Finally – a sighting. We knew where they’d been hiding, but we still needed to get full frontal photographs to help build up our ID kit.

The next day, we got what we wanted.

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It was the closest any volunteers had ever got to the herd and for the longest period of time. You get to notice some interesting behaviour when you just sit and watch. Did you know that elephants actually make a grumbling sound to communicate with each other?

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This one copied one of the elders – it picked some grass with its trunk and put it on its head. I think it was trying to hide.

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This one had been ‘mock eating’ – pretending to be busy with some grass, but actually watching us out of the corner of its eye. When this picture was taken, it came over to say ‘Enough now. We’re leaving’.

Within seconds, they were gone.

Our research work is used by the Space For Elephants Foundation. Its aim is to restore corridors for elephants here in South Africa, where wildlife is restricted by boundaries and fences. It says if there are too many elephants in one place, they’ll start to destroy the habitat they depend upon.

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Life Outside the Game Reserve

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It’s an outbuilding, not a waiting room and the patients don’t have the luxury of privacy either. This is a mobile clinic high on the hills of Etshaneni where dozens of people – mainly women and children – are queuing to see the nurse. It’s the only chance they’ll get for a fortnight and many of them have walked fifteen kilometres to get here. Forty per cent of people living in this area have no choice but to make that journey. They have HIV. Sadly, that’s a good sign. The doctor says that five years ago, it was seventy per cent.

We’ve been invited here by The Happy Africa Foundation which is raising money to refurbish the dilapidated building and make it a more permanent centre for clinical treatment.

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Almost everybody has to have their blood pressure checked on a regular basis. Hypertension is common, even amongst fifteen year olds. A poor diet based on maize, salt and oil doesn’t help.

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That’s why vitamin A supplements are handed out to children up until the age of five. Its hoped it will strengthen their immune system and improve their eyesight. However, the doctor explained something distressing about some of the babies born here. A high percentage of the mothers are still teenagers and as young as thirteen. What’s worse, is that in Kwa Zulu Natal there’s a real problem with girls falling pregnant by ‘sugar daddies’ – older men who exploit them by offering to pay for things like schooling. Apparently, some of these girls are particularly vulnerable, because they are orphans who’ve lost their parents to AIDS. What they don’t understand, is they’re at risk themselves.

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The medical staff stay for as long as they are needed and on this occasion, it was likely to be some time. As we were leaving, more were arriving. A lot of us on the volunteer project have talked about how we take things for granted back home. It really is an understatement.

Getting my Hands Dirty

It was just like a science lesson – at least that’s what I kept telling myself. I was hunched over a dead wildebeest cutting off its hind leg with a pocket knife. It was a long process but there were five hungry lions that needed to be fed. They were living in a boma and couldn’t fend for themselves.

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Piece by piece, the big beast was thrown over the electric fence. The lions shot out from under the trees and dragged the fresh meat back to their hiding place. There were fights of course, but they were full. This is the dirty side of the volunteer work in Kwa Zulu Natal.

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A few days later, the lions were released from the enclosure and the clean up operation began. It was a bit like cleaning up after your own cat, but with big bones scattered around the place too. Then came the grass cutting, paying particular attention to the electric fence which had been helpfully turned off. No machinery here – just scythes and machetes. Unsurprisingly, I’d never used a machete before I started this project. Now, it’s routine. What is surprising, is that I haven’t seriously injured myself.

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It’s a handy tool to help get rid of this stuff. Chromolaena looks pretty, but it’s a pest. It originally came over in animal feed from South America and has spread. It stops indigenous species from growing and it’s flammable – an unwelcome addition to the bushland that’s susceptible to forest fires.

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Every week, we dodge the spiders, ticks and thorns to pull it out by the roots. It’s a hard job. We all hate it! Yet the dirty work does have its rewards.

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This is a crèche we’ve been helping to refurbish in the nearby town of Mange. Mixing cement by hand in 30c temperatures wasn’t easy, so being stopped by local children who wanted to play, was a welcome distraction.

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The crèche is run by local women to educate small children – some of whom have been orphaned. Our cement path was just a minor improvement, but it put a huge smile on our tired faces.