This week I was no longer a Photography volunteer but instead a Research and Conservation volunteer at Thanda. This change in responsibilities was reflected in a large sign hanging in the research room: “Clipboards before cameras.” I was a bit anxious that this meant that I would not be able to photograph on game drives, but this hasn’t been the case. While our drives are now focused on game counts and documenting animal behavior, there is plenty of time for pictures. I am usually on the “lions and large predators truck” or the “elephants and rhinos truck.”
For example, when on the lions truck we actively seek out the lions using radio tracking equipment. If we find other animals, great: we’ll stop, look, document, and photograph. The telemetry system is rather simple but not always helpful. Sometimes the animal we’re seeking is behind a ridge, and we can’t get a signal. Other times we can determine where the animal is but can’t find it because it’s hidden behind inaccessible bush. Once we do find the lions or elephants we’re seeking, we document their behaviors and condition on a number of clipboards.
For instance, on Friday I documented that Skhondla Khondla, one of the male lions, looked up when our game truck was within five meters and again when a second truck approached within 20 meters. Exciting stuff, right? Yet all these observations provide valuable data both for the Thanda reserve management as well as the Africa Lion & Environment Research Trust (ALERT) which uses the information to compare the behavior of wild and semi-wild lion herds to monitor their relative health.
This need to monitor the lions is just one aspect of wildlife management in South Africa. This week we had a visit from Warren, the gentleman who manages the wildlife (and other aspects) of the Thanda reserve. He uses data he and his team collect in connection with our game count data to understand the numbers and location of all the game and the plant life on the reserve. And it’s a big reserve, with about 35,000 acres in all (though there are much larger private and public reserves in South Africa). One of the major differences for the wildlife here is that unlike reserves, say, in East Africa, here all the reserves are fenced. This is great if you’re a private reserve and you want to protect and retain your valuable game. It’s not so great if you are a naturally migratory animal like an elephant. It seems to me (though I am hardly an expert) that the benefits of fences outweigh the costs because South Africa seems to be more successful at preserving animals, such as the rhino, that are facing near extinction elsewhere.
Management of a reserve must be pro-active and intentional. For example, while we normally fear fire, here fire is necessary to clear out grasses that are no longer providing as much nutrition as they could. Normally such fires occur about every seven years or so. Here, however, reserve management conducts a series of controlled burns in different areas every year at the start of the rainy season. As you can see above, within a couple of days new grass begins to grow, much to the animals’ delight. Some species of plant life, including certain acacias, rely on the heat of a fire without which their seeds cannot germinate.
The irony, for me, in all this is that I’ve come to Africa to see wild animals. Yet these animals aren’t nearly as wild as we might pretend. Many of them are so “habituated” (or accustomed) to the game trucks that our arrival sometimes earns little more than a curious look before a lion goes back to sleep. Other animals, especially the antelopes, are quite shy no matter how many times they’ve seen a game truck. But one of our goals with the elephant herd on the Mduna side of the reserve is specifically to help get them habituated to our presence in game trucks. Why? It’s not so we can change their natural behavior (though that would seem to be an inevitable consequence) but so that researches and conservation staff can get close enough to accurately monitor their status and wellbeing.
Enough of wildlife management considerations! Here are a couple of other photos from last week:
Rhinoceroses are also present at Thanda, though we don’t see them nearly as often as we see other animals. They are quite shy, and even though their eye sight is rather poor, they do have acute senses of hearing and smell. All the same, this week we saw quite of a few of our rhinos, including this pair. We also saw two cows and their adorable calfs.
We also have quite a few giraffes here, including this fellow. How do I know this is a male? The ossicones (or horns) on male giraffes tend to be flatter and bald on top as a result of fighting with other giraffes. This fighting, in which giraffes swing their heads at each other, is known as “necking.” Still haven’t seen this myself, though one of the other trucks witnessed this behavior last week. That’s okay; it’s still quite marvelous to see these tall wonders!
Finally, on Tuesday I returned to Youth Group where I played with the local Zulu kids for a couple of hours. In the second hour we organized a volleyball game played, pictured here. It’s great fun to be with these kids, even if their English is often little better than my Zulu. Their desire for fun and connection is something to behold. Often one of them will initiate play with a ball or frisbee. Other times a young child will walk up and simply want to hold hands. A group of them took particular delight when I pretended to be a lion and tried to catch them. Of course, rather than eat them any I caught were tickled as they smiled and laughed and great energy and enthusiasm. They are also quite fascinated by cameras, and more than one child has wanted to take a “snap” when I bring out my camera. These interactions have become a great way for me to make a small connection to the local community and culture here.
This is has been quite the long post — I blame the excellent internet access at Ghost Mountain Inn to which five of us have retreated for a couple of days of good food, comfortable accommodations, excellent service, and speedy wifi. Next week I will conclude my time at Thanda. I have made some good friends here and have experience much which I will continue to contemplate and consider in the days ahead.