By Nicolás Fuentes-Allende
After a 17-hour trip from Newcastle to Johannesburg, I got to South Africa where a transfer drove me to my study area: Mankwe Wildlife Reserve. I am a second year PhD student in the Conservation Ecology Group at Durham’s Department of Biosciences, and my research project is called “Impacts of burning regimes on South African ungulates” (Figure 1).
Figure 1. the “adventurer” in the field.
This is a field ecology project where I am trying to elucidate how resource availability (water and vegetation), seasonality (wet and dry seasons) and threats (parasites and hunters) influence the body condition of ungulates as well as their decisions when choosing where to roam. So firstly, what is an ungulate? They are hoofed mammals (e.g. horses, cows, sheep, goat, deer, pigs, etc; Figure 2 and 3). They mainly feed on plants, but some of them are also scavengers (Figure 4).
Figure 2. White rhino
Figure 3. Wildebeest
Figure 4. Warthog.
My field campaigns last 2 months on average, twice per year, once at the end of the dry season (September-October) and once during the wet season (April-May). I have had three field campaigns so far, and three more are coming (yes! I will be leaving again in a few weeks 😊). All my research is based in a Private Protected Area in the Arid Savanna biome of South Africa near the border with Botswana. Here 19 ungulate species are kept for conservation, educational and breeding purposes. The area reminds me of a typical setting in the Disney movie “The Lion King”; plenty of zebras, warthogs, ostriches, wildebeests and other large mammals, but fortunately no lions (safety reasons).
During fieldwork, I walk a lot. I usually walk around 10km per day, 6 days per week, which in total are around 540km in two months (sometimes I am not sure if this is a PhD in Biology or in Hiking, hahaha). During the early mornings (5.30am-10am), I walk line transect looking for animals, then I come back in the afternoon to the same sites and describe vegetation and collect ticks from the grass vegetation. I also monitor people movement in the reserve using GPSs in their cars, and walk along rivers to monitor water availability (Figure 5).
Figure 5. Collecting data of water availability
Due to the absence of large predators (e.g lions, cheetahs, crocodiles, hyenas or wild dogs) in the reserve, overpopulation of ungulates is only controlled by hunting. The manager hunts some individuals and sells the meat and skin to keep the population under the carrying capacity of the reserve. This is also a good opportunity for studying animals, because I can collect kidneys from hunted individuals to monitor their body condition. Another way that I record body condition is with two scales that I have set in the reserve. I attract animals to them using baits (it sounds weird, but it works), and with a camera trap I take photos of the animals on the scale to record their weights (Figure 6).
Figure 6. Hartebeest on the scale. This one weighs 112Kg.
Campaigns are very intense and entertaining. There are some hazards, like finding spitting cobras in the toilet or puff adders (Figure 7) and boomslangs in your room, but you can deal with that. You just need to keep your eyes open and be careful. Something that I do not like are ticks, because they transmit some diseases and you only see them when they are biting you and they have been attached to you for hours. This area is also good for getting a good tan (dry and sunny with temperatures from 30 to 40C), but as I am dark-skinned, it does not work on me.
Figure 7. Puff adder that was living under my cabin’s floor.
So… this is my project, I am happy with it, and excited about my preliminary results. I hope to have good news in the future. I would like to thank Ustinov College and the Norman Richardson Grant for supporting some of my field expenses, and I hope they can continue doing it in the future. If you want to know more about my project, just find me in the College or send me an email.
Email Nicolás at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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