Fieldwork with Gareth

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Red Hartebeest, Blesbok, Plains Zebra and a single Black Wildebeest at Lalibela Game Reserve

Yesterday I accompanied Gareth (the other writer on this website), on a trip to a local game reserve, to setup his Masters project. The project which involves both vegetation transects and camera traps, aims to determine the effect of elephant presence on thickets throughout the Eastern Cape.

We set off for Lalibela Game Reserve, one of the 11 reserves, on the Monday afternoon and managed to set up all three camera traps that same day. Whilst it is relatively simple to setup, it’s the process beforehand that requires the most attention, because before we even got to the reserve, Gareth had already contacted management, setup and attended a meeting, developed maps and plotted random points for camera traps.

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Gareth Nuttall-Smith setting up a camera trap

By the time I had got in the car, most of the work had been done. All I had to do was accompany him on his drive to the three localities and watch him zip tie three motion-sensitive camera traps to three sturdy trees overlooking animal pathways. Once secured the traps are left alone for months on end in hope that they will capture the activities of animals in their day-day to lives. At the end of the sampling period, the photos will be pooled together across all the reserves, and Gareth will determine statistically if what the cameras have captured, means anything.

Once camera-trapping was complete, Gareth and I drove to Amakhala Game Reserve to spend the night so that we could complete the whole procedure, again, the next day. Once we arrived, we unpacked, setup a fire and went looking for reptiles. All I found was a cape skink but I lost it as soon as I found it. We ate supper, retired to the old manager’s house and we went to bed. I struggled to sleep for a while because I was creeped out be the ancient interior which looked more like a scene from a horror film than a home.

The next morning, we were back in the car, accompanied by a game ranger, in search of one of Gareth’s vegetation transect sites. We arrived, got out the vehicle and started walking. I was last in a line of three people, who were now, blazing a trail through the bush, until, all of a sudden, the party came to a crashing halt. This was because, in front of us stood, an entire herd of rhino. We backed away slightly as the large male pushed his head through the thicket to exam us more clearly. We were about 15m away, but soon increased that number when we decided to head back to the car in search of another site whilst the rhinos grazed.

Once in the car, Gareth selected another section of the park to sample, and we were off. Unlike the prior site, this site was free of rhinos, and luckily, lions too. Vegetation transects, unlike camera trapping, are not so easy and involve sampling the vegetation type and structure every 10m along a 280m transect. It is labour intensive and must be completed at least three times at each of the eleven parks. To put it simply, Gareth has a lot of work to do.

About an hour and a half after starting, we finished and whilst acacias did not arouse much suspense, the warthog that nearly mauled our game ranger, did. On our way out the thicket, our party once again happened upon a rather large warthog and unlike the rhino, the warthog ran at us before deciding to book out in the opposite direction. Whilst a warthog lacks the fear factor of a lion, the tusks of a startled warthog are sure to create a rather large gnash in anyone who finds themselves between the animal and safety.

In the end, we survived. The trip was also at its end because the rhinos that we had happened upon at the last site, had not left, so it was unsafe to return to complete the sampling. In the end it was a great experience for both Gareth and I because whilst we did not finish what we set out to do, we saw a rhino face-face and lived to tell the tale.

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Gareth’s car at Lalibela Game Reserve

 

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