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Africa Adventure

Waking up and going to bed under the African sun is a completely different experience from waking up and going to bed under an English one, there is nearly always both stunning sunrise and sunset. This August I travelled to South Africa with a company called African Conservation Experience (ACE), which runs projects all over South Africa.  I chose Phinda, a wildlife conservation and management project, as I wanted to learn more about conservation efforts in the wild and why these efforts are important.

For a year I fundraised about £2000, I feel all of the effort I put in was well worth it. Not only did I learn lots about the wildlife, being on Phinda opened my eyes to the wider issues surrounding conservation work.  On a personal level it was a huge learning curve as I was travelling It can be very difficult to spot game in the bush as this surprise encounter with a hyena showsalone many thousands of miles from home. I stayed in the spacious, but run down, student house with other students and we shared the house with the resident mice, two giant black wasps and an army of tiny ants which decided to invade halfway through my stay. You wouldn't believe how remote the location was, it was really peaceful and absolutely beautiful. Being out in the reserve was different to what I had expected, for one the dirt is red and the plants are green, the bush is exceedingly dense, you have to keep alert to spot something, but decoding the scrub is difficult, many things look like animals (termite mounds, curly branches).

One thing that made our trips out into the wild less untamed were the presence of safari tourists, however they are needed to fund vital conservation efforts and the upkeep of the reserve, this happens all around the world.  Personally though, I would rather have been sat on the back of our rickety Land Rover flying over bumpy roads and holding onto my camera for dear life whilst trying to write notes which ended up as indecipherable squiggles.

On my second night there was a knock on the door, "Who wants to see a Leopard?" I leapt out of bed and grabbed my camera.  There was a young male Leopard stuck on the main road of the reserve between the electric fences, usually leopards can jump these easily but this one had beenRosie gets close to a leopard on her gap year with Africa Conservation Experience given a nasty shock and was now terrified of them.  Traps had been set up along the road and one of them had gone off.  We waited as the leopard was darted and sedated, then he was taken to a new location in the reserve, while he was unconscious we were allowed a closer look, he was smaller than I had expected but absolutely beautiful.  Seeing these animals in pictures really doesn't communicate just how gorgeous and powerful they are in reality.  I was amazed and felt so privileged just to be close to such an awesome creature.  The vet checked his teeth and claws to see what condition they were in and after fitting a new collar we had to leave before he woke.

Some days we went out with Julien, a Swiss student writing a paper on the leopards for his PhD.  A leopard project has been running at Phinda for eight years because the population had been declining due to hunting pressure from local farmers and trophy hunters.  Now people have to apply for permits to shoot a leopard on the basis it is threatening non-game livestock.  Thanks to these efforts the leopard population has now increased.  For his research Julien radio tracks Rosie Massingham perfects her radio tracking skills while following leopard on the Phinda reserve in South Africaleopards to find their locations and movements, he can also monitor their behaviour and download data from their collars.  We were given the chance to try radio tracking ourselves: holding the aerial above your head and setting the frequency to the collar of the leopard you wish to track you then listen out for beeps coming from the transmitter.  To get a direction, point the front of the aerial all around and take the path with the strongest beeps. You can also estimate a distance if you turn the "fine tuning" dial into negatives, called "off frequency", if the beeps are still audible at a certain minus number you have a rough idea of the distance you are from the animal e.g. -3 to -5 is roughly 400m - 200m.  One of the most memorable drives with Julien was an evening one, a leopard kill had been spotted and whilst trying to find the carcass we stumbled upon a hyena den complete with hyenas.  This was really amazing and Julien promised we would return at night as, hopefully, there would be more to see.  We found the leopard kill too, a young male impala; he had puncture marks in his neck accompanied by matted hair from the salvia of the leopard.  The carcass was too much for one meal so assuming the leopard would revisit to finish it when it was dark Julien tied the carcass to a tree so he might also return to observe the Leopard. Unfortunately when we returned the leopard had outsmarted us and had managed to drag the body elsewhere.  So we travelled to the hyena den; Julien drove so far into the bush I didn't think we'd get out again!  The moon was full and not ten metres from us was a hyena and her pup, it was eerie as all the noises of the bush enveloped you completely, we could hear calls from other hyenas and Chacma baboons too.  When viewing the animals at night red light must be used so you don't disrupt their senses, this can be unnerving as sometimes you can only see the reflections of their eyes.

Another unforgettable outing with Julien was my last one; we were tracking a female leopard who had two seven month old cubs.  When closing in we spotted the cubs.  The mother was hiding but they were happy to let us creep up to within ten metres of them whilst they were playful.  It was remarkable to watch and really enthralling, Julien was very pleased, "you never get to see them like this... they're so relaxed".  It is certainly a moment that will stay with me forever.

We checked on a lioness with three, six month old cubs regularly; she was teaching them how to hunt and spent most of her time around a waterhole with a constant stream of Nyala wishing to get a drink, when doing so they put their lives into the paws of the lioness. There were corpses littered all around as she was killing often just to demonstrate how it was done, not because she was particularly hungry.  After a couple of days the stench of rotting flesh was heavy in the air: I can only describe it as a mix of sewage, methane and bad breath, once you have sampled this smell you won't ever forget it. The third time I saw the lioness we were patient and determined to see her make a kill, the cubs decided to hinder her efforts by sitting out in the open stopping any animal wanting to take a drink.  Eventually the Nyalas all slunk back to grab some quality time unaware the lioness had crept closer until she was within five metres of them.  Although they were drinking they were weary, they could not see her powerful body in the bushes.  She was patient and picked an opportune moment when a young male was looking in the wrong direction, she flew forward with immense speed and agility, and stretching out whilst in midair she sunk her claws into her target bringing him to the ground. Dust was flying everywhere, it was amazing to behold.  Within seconds the cubs were pounding around the water's edge towards their mum's prize.  It was extremely entertaining to watch as they jumped, rolled and clawed at the dying Nyala.  You couldn't help but compare them to kittens with a piece of string; they had so much energy and occasionally fought over whose turn it was.  They didn't yet know how to open the body to get under the skin but one cleverly held the Nyalas head back on itself to kill it completely.  Finally the mother decided to drag the kill under cover and open it so that the cubs might eat. Returning later we saw they had full bellies and had finished off most of the corpse.

To understand more about how research contributes towards conservation I interviewed Julien on his work with the leopards.  I asked about the purpose of his paper and how it will help conservation efforts, he replied: "The population here (Phinda) is at optimal size according to prey availability and habitat size... looking at habitat selection, as a species it's very adaptive, what has driven habitat distribution? Is it prey or competition or is it human avoidance?  This can bring answers to the ecological requirement of the species. If the population was persecuted again we would know more about their habitat selection to... conserve the species (more) effectively."  Julien explained this is only part of his research and another big aspect is looking at young males: "when males go to find their own territory, this has obvious conservational implications, if he gets killed the population may become fragmented... leopards should have links with other populations, we need leopards to be able to cross (over farmland) which is a matter of habitat space and human tolerance... if we want a viable population of leopards we need local farmers to be tolerant of them using their land to breed or cross through for continuous sub populations". Young male leopards travel great distances to find their own territory and to mate with unrelated females, if they cannot do this an inbreeding depression may occur, or the population becomes fragmented.

I also asked Julien what the best and worst things about his research are, "The bad parts are the routine and radio tracking isn't very stimulating... the good parts are being out there and to see them, every sighting is different.... It's enjoyable and a privilege to be working out here." Following up on deep and meaningful conversations we occasionally had about conservation work I questioned him about why he thought conservation work is important. "It's such an issue...there are too many humans - it's a problem.  Nowadays we have to intervene... were trying our best but something's wrong... we should bring science into decisions so we can make more informed ones."

I miss the time I spent observing the beautiful animals at Phinda and I hope that one day I will have the chance to do so again; this will only be possible if conservation efforts continue.  The other students and I often debated if it was necessary to be "interfering" with nature, the bottom line was always: yes it is needed.  Without efforts to keep small pockets of land like Phinda wild animals like leopards wouldn't survive in the area for long because of one simple reason - humans.  I heard us described as "parasites upon the earth" by one student, and she was right.  It is a shame that animals like elephants and lions have to be fenced in on the reserve, but without those fences humans would destroy their habitats, hunt them and eventually wipe out many species for our own selfish reasons. This is why I believe conservation is vital not only for the survival of individual species, but vital to the survival of ecosystems and a planet which we don't quite understand yet.

Rose Massingham, Volunteer African Conservation Experience, August 2010