Wildlife Research Unit – a lifestyle

Wildlife Research Unit – a lifestyle

Posted by Jordie Ricigliano on July 31, 2014

Imagine a typical day in the life of a Wildlife Research Intern at Ocean’s Campus...

Before 8:30am, you have already scarfed down breakfast and are finishing off the last bit of toast in the passenger seat bound for Gondwana Nature Reserve. Reference book in hand, you spot Orange-breasted Sunbirds and yellow Cape Sugarbrids in the entrance to the 14,000 hectacre park. Cheetahs are the target animal for the morning however. You assist expert ranger Jo Fourie in triangulating the exact location of two collared bachelors not far from the visitors’ lodge. This requires tracking by foot and wheel as you make your way through savanna grasslands and up fynbos knolls. Inspect some scat, study a faint print in the track (rhino, you deduce), scout the raptors trolling the plains, then makeshift a pond-side camp for a lunch of your own. The afternoon consists of another game drive, this time to record the behaviors of giraffes within a predator reserve. Rays of sunshine filter through the window; you can feel them bathing down your neck and arms as you follow the patterned long necks with your binoculars. On the short ride back to campus, you chat with Jo about the day’s data, but also about the wonders of ecology, the folktales of animal behavior, and the finer details of life. Another day, another adventure. One thing is certain: Tomorrow will be entirely different.

The Wildlife Research program debuted in May, 2014 as an addition to the suite of eight other educational internships offered by Oceans Campus, in Mosssel Bay, South Africa. It sets itself apart as the only program dedicated solely to developing the skills necessary for running a terrestrial research project. Interns learn various scientific methods for compiling and analyzing professional level research on wildlife species. Projects may involve birds, insects, small animals, and/or large animals like caracals, rhinos, and elephants.

Two years in the making, the program kicked off this month with a bang. First-time intern, Alex Raposo, spent a full week camping in the African bush with senior instructor Arno Smit. There, she learned the technical as well as survival skills that would help her understand the bio-diverse environment on a profound level. When she wasn’t around the fire or procuring dinner, she was tracking animals, learning to identify their footprints by size, shape, and impact. She also studied various scat samples, practiced how to best approach animals, and even got a tutorial on how to properly defend herself in an adverse wildlife encounter.

“I recommend it to anyone who plans to spend a significant time in the bush,” said Alex. “And it was just fun too.”
One highlight for Alex was witnessing the release of a male rhino into the park. It was the second day of her program. Alex watched from a safe distance as rangers assisted the large bull into its new home. The excitement was high for the rhino reintroduction, but also cautious, for rhinos are a controversial issue in South Africa due to rampant poaching. Alex was happy to report that the male rhino had been spotted mating with a young female less than a week into his transition. Perhaps this means the 2015 interns will even get to glimpse a rhino calf.
No day is quite the same for Alex, but each day builds on the last. She has become an expert for example, in the telemetry used to map the approximate locations of collared animals, especially cheetah and rhino. She has also assisted the senior instructors in collecting data for a project on giraffe behaviors. The hypothesis revolves around whether the giraffes in Gondwana, where predatory lions share the same park, act differently than giraffes in predator free parks. Other projects include trapping small mammals to study genetic diversity and survival rates, camera trapping for nocturnal activity, and crunching bird data to research whether or not there exists a difference in diversity between nature reserves and local farms.

By the end of her time in Gondwana, Alex will have composed a research proposal of her own design. She plans to return to the University of Toronto where she will be a senior this year in order to complete her degree in Biodiversity and Conservation Biology.

Meanwhile, Arno and Jo will be busy going “bush” with a host of new Wildlife Research interns over the next couple month (three for June and six for July). They will continue research started with Alex and begin new projects as they arise. With the start of winter bloom budding the beauty of fuzzy Pretoria and lavender hued Ericas across the Western Cape, it is a promising time for Wildlife Research interns wanting to do some blossoming of their own through a bit of adventure, a lot of learning, and more than touch of fun. 

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