8. Volunteering with Cape Leopard Trust in Namaqualand, South Africa

Predator Ecology and Coexistence Experiment

Namaqualand & Research

After a long bus drive and a pick up and finally got to the research area (Kamieskroon, Namaqualand). The project I joined is called ‘Predator Ecology and Coexistence Experiment. This was set up by the Cape Leopard Trust and a PhD student and a Postdoc.

arrival in namaqualand

As the name suggests this research project is about the interaction between predators (leopards, caracals, jackals) and livestock. The research was split up into 2 parts: 1) Predator Ecology Study, and 2) Coexisting Experiment. I’m not going to go into too much detail, as you can find information on the research on the Predator Ecology and Coexistence Experiment website. We conducted camera trap surveys, small mammal trapping, capturing caracals, cluster visits, vegetation surveys, …

The coexistence experiment was more focused on the human wildlife conflict area between predators and farmers. The idea is the use Anatolian dogs and/or eco-rangers to protect the livestock.

The study area was called Namaqualand, along the coast in the north west of South Africa, quite close to the Namibian border. The park is mostly known for its flowers.

flowers in namaqualand
flowers in namaqualand close up
research vehicle
research vehicle and fence
Namaqualand national park

Straight in the field

After travelling for a while, and sitting still, I was happy the research asked me if I was up for checking some trail cameras and some lifetraps which were out. No exciting things, but a great feeling to be out again.

The next day our team got called by one of the farmers to tell one of the puppies was biting some of the lambs, so my first ‘intervention’ was something related with veterinary. Although I just had to be an assistant, as there was a vet on site to deal with it.

Soon enough I got to stay overnight in the ‘research house’ located in the middle of Namaqua national park; Here I could spot some wildlife including Oryx, Springbok, Steenbok, Klipspringers, Meerkat and Hyrax/Dassies. In the next evenings, I’ve been exploring the area a bit more and I could add some Bad-eared foxes to my list, and I heard Black-backed Jackal calling.

sheep kraal in namaqualand
health check of sheep
guarding dog

Activities: Cameratrapping & Checking Traps

At first, my main tasks were checking camera traps and change positions and stuff. After a while, I was allowed to drive the research vehicle, which gave my some additional tasks, mainly arrange more drop-off of volunteers, but also be able to drive up to the camping spot where we had to check the signals of the traps out. This was an awesome experience, although quite exhausting as well, as we had to check traps’ signal remotely every 3hrs with an antenna. Additional we had to check all the traps manually in the morning. As South Africans like to use fences, it involved a lot of fence opening and closing. Most of the time we were in a team of 2, so quite manageable. The idea was to tap caracals and fit them with a GPS collar to study their behaviour better.

With the data of the collared caracals, we had GPS points the cats have been spending time (GPS collar sends a position every 6 hrs). With this data, the researchers created maps with points and the aim was the find areas with a lot of points together (clusters). When those clusters were identified, research assistants/volunteers went out there to check what had happened and try in get an idea about the behaviour. Mostly we found either a bed site, so the cat had been sleeping in that area, or we found remains of a kill site, which was obviously a sign of predation and feeding. Quite often we also didn’t find anything.

On one of the evenings, we finally had a trigger and we were all excited to go out and check. Finally, we caught a caracal and we could learn more about processing a tranquillized animal.

caracal track
South Africa - Namaqua
kill site
checking traps remotely
field camp
overview study area
cameratrap near trail
trapping carnivores
caracal study

Snake Encounters

For those who know me a bit, I ‘m not the biggest fan of snakes. However, I’m usually the one who encounters them, so also in South Africa. I had a couple of with smaller vipers, but never something very scary. On the other hand, I had to encounters with a quite large Cape Cobra. During one of our walks, we suddenly noticed something chest height next to us. It was about 2-3m away from us, and yes, it was a Cape Cobra ‘dancing in the vegetation. Although I’m quite sure it was not threatening us, as it disappeared quickly after it noticed us, it was scary for a few moments. The head had to be at least 1.50m above the ground. The second encounter was a very quick one, just a huge snake crossing the path right in front of us.

viper close up

Wildlife Sightings

I was able to add a couple of things to my list, including sightings of black-backed jackal, porcupines, aardwolf, baboons, four-toed Sengi; a turtle species, Cape hare and Shrub hare, Jameson’s Red Rock Rabbit, etc. …

During de trapping I caught a genet cat in a cage trap (Small-spotted Genet)


Small mammal trapping & Vegetation Surveys

We got a speed course on small mammals and South African plants and we were ready to do some more surveys in addition to the larger mammal surveys.
During the small mammal trapping, we caught different species including Namaqua Rock Mouse, Four-striped Grass Mouse, & Round-eared Sengi.

four-striped mouse
vegetation survey
vegetation survey in practise

Farmer Flippie Caught a Caracal

We tend to have a good contact with the farmers, of course, some farmers are more open to research and cooperation. One of these farmers was Flippie, always super friendly when we met him on his farm or anywhere else. Although as all farmers, he’s not a big fan of predators. One day we got a phone call. Flippie was on the phone, telling us he had caught a caracal in a foothold trap (which means no damage (yet) to the animal) and was wondering if we were interested in putting a GPS collar on it. So we took this opportunity and went to check out the situation. Another great experience with a caracal collared, some more field experience and a happy farmer.

It was a good step in the right direction, although Flippie made sure we were on the same line and he made it clear as this caracal with a collar was killing his animals, he still was going to try to kill it. But until I left, the caracal hadn’t killed any livestock.

collaring caracal
caracal with GPS collar
Namaqua landscape

Back to Cape Town to Join Another Project

The project in Namaqualand was coming to an end. During my time in South Africa, I met someone else from the CLT (Cape Leopard Trust) doing a project about Caracals around Cape Town. So I asked her if I could join her research for a bit while I was in Cape Town. I spend about 2 weeks in Cape Town doing fieldwork on the foothills of Table Mountain. The project I joined was the Urban Caracal Project, definitely check out their website (www.urbancaracal.org) and Facebook page.

This project focuses on the small population of caracals on the peninsula of Cape Town and the potential dangers of hybridization, human-wildlife conflicts, … My role was similar to the previous projects, checking cage traps and camera traps. After being out in the field for a long time, I really enjoyed the combination of fieldwork during the day and a bit of social life in Cape Town in the evenings. Although this was the nice part, there were also disadvantages doing research in human populated areas. For safety reasons, we had to be with 2 people all the time and we had a taser per team in case we got attacked we were able to defend ourselves.

For practical reasons, I stayed in the Zebra Crossing backpackers lodge, very nice and friendly place.

Journey Back

It was December, I had been in Southern Africa (Botswana & South Africa since early June, and about time to go back home and celebrate Christmas with family. I took a bus back to Johannesburg, went on a metro and soon enough I was at Johannesburg airport. I had a bit of issue with my visa, but after all, I managed to get through customs.

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