Volunteer blog

Read what life is like in the CRM research camp from our volunteers!

Nov 2015

Matthew JonesMatthew Jones

3 months with CRM

My name is Matthew Jones and I am a student of Nottingham Trent University where I study Wildlife conservation. For this year of university I have decided to take a placement year in order to gain experience and skills in the field of conservation in order to better my chances of getting a job after I complete my studies. I have always wanted to work with large carnivores so I looked at a lot of organisations but none were right for me. A lecturer at university then suggested I look at CRM, which I did, and was very impressed by the work they did. I immediately emailed Dr Emma Stone and within a couple weeks I was booked in. I write this blog after 10 weeks of my stay, giving a brief explanation of what I have done and what experience I have gained so far.

 

WaterbuckLarge Mammal Transect

A really big part of my time with CRM has consisted of collecting data on transects. During these 10 kilometre walks the team looks for herbivores to get data on the density and diversity of species within the park. This is something that I’ve had previous experience in before but at Liwonde there is an air of excitement about the data we collect as the end result may be that new species of carnivores will be reintroduced into the park. Data is also collected on the spoor of carnivores which, despite previous experience, has proved to be challenging due to the dry climate. The transects are where I’ve collected data for my own project which will be used for my dissertation. I’m attempting to use dung to see if habitat preference in herbivores changes between the wet and dry seasons, and if there are relations to proximity to water. This has been a really enjoyable experience and has provided me with a number of challenges to overcome. The biggest of these being the need to learn how to ID dung, which I now feel very confident with due to the help of our scouts and my trusty spoor guide. The actual construction of the project would have been nowhere near as easy if it not had been for the help of Buffy, the senior research assistant for CRM, and other members of the camp.


Radio TrackingHyaena

The night time tracking of hyaenas using radio collars is probably the best skill I’ve learnt and developed on during my time with CRM. Being out after dark gives a completely different feel to the park. The forest is filled with silence which is only broken by the call of the night jar, crashing of elephants and the eyrie whoop of spotted hyaenas.  The tracking also gives a unique opportunity to see the nocturnal species of the park, for example, on my second session I saw a couple porcupine, a serval and various species of mongoose. The night was topped off by a close encounter with two hyaenas.

The actual tracking itself can be tedious at times, especially when you cannot get a signal on the target animal. The lack of roads and the fence around the rhino sanctuary tracking often pose difficulties, but when you eventually find them the wait is always worth it. It should definitely be said that more often than not we have gotten a sighting on a hyaena during these tracking sessions, although not always the one we have been tracking.

 

Darting

During my stay there has been a need to dart some of the hyaenas, mainly for health reasons. At present I have yet to witness a darting as individuals that require attention have not shown up on darting night, but the preparation for these nights have allowed for me to gain a lot of experience.

In order for a darting to take place we require a carcass to use as bait. Unfortunately the park has a problem with snaring for bush meat, which is currently being combatted by African Parks. If any carcass is found it is often given to us and it is then left for the hyaenas. When the vet is able to come to Liwonde then we attempt a darting, but she cannot always come and so we use the carcasses to habituate the animals to our presence, as this improves the chances of a successful darting. It also means that we are more likely to get a good opportunity to watch hyaenas feeding. The only real downside to this is having to deal with some pretty horrendous smells which arise from rotting remains.

 

Fish EagleCamera Trapping

Although the setting up and collecting of camera traps takes up only a small amount of time it offers the best opportunity to see the wildlife in the park. As most of the work that we do takes places in the morning or at night, it’s great to get into the park see a different side of it. Nearly every venture out I’ve had to set camera traps has resulted in an amazing animal sighting, including a fish eagle feeding off a carcass, a herd of hartebeest grazing and elephants bathing at the water holes.

After attaching the camera to a suitable tree, and leaving them for good amount of time, we go back and check the photos. While the main aim is get as many carnivore photos as possible, in particular hyaena ID shots, we also get loads of shots of the other species that allow for an up close view of animals that would otherwise be challenging to see.

 

Data Entry

As much of the work is undertaken during the morning and evenings the days can sometimes be slow and a good way to use up time productively is sort out some of the data collected. As anyone who has entered data before can tell you, this can be tedious, but it is a vital part of research. It is also really good to get experience in using different software types and I’ve been able to improve on my knowledge of software including Microsoft excel and ArcGIS.

When there is a large group of volunteers it is a little difficult to get the experience on the computers, as there is a limited amount of data to handle and computers to use. However, as I have collected data for my own project I am never short of things I need do and have received excellent advice on what to do with the information I’ve collected.


Camp Living

Though it’s important to know the kind of work that done with CRM, I think its necessary to mention what it’s like to actually like to live on a camp in the middle of a national park. Firstly, you’re living on a national park which is awesome and there are animals everywhere. Seeing elephants, hippo, baboon and various other animals on a daily basis quickly became the norm and only every now again I found myself having sudden realisations of where I was and what I was doing. Although there are few difficulties such as limited internet connection, little variety in food and, in my case, rivalries with biscuit stealing vervet monkeys, these things seem pretty trivial in the grand scheme of things.

The camp is pretty luxurious as camps go, with a bar, a laundry-room and the essential pool to cool down in during the hot days. The staff of the hotel are all friendly and are usually up for a chat whenever there’s a chance. Although there a few obvious challenges of moving into a camp of strangers, it is made easier by the friendly and warm atmosphere given off the by staff of CRM and African bat conservation. 

Vervet monkey

 

July 2015Fran Childs

Fran Childs  

4 weeks with CRM

In February 2015 I was nearing the end of my Masters project studying spotted hyaenas and African wild dogs in captivity, and after 10 months of learning about them spotted hyaenas had fast become my new favourite animal. With ambitions to go onto to postgraduate studies in zoology and animal behaviour, I decided that my post-uni adventure should involve getting some wild animal work experience. After finding Carnivore Research Malawi’s website I didn’t need much convincing to sign up for 4 weeks away, and 3 very short months later I found myself being dropped at the airport wondering what on earth I’d let myself in for.

Arrival

After 26 hours of traveling I arrived in Lilongwe on the 22nd of June. After a 12 hour sleep at Maddidi lodge Dr Emma Stone and I set off for Liwonde National Park the following day. As I was lucky enough to be getting a lift rather than public transport like most of my fellow volunteers, I was treated to amazing views of the Malawian landscapes, the villages and markets from the comfort of a passenger seat. My first encounter with wild animals came not long after- as we waited to cross the Shire river into camp there were a large group of hippos and some crocodiles relaxing near the jetty. On arrival at the camp I was introduced to the other volunteers and staff, had dinner and headed to bed.


Hyaena tracking

Lone BuffaloMy first day at Mvuu camp began with the safety talk followed by a tour- within a couple of hours I’d seen more hippos along with warthogs, vervet monkeys, yellow baboons, elephants and a grass snake strangling a frog! I’d also been shocked to discover that despite the 27 degrees C heat it was actually winter in Malawi. The afternoon and evening consisted of attempts to track hyaenas within the park. There are currently two clans living in the park, a resident clan and a group of individuals that were transferred from Malawi's capital city Lilongwe and released in the park in February 2015. The dominant females of both groups have been fitted with a VHF collar which transmit a radio signal that could be tracked using rooftop and handheld receivers.  Although on my first attempt we didn’t have any luck, later that week a morning drive around the rhino sanctuary picked up a signal from the resident female’s collar. To gain a good idea about where the hyaenas are residing- as usually during the day they will be resting at the den- coordinates, bearings and the details about the strength of the signal are taken from a few different locations to cross reference this information. The rooftop aerial allows the signal to be picked up from a 1-1.5km diameter from the car, but the handheld aerial allows identification of a specific direction of where the signal is strongest. As I was informed on more than one occasion, elevation is key for radio tracking, so this provided a perfect excuse to clamber on top of the land cruiser! Most volunteers couldn’t get up there quick enough but due to my complete lack of balance or spatial awareness I was generally a bit more cautious. Although a few minutes after my first climb I was very glad to be back inside the car as we stumbled across the most dangerous animal in the Malawian bush- a lone, old, male buffalo. Thankfully he just grunted at the car and stomped off into the trees.


Camera trappingEleanor

Mornings that weren’t spent hyaena tracking would usually involve helping set out or collecting camera traps for camp mates Eleanor’s Master’s project on the Random Encounter Model assessing the abundance and density of mammals in Liwonde National Park. The cameras were set out in a pre-defined grid usually 1km apart meaning we were often walking 11 or 12km in a morning, which would have been a great way to get healthy if I hadn’t kept taking biscuits along. The walks were a great way to see a lot of the park and the wildlife, and we spotted impala, kudu, bushbucks, baboons, warthogs, zebras and slightly more scarily elephants. Encountering elephants on foot is not as glamorous as it seems as due to their bad eyesight elephants won’t hesitate to charge anything that takes them by surprise, but luckily our scout Edward was on hand to guide us out of the way.


Chinguni Hill

Chinguni HillAnother experience I was treated to during my first week in Malawi was climbing Chinguni hill. Due to reports and possible sightings of leopards on the hill Rob, the senior research assistant, had placed a camera trap near the top which was regularly checked for pictures. Although technically just a hill, Chinguni felt more like a mountain as I scrambled up rocks on all fours at minus 5 miles an hour with my legs failing to work after the half-way point. One hour and multiple near-death experiences later I’d just about made it to the top, whilst the rest of the group had put me to shame by breezing up Liwonde’s answer to Everest like it was- quite literally- a walk in the park. Which it probably is to any reasonably fit person. And although my legs had turned to jelly and all my shreds of dignity had evaporated, the amazing views looking out over the park made it all worth it…almost. But when the next trip Chinguni came around, I did politely decline.


Lilongwe's urban hyaenasHide

On the Wednesday of my second week three of us set off for a very exciting trip back to Lilongwe to try and catch and remove a collar from an urban hyaena! The morning started rather abruptly as during the night our camp had been invaded by a herd of elephants, and their excitable trumpeting at 5am worked rather effectively as a terrifying alarm clock. I also had another close encounter with the wildlife that morning when I set my breakfast down for a split second and a vervet monkey got his hands in it. The journey to Lilongwe was interesting to say the least; the Malawian minibuses do not conform to the idea that one seat means one person, or that animals shouldn’t be allowed to travel. So we set off in a bus with 12 seats filled with around 20 people, and with 2 live chickens under the seat next to mine (something I did not actually discover until the end of the journey), stopping only to pile more people into the bus or so the driver could treat himself to the Malawian delicacy that is burnt mice on a stick. Whilst in Lilongwe our hyaena work took place at night as this is when they are mainly active. We would drive near to their den location and do a ‘call in’, which involved placing a speaker on top of the car and playing hyena social calls and whoops, or the sounds of dying animals. Rotting chicken and animal blood were also scattered along the side of the road to tempt the hyaenas out more, although this made for an interesting- and slightly smelly- car ride over with me and Carrie often competing for the seat that didn’t have the bucket of blood in the footwell. We also constructed a hide for Amanda, the vet darting the hyena, to sit in out of bamboo, bits of tyre and bin bags. Sadly after 4 attempts we hadn’t managed to catch the female hyena we needed. But as our beloved scout Edward says, ‘not every day can be a Sunday’, and we had enjoyed some incredible sightings of Lilongwe’s urban hyaena clan and a very fun week.


Final weeks

Lilongwe adventure over, we returned to Liwonde. Shortly after arriving back we crossed over the river to visit a local school where two volunteers, Giorgos and Faidan, were giving a talk about CRM’s work and the importance of hyaenas. The talk was successful with most of the students voting at the end that hyaenas- or ‘fisi’ in Chichewa- were good and not bad! In our final week I was lucky enough to join a team that were attempting to catch a local elephant to remove a snare from its leg and collar it for future tracking. Although we weren’t successful in finding the elephant- a species which can hide surprisingly well despite their massive size- it was a great experience. Highlights included multiple rides in the back of the Rhino team's pick up truck and having steak and chips at the safari camp- meat is a total luxury in Liwonde! We also returned to tracking the Liwonde hyaenas and had two successful nights in a row, firstly spotting the collared dominant female and then two subadults the following evening. On my last evening at the park I was treated to another hyaena call in- this succeeded in attracting the subadults to the car and it was amazing to watch them running around in the spotlight, and even more incredible to hear the hyenas calling to each other from all sides with their whoops echoing through the park.

Sadly, my time in Malawi had to end. After saying my goodbyes and trying to act my age and not cry I headed back to Lilongwe and flew back to England the next day. My 4 weeks in this amazing country were absolutely incredible and it’s been an experience I’ll never forget. Sunset

June 2015


Faidon PapadakisFaidon Papadakis

2 weeks with CRM

When me and my buddy Giorgos (Biology and Ecology undergraduates on our way to our 3rd year) looked up for volunteering opportunities in Africa, we came across this very website and decided to apply. We were attracted by the fact that Malawi is not one of the most popular destinations, that the organisation is not a huge well funded giant and that the volunteer program is indeed a volunteer program and not an expensive summer course disguised under the title, as is often the case.

A few months later, after a few travel jabs and a little bit of visa trouble (by now the regulations have changed, but wherever you are from, go to the Malawi high commission website and check what is needed), we made it to Malawi.


First impression

Different earth, different vegetation. Different sky, big sky. The lowest clouds are further away than the ones in the skies of Europe. Different landscape and different people. If you have never been in Africa before (or maybe if you have but haven’t been in Malawi), you will be impressed long before you arrive at the National Park. A great number of people, everywhere, most of them young, going somewhere, selling something, fixing something, occupied in some way. Things function with great simplicity, perhaps a product of the culture and mindset together with the limitations of poverty. Shoving away the unnecessary and luxurious comfort to satisfy everyday needs, without complaints, and with a beautiful sense of small, everyday common purpose, it captivates you.

I spent most of my days in Malawi in Liwonde National Park, but I got the feeling that I describe above from the trips from Lilongwe to Liwonde and back.


On the first afternoon in Liwonde National Park

When we arrived in Liwonde, we got picked up by Rob (Davis)- which you might have the pleasure to meet if you come volunteer in the next few years- and drove to Mvuu camp from the south road of Liwonde National Park. It’s a great road to drive for your first time in the park, as you get to go through a long part of it on your way.

The first wild animal I ever saw was a yellow baboon running across the road. I was psyched and only contained my excitement because everyone else in the car found it so mundane. It doesn’t take long to ease your excitement about a yellow baboon sighting. They go around the camp a lot. If you’re based at Mvuu you’ll see them everyday. That first baboon though.. I’ll remember.


Hyeana tracking with Rob

Hyeana radio tracking, for the most part, is driving around and listening to static. But sometimes you think you hear something in that white noise, you stop the car and turn the engine off, listen real close and you hear it again. Reinsured about your sanity, confident about your hearing, you take out the aerial, point it around and get a direction. Follow, repeat, follow repeat. Record when you have a stronger signal. Go to the closest point the road allows. Engine’s off, lights off and you wait. Spotlight on, scan, off again and you wait. And at some point you might be rewarded and in the spotlight, in the bushes, a pair of eyes will shine and a big head might show. In our two weeks, that was the reward of the static. And that is the routine of this surveying.


Camera TrappingCamera trapping with Eleanor

Giorgos and I worked most with Eleanor, who was doing her masters studying mammal population densities with camera traps all over LNP. She would get a random set of coordinates in the park that would be the centre of a 12 point grid, for cameras to be placed and retrieved a week after. In that project we got to walk in the bush and learn from the wisdom of the great game ranger, the mfumu (chichewa for chief) Edward. Eleanor taught us about camera trapping and we helped her set up the cameras, take measurements and retrieve them, while Edward taught us Chichewa; the names of plants and animals and the Malawi traditions related to them. On foot, elephants and buffalo often made us divert from our track. Twice we got to see Zebras, ‘abidzi’ in Chichewa, running in the woodland.


Life in the camp

Between the trackings and trappings, being in Mvuu camp was exciting on its own. Vervet monkeys, squirrels and a few inconspicuous bush babies were residents. Yellow baboons and warthogs were frequent visitors. Impalas and bushbucks, not far around to the south, east and north, while in the river, to the west, crocodiles and hippos. And the camp community is great; both the researchers and the wilderness safaris people that run the lodge. Because you live with people doing their research or teaching or working in the lodge or as field guides for many months or for years, you get to live in their everyday rhythm and you sync into it. It is immersive, charming and captivating.


Visiting Nanthomba school

Nanthomba SchoolAs an outreach to the local community, with the help of our liaison Nolan Hunka (volunteer teacher) we prepared a presentation for the kids in Nanthomba Primary School (across the river from Mvuu), in order to teach them a little bit about hyaenas and to inform them about what we do in the hyaena group in Carnivore Research Malawi. In very basic English, and with the help of teachers that kindly translated some phrases to Chichewa, we shared with the learners some facts about the hyaenidae family, about the spotted hyaena in Malawi, told them how CRM surveys the hyaena populations and answered their questions. They were engaged, enjoyed the pictures, the videos and the audio of the calls from the CRM archive, and hopefully came out with a better idea on the importance of the hyaena despite the general negative predisposition.


Chinguni Hill

For our last day in LNP, we hiked up Chinguni to download the pictures of two camera traps, placed over long periods, near the top of the hill, with the hope to capture leopard. The view of the floodplains of the Shire is unlike any other view of the National Park. You get a sense of size and distance. The altitude and the different terrain make for different vegetation and a few interesting lichens and mosses.


Two weeks in the park is a very short time. It is good fun and exciting, but because the nature of the work depends on many uncontrollable factors, you would have a better chance to see rarer things and offer more help in particular situations if you stayed longer than I did. I’d suggest, if you can afford it, at least a month.




Kathryn Cockle

May 2014

Kathryn Cockle

5 weeks with CRM

On my way to Malawi!

I feel I should start with a short introduction to set the scene for my trip. I am a recently graduated student of the Open University from Bristol. Whilst completing my undergraduate BSc in Natural Sciences I was volunteering in the Mammal Research Unit at Bristol University when I met Dr Emma Stone, the founder of CRM, and from there I find myself here on my way to Africa!

Week One - 6th May 2014

The day of my flight out, Monday, I’m excited and nervous. I have never flown internationally before and I am travelling alone but I have put in the preparation and have all the documents and information I need and can’t wait to get out there. I fly from Heathrow and have one transfer in Addis Ababa which all goes smoothly and I even get some sleep on the plane. I arrive in Malawi at Lilongwe airport but my bag doesnt, it has been delayed and I am told it is due to arrive tomorrow so I collect the relevant paperwork and consider it all part of the experience! Emma meets me in arrivals and straight away we are chatting and planning the next 3 months and it sounds marvelous. It’s hot, beautiful and completely new – everything! Emma has arranged a welcome meal for me in Lilongwe (the capital city), which gives me a chance to get used to the currency (Kwacha)and affords me the opportunity to be introduced to other researchers who work for African Bat Conservation (Charlie) (www.africanbatconservation.org) and staff from project partners The Lilongwe Wildlife Centre (Johnny). Kwacha

After the meal I head off to bed – tomorrow is the start of one of the most exciting and extraordinary experiences of my life so far. My bag doesn’t arrive until Thursday so whilst I am waiting Emma and I head off to a game reserve, Kuti, to do some work surveying the bat population there. It’s a beautiful place and the staff and other guests are lovely to chat to. Lots of people here are visiting from other countries so I am not just soaking up Malawian culture I am hearing a range of different languages and everyone has a story about how they got here, it’s so enriching.

bat traps

Seeing bat trapping techniques and carrying out assessments of the habitats and roads within the park from the car is all new to me and helps get the whole survey started, it’s an eye opening, informative experience and in terms of ecosystems and conservation it starts bringing all the theory I learnt during my studies to life in the most amazing way. With everything so very different from home there are new plants, animals and noises to take in raising lots of questions that Emma is great at answering and explaining. The highlights were seeing Giraffe eating Acacia, Hornbills, Vervet Monkeys, Impala, Kudu and waking up to Zebra outside our accommodation one morning. After a few days just being able to spot the wildlife in the bush becomes a little easier. Being out just before dusk to set the traps near a wetland area and waiting for the bats gave me a really good taster of working with bats and what it is like to carry out research in the field – an experience I will never forget.

kuti

Emma and I get back from Kuti on Friday I grab my bag from the airport and after a safety briefing from Emma about bush living and camp rules there is no hanging around and I’m on an African bus trip heading for Kasungu to meet Rob Davis CRM Research Assistant who I will be working with for the next month or so. The bus ride is an adventure, packed with people, suitcases, bags and even sacks of maize – the staple food here. I’m amazed when we actually get going that it can still move but we are off! It’s great to see so much of Malawi whizzing by seeing all the villages, shops and local street traders who try to sell you a myriad of goods through the windows at every bus stop, the hustle and bustle is exciting.truck

Even though I cannot understand the language many people do speak English and those that don’t, smile and gesture but I do wish I have learnt more Chichewa before I got here (the local dialect), I have picked up a few words already – muli bwanji (hello how are you?) and zikomo (thank you). After a couple of hours I arrive and meet Rob then it’s off shopping in the local market – all the fresh produce is in neat heaps on mats on the floor and Rob helps me with what I will need for bush living and camp stove cooking. It’s a very busy place and a far throw from any market or shop back home. As well as the market we go to the local shops which sell some familiar products including Cheerios, Dove shampoo, Heinz beans and Dairy Milk Chocolate amongst the other unfamiliar things which feels a little out of context but somewhat reassuring in these early days. As dusk nears we are off to the park – luckily I have a head torch, a must for the kit list, and as we travel I am amazed at the vastness of Africa and Kasungu National Park, the horizon seems to stretch out forever and there are so few buildings it feels like a real wilderness.

kuti

When we get to camp I meet some researchers from Lilongwe Wildlife Trust who are studying Vervet Monkeys and we eat, drink and talk about my journey here and everyone’s work in the park. I see where I will be sleeping and get orientated then head off to bed where I am assisted dozing off by the chorus of frogs and chirp of crickets at the edge of the dam. During the last couple of days of my first week we get straight into work collecting and setting camera traps around the park and looking for spoor, whilst all the while seeing countless new species of insect, bird and mammal including Fish Eagle, Pied Kingfisher, Monitor Lizard, Puku, Egret and Hippo. Around camp we do daily cleaning and maintenance tasks including washing our clothes by hand, cooking and cleaning and setting up our dongle (purchased in Lilongwe) so that communication with the outside world via email etc is possible. What a great week – welcome to Africa!!

Week Two - 12th May 2014

tracksMonday comes and we are tracking for a Spotted Hyaena den within the park with a local scout who has worked there for years and has a lot of inside knowledge. We’ve found numerous tracks and spoors and, having never tracked Hyena before, I realise that finding a den takes time and expertise. It’s brilliant to see some of the park on foot but the safety briefing is ringing in my ears and I remember I must be vigilant. On our trek we find what we believe are tracks for leopard, hippo, civet and zebra, it is very hot and I’m glad I brought water in camel backpack. We locate two possible dens and set up some camera traps then head back, overall walking approximately 10km – it paid to invest in a good pair of walking boots as the terrain is uneven and varied.

transect

Later in the week I get to meet some of the management team in the Park, some other volunteers and researchers that are working with Puku and Elephant. Over several days we carry out some early morning large mammal transects from the car following designated routes that cross the park where the roads are accessible and in the evenings we do spotlighting for carnivores and prey, both are fantastic introductions to field research techniques and gradually a catalogue of various animals that we come across is being compiled. With each new animal we log I feel a real sense of contributing to the project and being part of something that will be good for the Park, it’s wildlife and hopefully Malawi. We collect in the camera traps and the anticipation whilst driving back gives me goosebumps, you just don’t know what you will see – and it is not a disappointment, African Crowned Eagle, Leopard, Spotted Hyena, Hippo, Vervet Monkeys and Honey Badger, an amazing find!

One thing that becomes clear this week is that sourcing power for equipment is tough and the solar charger I brought with me is invaluable. Intermittently we charge our laptops by generator and it makes me realise how challenging life is out here for the local population and how good preparation for the trip is key, simple things can make a big difference here. Nearing the end of my second week I’m feeling much more settled and talking to family and friends back home via phone and email/internet to share the experience with them makes me much less homesick. Things are going great and I’m really excited about the project and the long term objectives, so glad to be part of it for the early stages. Sunday is a day off and a time for me to reflect about the trip so far, although my life back home is far from laid back the work I have been doing here shows me what my life could be like if I’m lucky enough to embark on a career in research - the challenges, rewards and opportunities that hardly seemed possible during my studies. I am certain the hard work I put into organizing the trip and getting here is well worth it for the inspiring weeks I have had so far and the skills I will ultimately be taking back with me – aside from the breathtaking backdrop!

Week Three

This has been a week of hard work, last minute plan changes, fantastic finds, cold nights and the most amazing view of Kasungu National Park that I will treasure forever. Monday sees a change of plan to our normal routine with an unplanned trip to Kasungu for shopping. The Malawian elections are to be held on Tuesday and there is uncertainty about when the shops will be open following polling so we decide to go before. The trips takes around 1 ½ hours and as I travel the reverse of the journey I took only 2 weeks ago I see it with fresh eyes. Initially the villages we pass are small but the further out we get from the park the more established the populations become introducing shops and stalls (video 750), by the time we reach the capital it is very different.

My mind races with questions about the lives of the locals and the culture which generates some great conversations between Rob and I and I hardly notice the time it takes to get there. As we go we exchange some friendly hand waves with local children and adults and my compassion for their struggle is overwhelming. On reaching Kasungu we go round the produce market and local shops again and this time it is not so unfamiliar to me, I have also gained more experience with the local currency and feel a much more competent shopper. It has been a busy day and on returning to the park I am happy to see my bed, the rest of the week that follows has a similar pattern and our daily routine of morning transects and evening spotlighting accessible is interspersed with camp tasks including sourcing wood for camp fires to heat shower water from trees that have been knocked over by elephants – its strenuous work but the satisfying hot shower at the end is all the reward you need. Other jobs include researching journal papers for an upcoming Serval release planned by the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre and here I feel I am more able to contribute. Having learnt so many new techniques since arriving it is great to be able to utilise some of the skills I brought with me from my studies. Working on this project has made me realise team work is a compilation of multi disciplinary skills with a common aim and we all bring something with us that can benefit the project.

elephant An experience on Wednesday morning will stay with me forever bringing my first encounter with a herd of Elephants as they meandered through a mist filled forest. It’s hard to put into words but seeing these majestic animals in their native habitat is a priceless moment for anyone who is passionate about animals. The following day we are back out tracking for Hyena dens with the scout and this time we are well rewarded – a large den comprised of several large burrows which appears to be active. This is great news for the project and we set cameras to find out if it is still in operation.







den

Things really take off this week with Elephant and Honey Badger being recorded on our morning transects and sightings of Leopard, Civet, Mongoose, Cobra and a large Bush Pig as well as Hippo and Puku. We get a bit more down time towards the end of the week so we check emails and give the car and accommodation a really good clean. One of the park managers is moving to another district so we join in a leaving party and catch up with the other volunteers and researchers. Sunday comes round and a day off complete with lie in! We build a fire and listen to some music and the atmosphere round camp is really chilled. At sundown we head to Black Rock, a high point in the park where you can get a 360 degree view and it makes me appreciate how big it is. The sunset is well worth the climb to the top – perfect view to share with a few beers.

Week 4 - lions, hyaena and ants!

I can hardly believe it’s my fourth week here but on reflection I have seen and learnt so much already. The transects remain positive with recordings of male Kudu and lots more tracks logged around the park. We also head back up to the den with a few more cameras after charging some batteries. When we review the pictures that have been collected since we found it we are delighted to see that there are two pups with the group!!! We discuss the possibility of habituating the Hyenas in order to collar one and it’s an extraordinary prospect. Emma visits from Lilongwe on Wednesday and takes us through carrying out walked transects, another new experience for me. Although it’s a little soggy underfoot it is another great opportunity to see more of the park and develop my map and compass reading skills.

ants We arrange to travel back to Lilongwe on Thursday to assist with the upcoming serval release but for now there are camp tasks to carry out including car maintenance/washing and packing. On spotlighting we are ecstatic to see a Spotted Hyena only 5m from the car! Both of us have to laugh when we get stuck behind a Porcupine who scuttles down the transect route in front of the car. Just up from camp we find a trial of Army Ants across the road – quite a sight to see, they are thoroughly organized and determined! Before we leave we collect in the camera traps from the hyena den to minimize the disturbance to the group whilst we are away and although there are no more pictures of the pups the photographs are promising for identification purposes.

truck Jasper, from the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre, is also visiting Kasungu to assess possible release sites for the Servals and a few of us go to have a look at a spot in the park that might be suitable. As we prepare to leave the following day we get word that a lion has been spotted outside the park and has reportedly killed a Cow and 2 Donkeys locally – this sobering news reminds all of us what happens when humans live in close proximity to apex predators and how important it is to consider the potential human-predator issues as part of the research. Discussions begin as to how best to approach the problem as we leave and begin our trip back to Lilongwe. It’s a long journey and we some staggering sights, and I don’t mean the scenery. The motorways are transversed by many tobacco lorries, heavily laden with cargo headed for the auctions. Tobacco is one the country’s largest exports. Approximately 3 hours later we reach Lilongwe and it’s a stark contrast to the park, buzzing with people and full of activity. We do some shopping and admin tasks and get some rest.

callin

By the next morning the discussions regarding the lion have turned to a possible emergency capture and relocation mission and efforts are underway to collate a team and suitable trailer for the trip. With the generous assistance of local businesses and the Wildlife Centre within a few hours we are back on the road to Kasungu with a tracker, a vet and crate to house the lion should we successfully locate it. I’m running on adrenaline and feel privileged to be part of the team. Various reports come in from people situated with the local community and it becomes clear we need to get there as quickly as possible. When we arrive it is already dark and after a brief meeting with the village chief we go about setting up equipment and bait to draw the lion within darting range. We ensconce ourselves in the car and play various prey distress calls to entice the lion back. By 5:30am we reluctantly conclude we will not be successful, it’s a tough call to make but highlights the difficulties associated with these situations.

After a quick breakfast stop gap we are back on the road to Lilongwe and despite the outcome the mood in the car is upbeat and focused on what can be learnt from the expedition and I’m inspired by the optimism and professionalism of everyone involved. By the time we get back to the capital we are all pretty shattered but keen to hear any more news of the lion’s movements in case we can assist again. Sunday brings another day off and whilst revisiting the events of the week we relax with lunch out followed by a reggae concert with a few well deserved beverages!

Week 5 - Servals, trucks and new faces! city centre

So a week back in the city and it is so very different from the park and there is plenty to do with shopping, collection of a new truck and the arrival of our first Serval release volunteer!!! Emma has organized to have safari tents put up for more permanent volunteer accommodation and Rob and I set about sourcing all the furniture and bedding. We visit carpenters to get prices for having the beds made and go to local shops and markets to buy the sheets, pillows and pillow cases and mattresses – it’s great to see it all coming together and realizing what a great team there will be in the park as the project moves on, it’s been fantastic being here during the early stages to see it all happen.

city centre

My thoughts turn to home and what the process of arranging all the furniture would be like there and it hits me that you certainly would never meet the carpenter that made your bed let alone get to haggle over the price! Carpentry seems to be the profession of choice for many Malawians and some of their furniture is beautifully made. We eat out at a few local restaurants and talk about the last few weeks and the months to come and what is planned for the serval release. It is hoped that we can put tracking collars on the servals this week as work has begun on building their release enclosure at Kasungu.

In between shopping and sorting out kit we go in pursuit of the urban hyaenas that have been seen by Emma and other locals in and around the wildlife sanctuary part of the wildlife centre and although there are signs of how they might be getting into the sanctuary we don’t manage to find a den. Nearing the end of the week I think about what it will be like going back to the park and getting used to having no electricity, hot running water and having limited internet connection and I know that the second time round it will not be as strange as the first.

city centre

I visit the immigration office in Lilongwe to get my visa extended to cover me up until the end of my stay and the staff there are really friendly and helpful and say that they have heard from the local community that we are working hard and doing a good job in the park and Rob, Emma and I are really pleased to be making a positive impact with our work. One thing I notice about administration in Malawi is that there is lots of form filling, receipts and long processes that make a task that could be done on the internet back home take over an hour! Before we know it Friday has come round and it’s a very early start as the serval collaring takes place.

city centre

It’s breakfast on the go for Rob who tucks into a banana whilst we’re waiting . The female Xera is the first to be caught in the enclosure and luckily she is quite relaxed so it goes smoothly. The male Kovu is a bit harder to tempt into the box but eventually he is caught too and everyone gets to work. I’m in awe of the the vet and veterinary nurses and the whole procedure is a very special experience for me. Thorough health checks are carried out and the weight and measurements of each Serval are noted down. I take lots of pictures of key identification features to use when carrying out the behavioural observations and tracking following their release. Everyone is excited about the upcoming release and as the collars go on we know we are one step closer. Both Servals are safely returned to their enclosure and although a little bit wobbly seem to be coping very well.

city centre

No sooner are we back at the house then the packing begins and everyone pitches in getting the car loaded with the all the kit, shopping and even mattresses on the roof! The plan was to pick up one of the new bunk beds to take back to the park in preparation for setting up the tents but when we arrive at the carpenters it isn’t finished – making and rearranging plans seems to be unavoidable when dealing with a project of this size but undeterred we set off to the airport to pick up the first of the serval release volunteers – Paula.

 

She has flown in from Barcelona and it’s great to meet her and welcome her to the team. From the airport we drive straight to Kasungu and along the way we chat in the car about Paula’s trip, the serval release and the work Rob and I have been doing on the Wild Dog Project so far. When we arrive we have to set up a tent for Paula and working in the dark with only head torches and no instructions provides us with an opportunity for some humor during the construction - eventually we are all wrapped up snug and fast asleep.

The last few days of the weekend involving visiting the serval enclosure site to see how construction is going and catching up on news of the lion. We see tracks near the park and go to several local villages to get reports of possible sightings and descriptions of the sound of a lion roaring during the night – back home the most I hear is foxes and I really cannot imagine what it is like to wake up to the sound of a lion in the dark. Visiting the communities is really humbling and it is inspiring to see the joy on the faces of the kids when you wave and say hello. We are welcomed into their homes and assisted by young and old who want to help with our efforts. Sunday brings another day off and although there are a few camp tasks to do the three of us spend some time at a small party to see off two of the other volunteers who are heading back to their respective homes to visit family, what a great end to the week.

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