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A Visit from our CEO

When Dr. Simon Munthali called to tell me that our CEO, Dr. Patrick Bergin, was planning to come to the field to spend a few days, I couldn’t believe my ears. My brain immediately went berserk. I started counting stock of the good things and the not so good things I may have been involved with during the last few months. I was startled by these sudden plans to host our CEO.  Many times when my superiors wanted to see me, I was in some kind of trouble, but that was back in high school. I must have called our office in Johannesburg about 10 times in one hour in an attempt to squeeze information out of any person unlucky enough to pick up the phone.

One hardly expects a lot out of life in the bush except endless persecutions and taunting by the residents. Still, there is a lot of joy that emanates from being out there and being part of this dynamic world where systems are continually changing; and being one of the people playing part in helping resolve conservation issues is surreal. Dr. Bergin’s visit was a very pleasant surprise and confidence booster for our work in the Kruger Park and made me forget about the un-accommodative dwellers of the low-veld.

I went to pick up Dr. Bergin from the Phalaborwa airstrip, and we immediately made our way back to the field. I was very excited that he would have a first-hand experience of life in the bush in this part of the world, but I also braced myself for an impending barrage of questions. His questions were direct and constructive. I immediately realised that I was talking to a very intelligent person.  This was good because it meant he could pick up loopholes in our approach for the project, thus giving us a chance to mend loose ends. We had constructive discussions about the project, and this helped me to realign my thinking to realistic levels.

The previous day, Kaizer and I had gone out to remove the cameras from the field as they had run their course, and we had found a really nice pair that was in an immaculate condition -- they were both untouched and still working. I had then suggested that we reserve those for our day out with Dr. Bergin. On that day, after Dr. Bergin had checked in his bungalow, we went to pick up Kaizer and to retrieve some of the cameras -- in particular, the working pair we had left the previous day. I was walking with a great deal of zeal and was particularly talkative on the way to the camera station. I think there may have been a fine line of cockiness and arrogance that I was flirting with. I pray that Dr. Bergin didn’t pick that up, but being the man that he is, he probably did.

We arrived at the cameras, and they were both there, but one of the cameras was not working. All that arrogance fizzled away like a balloon that had just had the tip of its mouth released. There was a resounding “NOOOOOOO” in my head as I stood there looking at the camera and then at Dr. Bergin. I quietly started loosening the cameras while attentively listening to Dr. Bergin’s questions. I realised then that while most of the time we try and pose for pictures with our best sides facing the camera, the other not-so-beautiful side is still there and is part of us.

After Dr. Bergin had left, he wrote a really good letter about his visit:

“I had a wonderful time being out of the office to join these purposeful walks through the bush.  It was just Nakedi, Kaiser, and me. There was bright sunshine, and the cool breeze of a Southern Hemisphere winter. On the way out to a trap, we tended to talk about the World Cup, African politics, or our families.  On the way back, we were each quiet, each with our own thoughts, and Nakedi doing arm lifts.  One of the benefits of Nakedi’s research methodology is that he has intentionally chosen to place his camera traps in diverse vegetation types – so each walk had a different character to it.  First, we walked through Mopani scrub-bush, and then through grasslands on sandy soils lined by palm trees.

The only destination that gave me slight pause was a cool, green, densely vegetated stream bank where we collected cameras at high noon.  It felt like a perfect place for a leopard, or a buffalo, to hole up from the mid-day heat.  Given the low visibility, we could have become an unpleasant surprise for each other.

After a long day of walking, I went back to a nice little bungalow in one of the South African National Park's rest camps and put my feet up with a good book.  Nakedi, however, spent the evening downloading his images, untangling cords, and recharging battery packs on equipment until lights off at midnight.  When he is through collecting all of the cameras and data from the Shingwezi block, he will move slightly south and start the process all over again at Letaba block.

Nakedi’s work in the Kruger is significant at many different levels.  The ecology of Kruger Park has changed significantly over the last 40 years with major factors such as the provisioning, and then removal, of artificial water sites, greater encroachment of bush, suppression of fires, and greater human pressures.  A major concern in the southern end of the park is the prevalence of bovine tuberculosis (TB) among buffalo, and the transmission of TB to lions as they hunt and eat infected buffalo.  One hypothesis proposed is that lion numbers may be in decline due to TB, and that since lions and leopards compete to some extent, a decline in lions may give an advantage to leopards.  However, a paper recently published on lion numbers came to the tentative conclusion that their numbers have not changed significantly.  Nakedi’s findings will help complete the picture of how large carnivores are faring in Kruger at this time.”

In the end, I am very grateful and thankful for Dr. Bergin’s visit ,and I’m hopeful that our project will be a success and will be a reliable basis for generations to come.

About the Author

Nakedi joined AWF in 2007, working in the Limpopo region, where he's from. Nakedi's initial work was focused on studying the great cats to shape conservation strategies to benefit communities he's known all his life. In 2014, Nakedi moved on from the Limpopo region, becoming AWF’s Congo landscape ecologist.

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AWF Blogs bring you to the critical landscapes we work in, where conservation benefits both wildlife and people alike. The blogs are written by our staff - men and women who have dedicated their lives to Africa's wildlife, people and wild lands.