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Young visitors take to the bush

A few days after Dr. Patrick Bergin had left, Kaizer and I continued collecting cameras. In between all that, I had the privilege to join Stephen Midzi, the section ranger from Vlakteplaas (the section where we had placed the cameras) to go and look for tusks of an elephant that probably died a while back and was spotted by someone flying over the area.  We went to the area and searched for some time until one of the guys found one humongous tusk, probably 188 centimetres long. I waited for everyone to examine it and then tried to pick it up. My immediate thought after picking it up was, “Man, I’m glad I’m not an elephant; there is no way I could walk around with that thing and still be so mischievous”. After that, we searched, albeit in vain, for the other tusk. We then decided that we would take turns carrying the one tusk to the main road where a car would come and pick us up. That was a really long walk; it felt like we were walking from one horizon to the other - a 50 metre walk felt like a kilometre walk. The tusk got heavier with the increasing distance. When we finally made it to the main road, we were all relieved.

After we had finished collecting cameras, Kaizer and I thanked Stephen Midzi, the section ranger from Vlakteplaas, and made our way to Letaba. We went to see Mr. Joe Nkuna and Mr. Johann Oelofse, the section rangers from Letaba and Mooiplaas correspondingly, who said it was okay for us to work there. We met many people in Letaba and also made a lot of friends who were fascinated by the leopard project. In the field, however, we managed to make an enemy in the form of an ill-tempered hippo that chased Kaizer up the tree and left yours truly trembling as if I was in the middle of winter.

A week later, we finished working in Letaba and made our way to Phalaborwa, another section of the park. In Phalaborwa, Peter Corne, his wife Charmian and their two lovely children, Ellie and Edwin, came through and spent a day with Kaizer, Thabo (a researcher from the South African Environmental Observation Network) and me. It was a beautiful day out, and when I asked Ellie and Edwin if they would be interested in giving me a hand with placing cameras, they took to the task with great enthusiasm. They were both bubbling with energy, and this brought a different, super-charged positive feel to the atmosphere. They were truly wonderful, and they really looked like they were in their element out there. They decided that they would write their own accounts of their experience and they are presented below:

Ellie Corne, 13 years old, Shanghai

We were very excited we were going to see Nakedi who was trying to find out how many leopards are in Kruger National Park.  My parents had decided to support his work.  Nakedi was going to show us his techniques by taking us on foot into the park - a very special experience and something we would not be allowed to do ourselves.

After a night's sleep at Letaba Camp, we met Nakedi at Phalaborwa Kruger Gate.  He explained that he is assesing the leopard population by placing cameras systematically through the park, which take hundreds of thousands of pictures.  We were going to help him put up the cameras!   It was the first time we ever put up wildlife cameras, so we had no idea how to do it, but everyone was very helpful, and we gradually got the hang of it.

We were also with Thabo and Kaizer. Kaizer was the one holding the gun and making sure we all didn’t get eaten alive by wild animals (He did a great job), and Thabo told us about his job and how he would research the lake’s ecosystem and invertebrates.  Kaizer was also an anti-poacher, and he could hear animals from so far away! He could also mimic some of the animal’s calls. Thabo and Kaizer were both awesome.

The experience of putting up cameras was great. I never knew that I would be the one putting up cameras that I only saw in wildlife magazines and movies. It was definitely something I would really love to do again. It was so fun!

After we tied the cameras to the tree, we had to hide the battery so elephants wouldn’t come and stomp on them. Nakedi put anti-animal liquid that we use for pets on the camera and the battery. We also had to use dung, branches and grass to hide the battery.

While we were putting up the cameras, we saw many animals. We saw buffalos, impala, wildebeests, elephants and loads of birds. Nakedi told us the names of the birds we saw, and I learned that the very colourful and pretty one I had been seeing was actually called the Lilac Breasted Roller.

Altogether, a great experience.  I feel very good that I helped Nakedi in his project to better understand the leopard population of Kruger National Park.

Edwin Corne, 11 years old, Shanghai

We were really excited to meet Nakedi.  We had driven about 200km to see him. He was researching the leopard population of the Kruger National Park and spent every day there.  We met Nakedi, and he was a very tall, athletic looking man with very kind eyes.  We found out that he was on the South African basketball team.  Basketball helped him get scholarships to university all the way through his PhD.  A very talented guy!

Nakedi arranged for us to stay at one of the special night bungalows at the park at Letaba, but we left going there a little late, and we were in total darkness on the way there.  We encountered a big mother elephant and her baby and had to wait 45 minutes while an enormous herd of eyes was crossing the road (Later, we found out that they were buffalo).

The next day, Nakedi invited us to see how he is conducting his research, which, for the first time in nearly 40 years, will audit the population of leopards in Kruger National Park.  It involves putting up lots of cameras in the park section by section.  Nakedi was waiting for us the next morning at Phalaborwa Gate.  We introduced ourselves, got into his car and set off.  Nakedi had friends with him to help out (mainly because of us kids!) - one was Fahbo, a water ecology specialist, who took the day off to help Nakedi.  The other was Kaizer who worked with Nakedi as his assistant and was a former anti-poacher.  He was awesome - he could identify the animal from the sounds that he was hearing and could follow them without even finding their tracks!!!  Kaizer carried a rifle to protect us.  My dad and I were in one car with Kaizer and Fahbo driving, and my sister Ellie and my Mum were with Nakedi in the other.  We drove for awhile until we reached a hippo path.  We got out and walked in single file along the path, passing leopard’s tracks, hyena tracks, elephant and hippo tracks, and lots of dung.   I was so excited that we might have a chance to see a leopard but scared at the same time, so I tried to stay close behind Kaizer.

We found a tree that that was was good to strap the camera onto, and Nakedi gave me a lesson on how to do it.  After strapping it on, I had to set the time and date, but Nakedi could not help me because he had left the GPS in the car!  So he had to run all the way up the path back to the car to get it.  Without Kaizer!!  We hoped  he would not get eaten by some carnivore!  But he came back alive!

Tahbo helped me set the GPS.  Then Nakedi put some anti-animal liquid and some chili powder so that the animals (particularly elephants) would take one sniff and lose interest.  Then we did the same with a camera on the other side  so that Nakedi would get a shot of both flanks of whatever leopard passed by.

Thabo told us about this job and how he was researching the park’s lake ecosystem and invertebrates.  Kaizer told us about what he did to fight poaching and showed us how he could mimic sounds of many animals.  He could tell when an animal was nearby when nobody else could.

We put up  four more cameras in two locations.  Then we made the long trip back.  After we got back to Phalaborwa Gate, my dad, my sister Ellie, Nakedi and I had a well deserved ice-cream and got Kaizer a Seven-Up.   I had a great time and learnt a lot.  Nakedi was so patient with us even though he is so busy with his research, and he is a great teacher.


Nakedi
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.