Katy….Me…And the PhD

This post was written by by Shannon Finnegan, a predator research assistant who has been working for the Primate and Predator Project since March. Today is her last day at Lajuma and we are sad to see her go! This blog post follows on from the adventures of setting up Katy’s brown hyaena camera trapping grid as featured here.

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So as I am sure you are all aware at this stage Katy has been working hard on her PhD study on the ever-fascinating brown hyaena. To say that it’s been an adventure would be a major understatement. As I sit here reminiscing on all the amazing experiences we have encountered throughout the many weeks of fieldwork I am overcome with a sense of pride and happiness at what we have accomplished and how far the project has come.

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When I first set out in March with Katy to set up her enormous camera-trapping grid I really didn’t know what to expect. We were firstly faced with the challenge of getting permission from 20 different landowners to put out the cameras, not only did we not know these people but we sometimes had no idea even how to find the desired properties in such a maze of mountains and fields. However we had our trusty GPS, the ever reliable project car and of course our positive attitudes and in the end we succeeded in locating every farmer we needed.

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Now I think if I had two random strangers turn up at my front door with talk of cameras and other strange things my reaction might be one of pure bewilderment. Yet I was filled with sheer amazement at how incredibly friendly and welcoming every landowner was to us. From refreshing cold drinks to the most delicious homemade brownies and comfy beds (and super cool hunting hides) to sleep in, we were treated like royalty. Over the past few months I would get excited like a little child when the next camera trip was approaching just so I could meet all these lovely people again and hear more of their heart warming stories.

Originally the cameras were only to remain in the field for 2-3 months for the analysis that Katy is conducting; yet of course it wouldn’t be fieldwork if we didn’t encounter some problems…and we had our fair share. The ever soul destroying station 5 was probably our biggest, it seemed this camera was located in the Bermuda Triangle of camera traps. Every time without fail we would reach this station at the end of our long and tiring road trip only to realize the camera stopped working after a few days which meant we were back to day zero of our study period! What made it that little bit more heart breaking was that this camera is located on the most beautiful property I think I have ever seen, it’s just teaming with incredible wildlife, things like wild dog and both brown and spotted hyaena. So after many camera swaps, tedious battery checks and stress we finally fixed the problem by having two cameras at this location so that if one fails we still have the other (fingers crossed).

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I am now delighted to say that we are over half way through the 60 day camera period, and I have 100% confidence that every camera will still be working when Katy returns to them later this month. We have discovered brown hyaena on 15 out of our 19 stations so far which is just amazing. Along with my regular jobs as a predator assistant at Lajuma I have also been helping Katy with analysing her data for her PhD. The past few months I have tagged tens of thousands of pictures from the camera grid, I feel at this stage if I see another black-backed jackal or guinea fowl I might just cry, however we have found some really awesome pictures (even a picture of a guy showing us his phone number and asking us to call him). The amount of biodiversity that we have discovered from this study has just been astonishing. Katy decided that since we have such a vast amount of photos that we should host a photo exhibition in local towns to teach people about the beautiful wildlife that surrounds them. The exhibition will open in Louis Trichardt later this month and I know it will be a big hit!

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Myself and Katy certainly have some interesting memories from all our road trips. I think one of my favourites has to be getting a call while we were on the road to come help out some people in a local village who had a leopard cornered up in a tree and had no idea what to do. Katy instantly turned the car around and we got straight out there, leopard response team to the rescue!! On the way I called a vet to have him on stand by to come dart the animal if it was necessary. Once we arrived we assessed the situation and decided our plan of action, the problem was the leopard was cornered in the tree because the farmer’s dogs had chased it up there and were still at the base of the tree barking. It was clear what we had to do, we had to get in there, grab the dogs and get out and leave the animal alone. Myself and Katy got in to the thick bush and proceeded with caution, slowly getting closer to the dogs so we could grab them, after many tense minutes and pounding hearts we then realised that no it was not a large ferocious male leopard in the tree……….but a cute and fluffy little civet… This story never fails to make me laugh when I think about it again.

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I am a little heartbroken to say that this is my last working day with the Primate and Predator Project. I have been working here since March and it has been a life changing experience for me. From leopard captures, helicopters flights, many hikes and many new friendships Africa has really become my home from home and Lajuma has become my family. I feel so fortunate to have been given the opportunity to come work with such an incredible project whose work really makes a difference to the wildlife in this region. I really cannot thank Katy, Sam, Oldrich and Ian enough for all they have taught me and everything they have done for me. Of course I must also say a big thank you to all the amazing students of Lajuma who I have been so lucky to have the pleasure of working with while I have been here, (myself and the awesome Sophie were the best photo taggers ever!) these guys really became a family to me and I wish them all the best in their futures.

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Special thanks again to Katy for the opportunity to help her with her PhD, I have enjoyed every minute of it, even the challenges. I wish her every success with it and look forward to reading it when it’s all put together.

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