Extreme veg plots!

This post was written by Liam Thomas, a predator research assistant who has joined the Primate and Predator Project on his industrial placement year with Cardiff University.

The primate research assistants collect data from vegetation plots once a week, which includes measuring, counting and identifying trees at random locations across Lajuma and beyond, and I thought it would be a great part of my own project. Being predator research assistants we are not normally involved in studying the habitat of our focal species like the primate research assistants, but that was about to change.

I have been looking at the camera trap data to determine which variables are related to the level of leopard activity. I am including variables such as the level of prey activity, the amount of anthropogenic disturbance, the amount of light available from the moon, and environmental characteristics like habitat type, visibility and canopy cover. To collect the habit data we would work in pairs so that one person could hold the checkerboard or the sky square and the other could take the photo, and the photos could then be analysed back at camp. The number of squares visible on the checkerboard indicates the horizontal visibility, while the percentage of each image (measured using a computer program) taken of the sky through a square frame indicates the percentage of canopy cover.

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There are 23 camera stations in the Primate and Predator Project camera grid and I created 10 random plot points near each camera, that’s 230 plots we had to investigate! We started in late December and finished in late February 2015 and it was not an easy task, some days we left at six in the morning and returned at six in the evening which the primate assistants were also proud of! We ducked, dodged and dived through the African bush to reach our plots, some areas we are sure no one else had ever trekked through. We found many potential leopard caves, woke up a porcupine in the middle of the day and saw some breathtaking views of the Soutpansburg Mountain range.

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The Earthwatch team in January even got to help out, most of them finishing the day smiling and not scarred for life. We hiked to a camera station to complete more veg plots where the weather was not kind to us; it wasn’t always a glorious sunny day in the African bush. After the Earthwatch Team left we were still only half way through the plots, and it wasn’t going to get any easier, some days we really struggled, the bush started fighting back (blood was spilled), cliffs needed climbing and a struggle up Mt. Letjume, the highest peak in the Soutpansberg, was necessary to complete the final plots on the grid of cameras we could hike to. Only a few camera stations worth of veg plots remained on Sigurwana and Tolo, where we are normally driven round.

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To finish the final plots three predator research assistants and a primate research assistant joined forces so that we could get two camera stations done simultaneously, and we went on a road trip to Sigurwana and Tolo, where we stayed for three nights. It didn’t feel like we were on a working trip, it was more like a holiday. The plots themselves were not that difficult as the bush was not as thick as what we had seen previously, and as we were being driven to and from the stations we would pass zebras, giraffes, wildebeest and much more. There was even a party of impalas to greet us every morning and more bush babies than you could shake a stick at in the evening. Finally, on our very last plot we sprayed the cheapest bottle of champagne Pick n Pay had to offer to celebrate a job well done and the hard work everyone had put in. Now I just need to analyse all the data!

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