Special Feature: Lajuma Life as a Research Assistant

Getting started at Lajuma by Zina Morbach

“A couple of months ago, I, a PhD student from the UK, and a new primate assistant arrived at Lajuma to work for the Primate and Predator Project. Starting to work and live in a new place is always nerve-racking, but doing so in “the middle of nowhere” somewhere in South Africa can add a new dimension of nerves to the experience. However, after some delay to our travel, that is probably typical for all African countries, we arrived safely at the camp and were very warmly welcomed. We moved into our rooms and were immediately integrated into the social program that was going on (a pub quiz that evening).

While our arrival was very smooth and people were most welcoming, it was still quite overwhelming. Especially the next morning, when, in the early morning light, we realized that the camp was situated just off the cliff. After the needed inductions, we started our training a few days later. And let me tell you, experience in wandering mountainous regions can only be helpful here! We both grew up in rather flat regions of Europe, so having to climb the first cliffs, sliding off rocks, and trying to figure out how to get back up was quite a task. So, here’s an insider tip: If you don’t have much experience hiking in rocky, very steep environments, or climbing cliffs, it might be a good idea to consider taking a few lessons in a climbing hall, or try out some rock climbing! It might just make your start here a little bit easier.

img_0135Cliffs of the Soutpansberg Mountains.

While I will be working with baboons, most primate assistants work with Samango or vervet monkeys. I can’t say much about that work, other than that they are very fascinating animals, and following them is, while demanding, rather enjoyable from what I hear!

If you would like to work with baboons, however, let me tell you that you are up for a challenge! Only a few people have found the endurance and energy to follow them for more than a few months. It involves a lot of climbing up cliffs, wandering over more savannah like parts without much shade, and keeping up with some fascinating animals who sometimes just seem to have a sudden idea of where they would rather be right now! But, to be honest, I find it quite rewarding. I am slowly learning to distinguish the individuals, get to know their characters, and love seeing how they live their lives in this harsh environment. Most of all, though, I love to just sit with them in the late afternoon in a forest, when things get calmer and they search for food in the leaf litter. Just sitting and watching these intelligent animals, that is my happy moment.”

img_1446Zina’s assistant, Allison, collecting data from our habituated baboon troop.

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