A day in the life of a field research assistant

Hallie Walker, Field Research Assistant

As a field research assistant, I am responsible for primary data collection and database maintenance. On a normal day I wake up just before first light to check for signals of collared animals. I wander through the camp in the half-light towards the mast, a tall metal tower that holds a radio-tracking antenna up above the tree line. BPCT has roughly thirty collars distributed between lions, leopard, cheetah, wild dog, and hyena, and I am hoping for anything. I start my car, a charmingly dilapidated Land Rover named “Rhino”, check the water level in the radiator, and fluids in the brake and clutch reservoirs while the light comes up enough for me to start my day. I use radio telemetry tracking, with the occasional spoor track, to find local predators. Armed with a GPS and a notebook, I follow the individual/pride/pack until they rest firmly enough to guarantee a return site for the afternoon. Follows involve off road bush whacking –negotiating my four wheel drive around (or over) fallen trees, around (or through) mud pits—while keeping pace with the world’s most agile animals and noting any scent mark or change in behaviour. Data include critical incident sampling of behaviour change (resting, moving, marking, leading, vocal, fighting, intraspecific, intraguild, mating, hunting, on kill); recording lion roars, leopard saws, hyena whoops; collecting any deposited scents across the guild; noting postures, deposit type, and substrate for each scent marker; annotating GPS tracks. Back in camp, hours later, I work in the office extracting data, editing databases, or entering new data. I return to the field in the late afternoon to follow the newly active predator until I lose the individual in the dark. 

There are dogs days.... While that may be almost a ‘normal’ day, most days, however, are not normal. Every morning new adventures and small catastrophes direct our day and offer insight in to true bush living: whether it is a fallen tree in camp, a malfunctioning radio base, a sick staff member, a break down, or an aerial fix that sends you to the corners of the delta (and that’s just last week’s events). Here, I get to experience the reality of life as an ecologist in all its shades. I am exposed to complexities of international research—permits, public relations, language barriers, tourism—and the surprises in the research itself—the reliance on rechargeable batteries, for instance, or the continual crash course in mechanics.  

‍ And there are dog days...

I have found this experience is the best investment in learning realistic expectations of goals, length, and rigor of graduate studies. In camp, we host a stream of researchers from conservation and research organizations from around the world. From my volunteer experience, I have been armed with experience, skills, and a contact list. But, with exceptional animal sightings and learning opportunities come challenges too: sometimes exhaustingly long days, isolation in the bush, extreme heat, battling the continual damage to your vehicle, claustrophobia from living in an eight person community. This position demands flexibility, a willingness to learn, and self-reliance, but the rewards are great.