Life as a Research Assistant

Being a wildlife researcher in a camp in the middle of the bush takes lot of courage, passion and dedication to collect all the necessary data needed. As a research assistant the main job is to collect data in the field which means spending a couple of hours with the animal (mostly African wild dogs) in any given day in the middle of nowhere, taking photos and recording behavioural observations (collecting data).Identifying each wild dog at an individual level is very important because it gives us the necessary information on which individual dog is present and,importantly, who is missing. Information like who is dominant, who is hanging out with who, who is scent marking and where, and who is doing most of the hunting, are all important to record and are part of what it takes to monitor the success (or failure) of a pack. All this requires us having the necessary tools, skills and equipment to keep up-to-date with the unusual work required of a wildlife researcher. These include a camera, GPS, tracking gear, note book,pen, android data logging device and a reasonably reliable 4x4 vehicle among other things.

Sometimes, only sometimes, the packs we need to find make the work easy by resting in the open, like in this photo. Most of the time locating them requires driving off road ('bush bashing') through mopane and scrub. The work is difficult but the rewards are usually worth it.

Going out in the field requires a lot of concentration because, first of all, the roads are not marked. There are no road signs (you can miss where you are going) and some roads are not even recorded in the GPS, so getting lost is easy! This requires us to have a good knowledge of all the roads in the study area as well as being able to use a GPS. The second challenge is that wild dogs, unlike lions, often choose areas to rest where it is very hard, if not impossible, to access easily. In this instance, patience is required if you have any hope of having a good day or you will be left with a red face, literally speaking. Next, here in the bush you have to be a capable and confident driver or else you are going to break all the records of being stuck in the bush more than anyone - ever!  It has happened to me a couple of times,whether getting stuck in the sand or falling in a hole, believe me, the end result is the same (it means a very long and very bad day). To be a good driver takes a lot of practice and patience: as we all know, Rome was not built in a day. The pressure to be a good driver is very real out here because there is a very thin line between a good day and bad day: it only takes one wrong move as a driver and your day will be done. Add to this, you always have to be on the lookout for uninvited guests particularly elephants, hippos and sometimes buffalo on the way to do the job.

Being a research assistant you become a Jack-of-all-trades because among the important skills needed,you have to become a reasonably capable mechanic. All the driving on bad roads and off road in thick mopane areas following dogs, it’s a only a matter of time before the vehicle has some break down. Being able to sort out such minor problems, not only means you can get home but you also end up being a bush mechanic because of all the experience gained. Every time you break down, you figure out how to fix it in order to carry on. Most of the time it’s not a serious problem and we can fix it in the field, but on occasions with more serious break downs, the camp mechanic must come to your rescue, - that is if you are lucky enough to be in radio range to call camp. If you are too far away you just brace yourself for a long night in the middle of no-where and wait for the research team to send out a search party.

Despite all these challenges we go through, trust me, there is absolutely nothing that beats the feeling when you find the wild dogs you are looking for and especially when they are at their den with little pups. For me, it is the greatest feeling ever. I go to bed in my tent at night feeling like a king and wake up in the morning a researcher again, ready for the next challenge. All what we do and go through every day is not in vain, it is for the benefit of the animals that we study:our efforts contribute to wildlife conservation and human-wildlife conflict solutions in our country. Until next time, Cheers from Dog Camp!