Kruger National Park – Big Cat Research Project – BLOG



A herd of impala near the Kruger gate.

A herd of impala near the Kruger gate.

After a very long flight across the Atlantic, the members of the Big Cat Research Project group met at Johannesburg airport in South Africa. All eight of us piled into the van for the long drive to Kruger National Park, one of the top wildlife viewing parks in the world, in search of lions, leopards, and cheetahs in their natural habitats. We drove out of the city and through impoverished working villages, past coal mines and vast acreage of clear-cut forests. At the day’s end we arrived at the park, greeted at the gate by our first sighting of an impala herd. On the short drive to our first campsite, we spotted two white rhinos at a water hole, a thrilling sight for many of us who had never visited the park. We arrived at camp, set up our tents and ate a quick dinner.
As the group settles into their sleeping bags, the eery sound of hyenas calling echos in the bush outside the camp boundaries. We’re looking forward to what lies ahead for tomorrow. We’ll be leaving camp at 6am tomorrow to be the first car on the road to ensure we get the best sightings.


Male leopard sighted on park road

Male leopard sighted on park road

Today was our first full day in Kruger Park for Trip #2 of the Big Cat Research Project. We had an unprecedented total of five leopard sightings for the day, which was a record for us. The day began bright and early, leaving the camp gate at 6am, and we had our first sighting only twenty minutes later of a mature adult male leopard, between the ages of 7 and 10 years old. He was very relaxed, walking parallel the dirt road and marking his territory. It was the first time most of our group had seen a leopard in the wild, and it was thrilling to say the least. This male was so confident that he was not frightened of our van at all, and we were able to watch him for a solid twenty minutes before he disappeared into the bush. Then on our drive back to camp, we observed another leopard, a female, only briefly before she prowled off into the bush. We were also able to see an adult male elephant, some klipsringer, and many impala, all before breakfast. After breaking down camp, enjoying a leisurely breakfast and a lesson from Kathy about recording data about sighted cats, we all got back into the van and headed to our second campsite, further north in the park. During our drive to the next camp we had many exciting sightings of animals including elephants, rhinoceri, impala, kudu, klipsringer, and our third leopard for the day – an adult female. We came upon her as she was sunning herself on a rock, lazily scanning the bush. There is something so powerful about being in the presence of these cats; they are distinctly intelligent and possess such a strong sense of self confidence, characteristic of any apex predator. After reaching our second campsite and having lunch, we set out again in seach of more cats. Again we were graced with the presence of yet another leopard, this time at a distance across a river. We took notes and gathered what data we could, which is difficult to do when observing a cat from such a distance. It is so fascinating and very humbling to witness these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat. There is so much we humans have to learn from observing the behavior of big cats as well as all other animals in the wild. Although as humans we use our minds to think critically, form ideas about ourselves and our existence, and develop complex emotional lives, we are not so different from wild animals. Underneath our human nature, we are still driven by the same instincts, the same drives to protect ourselves, find food, water, and shelter, and to reproduce. A thought-provoking conclusion.

Kathy explaining the photo catalog of big cats.

Kathy explaining the photo catalog of big cats.

Our final leopard sighting of the day was an adult male, again stalking the area along the road, unphased by the presence of our van. It was an excellent time for photo opportunities and observing this gorgeous big cat, who was most likely looking for his next meal.
Our day concluded with dinner and a sharing circle as well as comparing photos from the day to the photos in the catalog. We’re all feeling so lucky for today’s record sightings and very much looking forward to an early day tomorrow for hopefully more big cat sightings!

A male cheetah on the move

A male cheetah on the move

It was another satisfying day full of exciting sightings for our group here at Kruger Park. 20 minutes into our morning drive we came across two male cheetahs about 30 meters away from our van. It was a brief sighting but a thrilling one nonetheless. We watched for a few moments as they stood together on a ridge scanning the bush before they dropped out of sight. We were able to note from our brief observation that they had a feeding scale of 9, which means they had recently eaten and were spending the day resting before heading out again. Cheetahs normally make a kill about every four or five days, as it means expending a massive amount of energy to do so. Cheetahs are the fastest land animal in the world, capable of traveling at top speeds of around 70mph.

Two bull elephants at a stand off.

Two bull elephants at a stand off.

Our second sighting of the morning was a pair of bull elephants at a standoff. We came across them both displaying aggressive behavior and watched as their displays escalated into a full on fight! (Insert photo) They clashed their tusks and trunks together for a few minutes and then both attempted to rip a small tree out of the ground, in an attempt to prove dominance. The larger of the two ended up being the winner of the fight and the smaller elephant walked off down the road defensively. After making sure it was safe to pass we proceeded down the park road and eventually came across a pair of sleeping male lions, making a total of 9 cat sightings for the first two days of the trip! We observed them for about a half an hour as they lazed in the bushes, picking their heads up periodically to scan their surroundings. You cannot imagine the sheer size of these animals if you have not seen them in real life. Not only are they physically enormous, but they have such a big and masculine presence about them. It is clear to see why they are a universal symbol of courage and strength.
Other sightings for the day included families of elephants, zebras, wildebeest, jackals, hyenas, a slender mongoose, hippos, wire-tail swallows, and quite a few lilac-breasted rollers.
It is just past 7pm and hippos can be heard calling nearby. In a few minutes our group will head out for a night drive, conducted by the park staff. We are all looking forward to seeing some nocturnal animals and maybe some familiar diurnal ones as well.


Our night drive provided an interesting look at nocturnal African wildlife. We were able to see many hippos, two civettes, and one solitary lionness.

Kruger park rod with evidence of burned bush on either side.

Kruger park rod with evidence of burned bush on either side.

We exited the gate early this morning at five minutes before 6am. Each morning Colin is the first person awake in the whole camp, at 4:30am, to be sure that we are the first car in line when the gate opens. Being the first car out means that we have a greater chance of getting excellent sightings, as at that early our it is still dark and the animals are in nighttime mode. During the hours before lunch we drove through an area of the park that had been intentionally set to burn by the park staff. This is a process that is facilitated regularly here in the park. Fire is an essential component of the bushveld ecosystem here in South Africa as well as in many other parts of the world. Not only does it help to keep invasive species at bay, it also helps certain plants that depend on the fire for regrowth and seed germination. Also notable is the beauty of the plains as it is going up in smoke. Plumes of smoke scatter the horizon and the ground is charred black, with fire flickering here and there, and a faint sound of crackling plant matter in the background. Flying insects can be seen fleeing the scene by the thousands, and hungry birds arrive for an easy meal. Driving through the fire, we happened upon a lone impala, standing amidst the smoldering trees. The contrast of its bright sandy coat against the blackened plant matter was a stunning sight and an it made for an excellent photo opportunity. (Insert photo) After snapping plenty of photos we carried on down the road, making our way through extremely thick smoke at one point before we came into the clear.

Lioness at a water hole.

Lioness at a water hole.

In the late morning hours we spotted two lionnesses, and got a quick glimpse of one with two cubs as they were playfully jumping onto her back. Before we knew it they disappeared into the bush and we continued on to a nearby water hole to see if we could spot them again. After a couple of hours we saw no lions, but we did see two bull elephants, two white rhinos, several warthogs, and a herd of impala displaying some interesting social behavior.
After a leisurely lunch we set out driving and again came upon two lionnesses, sitting very low and still in the grass, barely visible. We sat quietly with them for a long time and were able to observe an exciting interaction between them and a massive bull elephant. The bull crossed the road in front of us, approaching the lionesses who were hidden in the grass. At the last second the lionesses jumped up and out of the elephant’s way, as he let out a loud trumpet. It is such a privilege to observe the dance of animal behavior in their natural habitat. Unfortunately not all visitors to Kruger Park are conscious of the fact that we are visitors here, and that we need to remain as quiet and unassuming as possible, so as not to disturb the animals. Those of us lucky enough to be on a Global Classroom trip are made fully aware of how our presence affects the animals, and we always do our best not to disturb them.
In the evening our group enjoyed a healthful dinner and a spirited sharing circle, before we all headed off in our own directions and prepared to be up at the crack of dawn once again. Looking forward to what the next day will bring. We’re all hoping to witness a cheetah running at full speed, a leopard make a kill, and lions mating, to name a few.


Lilac-breasted roller in flight

Lilac-breasted roller in flight

The morning began with the usual search for lions, and other big cats that might be prowling the area. During the morning drive we stopped at a nearby hide to observe vervet monkeys and a few hippos languidly relaxing in the river, a large crocodile just a few meters away. After some time there we drove back to Lower Sabie camp, packed up our gear and moved to Skakuza, the “capital” camp of Kruger Park. After enjoying lunch and setting up our tents, we drove around in search of cats and wild dogs. Just before 5pm we came upon a leopard resting on a rock. Although it was a bit far away, we were able to get photos of the left side of its face and were able to identify the cat as a male, L49 in our catalog, who had been seen two years prior. It is always exciting to resight a cat as it gives us a better understanding of their territories, how they move throughout the park, interactions and pressures from other cats, mating behavior, prey availability, etc. All in all a great day in Kruger.


Breeding herd of elephants

Breeding herd of elephants

This morning began with a brief sighting of a large male lion crossing the road and the backside of a hyena, however we weren’t able to get a prolonged observation of either animal. After fending off vervet monkeys who were vying for our food during lunch at a scenic area, we proceeded on our drive in search of big cats. While waiting for several minutes at a water hole, we were lucky enough to observe a breeding herd of elephants bathing each other and drinking. Breeding herds are made up of related adult and sub adult females and their young. Male elephants are sent away from the group at adolescence as the matriarchs do not stand for their mischevious behavior. Watching them playfully and at times forcefully interacting with each other was truly amazing.

Hyena pups outside their den

Hyena pups outside their den

In the late afternoon we came upon a female hyena with four young cubs near their den. They were relaxed enough to be comforable with our vehicle and we were able to observe them for a about 45 minutes. We watched her regurgitate some bones for the young pups who yipped at her excitedly all the while. Hyenas are the only animal who can fully digest bones. At one point during our observation a male pack member visited the female and pups briefly, making sure to mark the territory before leaving again.
Although the day was not so fruitful as far as cat sightings go, we felt lucky to see what we did. After dinner we had our group sharing circle and touched on some profound and personal topics, as is often the case on our trips. Another fantastic day in the African bush.


This morning some members of our group awoke well before the sunrise to the primal, beautiful sounds of male lions calling to each other near our camp. It certainly beats waking up to an abrasive alarm clock! About an hour into our morning drive Colin put the brakes on in the Synchro and we looked to our right where we could see four female lions about 50 meters into the bush. We were able to see two of them crossing the road behind the van before they disappeared. In the distance, the calls of male members of the pride could be heard amidst the sounds of a nearby male hyena crunching on impala bones. It makes for profound moments when everyone is still inside the van and the subtle sounds of the bush can be heard; the breeze weaving through the thicket, bird calls and insects, and the rustling of unseen creatures.

Honey Badger

Honey Badger

Other sightings for the day included a juvenile dark chanting goshawk, who was very calm and allowed us to observe him for several minutes, as well as the elusive honey badger


Our group rose this morning extra early, at 4:30am to make it in time for our guided bush walk. We walked to our meeting place guided by shooting stars and boarded the game truck that drove us to our walk. Our guides were two friendly South African men who are some of the park’s resident experts on all of the wildlife that exists within its boundaries. During our walk through the bush we quickly encountered an adult female elephant and a juvenile, as well as two rhinos in the distance. Via the instruction of our knowledgeable guides, we stayed downwind of them and watched from a distance. A few minutes later we came across a very large bull elephant nearby, who was probably joining up with the breeding herd for mating purposes. Our guides were very careful about where they positioned our group, so as to remain undetected by this potentially dangerous bull. We took a short break in a dry riverbed and enjoyed the sounds and scenery before heading back to the truck. After spending so much time in our van, it was refreshing to walk out in the open and really get a feel for the environment we’ve been studying.

Kruger bush guides showing out group the remainder of a lion kill

Kruger bush guides showing out group the remainder of a lion kill

Once back at Skakuza we packed up camp and set out on the drive 90km north to Satara camp. This drive provided an interesting look at the changing landscape throughout the park; from dense growths of bushes and trees to more sparsely wooded grassland. About 6km from Satara, we sighted a group of five male lions (also known as a bachelor group) with a recent kill. We observed them for about an hour and recorded notes about their behavior, noting which lion seemed to be the dominant alpha and which ones were suboordinate. They gaurded their buffalo carcass as vultures and jackals began to surround, waiting for their chance to steal a snack.

We broke for lunch, set up our new campsite then returned to the site to observe further and record more notes. We watched the bachelor group laze with full bellies in the sun. Then we observed one of the males rise from his resting place, stride over to the carcass and gnaw on it for several minutes.
After a satisfying day, we drove back to camp with the sunset and settled in for dinner and downtime. We’re looking forward to getting up early again to see what transpired with the lions and their kill overnight.


Male lion guarding a cape buffalo carcass

Male lion guarding a cape buffalo carcass

This morning we were the first in a line of about 30 cars who were waiting to observe the male lions on their kill. We arrived and parked right in front of what remained of the carcass, the three big male lions lying nearby. We watched them feed on it for a while before they eventually perked up their ears and ran in the other direction, apparently hearing the call of the rest of the pride. Next we watched as a hoard of white-hooded vultures and two jackals immediately descended, viciously pecking at the carcass. Next to arrive was a group of five hyenas, and the vultures immediately took off upon seeing them approaching. We observed the hyenas decimating the carcass for about an hour and a half, with plenty of opportunity for taking exellent photos. After the hyenas had had their fill, we left the scene and drove to a picnic site for lunch, then stopped at a nearby hide. There we saw some interesting avians and crocodiles, and enjoyed the stillness of the river. Making our way back to camp we sighted two adolescent male giraffes play-fighting, as well as a zebra herd with young, some wildebeest, and a few waterbuck. To top it off, an exquisite sunset made for many excellent photo opportunities.
Now back at camp, we are settling in and recounting stories from the day as we prepare for another amazing day in Kruger.


Female cheetah crossing park road

Female cheetah crossing park road

Driving through thick fog around 6:30am, we had the fortuitous sighting of an adult female cheetah. We first saw her as she was slowly walking along the park road, possibly searching for prey. We observed her for two hours as she prowled through the grass, at times pausing for a while at higher elevations in order to scan her surroundings. Such a lengthy observation really allowed our group to see how a cheetah behaves during a good portion of its day. After she finally disappeared into the grass, we headed back to camp headquarters where we obtained a day permit for the Mananga Adventure trail, which is open to those who want to have a more private wilderness experience. We spent the majority of the day on a private and very bumpy drive, encountering a huge herd of buffalo with lots of calves. We also saw quite a few fresh lion tracks but unfortunately no lions. Then at the very end of the day we had a leopard sighting. Although it was quite far away, we were able to observe with binoculars as it rested up high in a tree. A wonderful day in the park followed by yet another stunning sunset.

African Wild Dogs - Lycoan Pictus - Harnas Wildlife Foundation

Namibia Research Project BLOG – Part 1

Tuesday (7/22/14) began the first day of The Global Classroom’s 2014 Wild Dog and Cheetah Research Project, located at Harnas Wildlife Foundation in eastern central Namibia. Staff members picked up our group of jetlagged students at Johannesburg International Airport and we were off in the van to begin the journey across South Africa, through Botswana, and into Namibia. It is roughly a two-day trip across a mostly barren landscape, with some intermittent towns and farming villages in between. After a little while our students grew accustomed to riding on the left side of the road (a bit of a feat for us Americans) and were able to take notice of the brand new environment outside the window. We saw some of our first wildlife sightings for the trip; a few antelopes and ostriches. We also passed the Magaliesberg mountain range, which is home to the oldest rocks on the planet, at around 300 million years old. The area is also home to some of the oldest findings of hominids, at about 2 million years old.

Aerial view of Magaliesberg rock

Aerial view of Magaliesberg rock

After entering into Botswana in the early afternoon, we drove for several more hours and eventually arrived at our campsite for the night, in a town called Kang. In the morning we awoke early and packed up camp, anxious to begin the drive for the day and to reach our destination at Harnas. After driving a long way through the Kalahari Desert, we reached the town of Ghanzi in mid afternoon and set up camp there. Our group had some down time and a much needed rest and in the morning we set out again towards Namibia. We reached the border mid morning and then drove towards Gobabis, (the town nearest to Harnas at 90 kilometers away) to stock up on food and supplies. Next we began the final stretch towards Harnas, where our student groups stay for one month each (staff members into the month of October) to conduct crucial research on rescued African wild dogs and cheetahs.


The Combi under the Namibian night sky

We finally arrived at the Harnas gates at around 3pm. Once we signed in and entered the gates, we all felt very excited to be at this special place. Colin (Global Classroom president and founder) remarked at how good it felt to be back on the property once again as we made our way along the 12 km long driveway, which passes through the soft release area for rehabilitated wildlife, known as the Lifeline. We kept our eyes peeled for any signs of cheetahs and other creatures as we neared the main farm. Harnas is not only a wildlife refuge and rehabilitation facility, but it is also a place people can visit to learn about African wildlife, and to interact with the animals. Harnas also hosts hundreds of volunteers from all over the world each year to assist with care, feeding, and research. At the main farm we said hello to some staff members in the office, as well as an assortment of animals from house cats and dogs, to baboons, ostriches, and mongoose. From there we took a tour of the main farm which includes several different animals enclosures, and got to see our first pair of wild dogs, a sub-adult rescued cheetah, vervet moneys, and caracals, among others.harnas

After the initial tour we got back in the van and drove roughly 10 km to Damhouse, the research lodge reserved for our group. Damhouse is located centrally within the soft-release area known as the Lifeline, with a tall fence surrounding it to ensure our safety. Damhouse earned its name from the fact that the cylindrical concrete house was once a water holding tank used to supply the nearby water hole. Now it is a fully-equipped, solar-powered lodge with 5 beds, full bathroom, kitchen and dining area. It also has a flat roof which is a perfect space for holding meetings, observing activity at the water hole, and star-gazing beyond compare. Weary from all of the travel, our group claimed their beds, unpacked their bags and settled in for the night. We had a healthy dinner and our nightly sharing circle before heading off to bed, anxiously awaiting what the next day would bring.


The very first morning we awoke at Damhouse, we were greeted with an unexpected visitor. Before coming to Namibia, may of us had heard stories about Pride, a cheetah who was orphaned as a cub and hand-raised by humans. As we finished up breakfast, a few of us ventured outside and were thrilled to see her walking towards us from the waterhole. Some of us knew before coming to Harnas that we may have the chance to interact with some of the resident animals, including a few of the cats. Pride is very unique in that she is the only cheetah at Harnas who is affectionate towards humans, even though some of the others were hand-raised by humans as well. Our whole group piled outside to see Pride coming to greet us, and as she came nearer we could hear her purring loudly. Colin was the first to greet her. He crouched down and waited for her to approach him, making sure to behave in a non-threatening way. The group watched in awe as she came up to him and rubbed her face and neck against his, purring the whole time. Then she sat down in front of Colin to be petted. Our group was eager to say hello too, so Colin and the research staff let us know it was ok, and we all crouched down and waited for her to approach us, while speaking is soft tones. Colin advised us that like house cats, big cats can be easily overstimulated by loud noise or excessive touch, so it is important to treat them with gentleness and respect. Amazingly, Pride approached each member of our group and greeted us in the same affectionate way, even though it was her first time meeting most of us. We spent the entire morning interacting with her, and she was more than happy to be with us. Meeting Pride for the first time was a truly incredible, humbling experience that cannot be fully put into words.


Pride coming to say hello

Later that day Colin gave our group a lesson about how to use telemetry, a system that corresponds with radio tracking collars that have been placed on each cheetah in the Lifeline – Pride, Max and Mauritz. Using our new skills, we were able to track Pride a few hundred meters away, laying in the shade during the heat of the day. We said hello to her again quickly and then left her to rest as we made our way to the nearby water hole for a lesson about tracking animals in the Lifeline. There we made note of the varying antelope species that had been there to drink recently, including kudu, wildebeest, and springbok. We learned how to identify them not only by their unique tracks but also by scat left behind. After watching a spectacular African sunset, enjoying dinner and a sharing circle, we went to bed, looking forward to the day ahead.

We rose early the next morning, had breakfast and set out into the bush for a lesson from Colin. Before we left, we were each issued survival kits equipped with a lighter and compass and whistle, if we were to ever find ourselves lost in the bush. Next Colin explained that in the bush, it is very difficult to maintain a sense of direction, and instructed us to put blindfolds on and spread out in an open area. He walked about 100 meters ahead and told us to try our best to follow his voice. When he said “Stop!” we all took off our blindfolds, looked around, and laughed at ourselves. We were all quite sure that we were headed in the right direction, but most of us were way off, and none of us came within 10 meters of where Colin stood. It was a great demonstration of the fact that if we ever found ourselves lost, we would need to rely on methods other than our own sense of direction to navigate. Next Colin explained how to gauge direction based on the location of the sun, and how to make a basic sun dial. Valuable skills for everyday life as well as for survival situations.

In the afternoon we broke for lunch and headed to the main farm for a while to meet with Harnas staff and spend some time with the animals there. All in all a very eye-opening day. The next morning we headed into the bush again to learn more survival and tracking skills. On the way we identified many animal tracks including jackal, hyena, scrub hare, cheetah, and a few species of ground birds. Once in thick bush, Colin taught us how to safely make a fire, which will provide us with warmth and safety if we ever find ourselves out in the bush overnight. He also gave the group a lesson about identifying edible plants. After learning these knew skills, we all agreed we felt much more confident about surviving in the bush.

Gabana - male leopard

Gabana – male leopard

In the afternoon we used telemetry to track Pride again, and we came upon her a few kilometers away with a fresh springbok kill. She was pleased to see us, as indicated by her incessant purring, but was not deterred by our presence from tearing into the kill. It was an excellent opportunity for getting footage and photos, and a truly rare experience for our group. That afternoon we also got to meet Gabana, a large male leopard who lives in a nearby enclosure, bordering the Lifeline. He greeted us at the fence and we observed him for several minutes before heading back to Damhouse for dinner and our daily sharing circle.


Pride on a springbok kill

On Monday (7/28/14) we began our first observations of a pack of five African wild dogs. The alpha male and female had produced a litter of puppies within the enclosure, but nobody had actually seen them yet. Colin decided to create a camera set up on a remote control car in hopes of retrieving footage of the pups inside the den. While half of our group stayed outside the fence to toss meat to the dogs, the rest of us headed into the enclosure to locate the den. We were able to locate it quickly near the center of the enclosure, so Colin and one of our students got to work setting up the camera equipment. After about five minutes, they emerged safely, and we drove back to the farm to check the results.


Colin making adjustments on the remote car cam

Although there has never been a documented case of even an attack on humans from African wild dogs, they are known for being vicious and focused hunters. Each time we enter their enclosure we make sure that there is someone on the other side to distract them with meat, and we always bring radios with us in case of an emergency.
African wild dogs are unique in that they live, breed, and hunt based on a complex social hierarchy based on submission. Within each pack there is an alpha male and female, as well as a beta pair. The alpha pair has ultimate breeding rights over all other members of the group, although they will sometimes permit the beta pair and others to breed. Their hierarchy is largely based on submission rather than dominance, as is noticeable during active points of their day; during feeding and various social interactions. In the wild, wild dogs will pursue prey over long distances. They are capable of running at speeds of up to 60/km per hour, for up to one hour. The pack works together to tire out their prey and make the kill. They have a hunting success rate of 80% which is the highest of all carnivores in the world.


Feeding the wild dogs fresh meat

This year at Harnas, researchers are working towards forming a new pack of wild dogs out of the few existing packs, in the hope that they will eventually be released either here in the Lifeline, or in a nearby national park, like Etosha or Kruger. Wild dog populations are dwindling at an astounding rate, and if we can begin to form new packs to be released, it will be a major step towards rebuilding the species. That is what The Global Classroom’s work here at Harnas is all about – identifying candidates for the formation of a new pack, capable of living on their own in the wild. We are conducting consistent research every day that aims to single out four or five wild dogs that would work well as a team without any instances of violence. The idea of forming a new pack is uncharted territory, and we hope that our work will help to pave the way for future researchers who wish to do the same.


Back at the farm, we discovered that our first attempt at capturing the pups on film was unsuccessful. The remote car was a bit too large to fit inside the den, which we discovered was about 7 meters long and very narrow at the end. For the remainder of the day we had a bit of downtime and discussed the game plan for the days to come.


To be continued…


Namibia Research Project BLOG – Part 2



On Tuesday (7/29/14) we headed back to the wild dog enclosure to give the puppy cam another shot. Once again armed with a supply of meat to distract the dogs, half the group headed in towards the den. With the GoPro camera attached to a long metal rod, Colin knelt down by the den and placed it inside as students kept a lookout. We again had about five minutes total in the enclosure, so we worked quickly and then made our way back to the farm to check out the results. This time we had some luck! The GoPro footage showed three indivual puppies inside the den, looking to be about three weeks old. A very exciting advancement for us in terms of our research, not to mention the fact that the pups are absolutely adorable!

Alpha female Alejandra outside the den

Alpha female Alejandra outside the den

With spirits soaring, we broke for lunch and made our way to another wild dog enclosure, which is home to eight dogs total – three adults and five juveniles, about six months old. This pack is an interesting one in that it is made up of an alpha pair, their five offspring, and one beta male. We have a special opportunity this year at Harnas to observe wild dog behavior at varying life stages, as we have very young pups, older juveniles, as well as adults. At six months, the pups in the pack of eight are just beginning to form a hierarchy of their own within their group, although most of it is just play. It is so fascinating to observe the way they’ve begun to playfully act out some of the more deliberate behaviors of submission and dominance that their adult counterparts do.

Six-month old African Wild Dog pups

Six-month old African Wild Dog pups


The next day we returned to the enclosure with the pack of five dogs to retrieve the game camera we had set up the day before. A few of us walked into the enclosure during feeding time, and as we approached we heard the yips of the pups. Through the trees we could see the alpha female with five healthy little puppies! We took extra care to remain silent and unobstrusive, and observed as the mother lay down for the pups to suckle. Though she definitely noticed our presence, she did not seem to mind us being there. We kept our distance and after a few minutes, quietly made our way back to the gate. For the rest of the day, we marveled at what an incredible experience we’d been gifted with. To have the chance to witness these young endangered pups sharing a special moment with their mother is something that only a handful of people in the world will ever get to see.

Alpha female Alejandra with her five pups

Alpha female Alejandra with her five pups


Over the next five days we observed the pack of eight during the early morning hours, in order to establish profiles of the five pups and the adults. It is important that we obtain our data during either the early morning or early evening, as wild dogs are crepuscular, meaning they are most active during those times. Each day that we observed these dogs, we became more and more familiar with the data sheets we’ll be working with during our time here. Every student is provided with ‘activity budget’ sheets, to record daily activities (i.e. resting, feeding, playing) as well as sheets to record social interactions, scent marking, reactions to surrounding elements, etc. To the unfamiliar onlooker, these behaviors may seem insignificant, but over time we’ll be able to use this information to determine hierarchy and other interesting trends within the pack. It is a unique opportunity for us to be able to observe wild dogs in this way, as in the wild they are very elusive.

Our five days of research produced valuable data about the behavior of the pups, and was an ideal opportunity to practice for observing the much larger pack of eighteen we would be working with next. Since the pack of eight has young offspring and an aggressive alpha male, at this point they are not a good fit for creating a new pack to be released in the Lifeline. However they may be potential candidates for release in a national park. In any case, the data we collected is valuable for future researchers as well as Harnas staff. Because there are so few African wild dogs left on the planet, there is a high likelihood for inbreeding, thus increasing the chance of disease, miscarriage, and generally ill health. Keeping a record of their genetic lineage will help us to do what we can to diversify and strengthen the gene pool.

During the first week of August, we finished up our observations on the juvenile wild dogs and created a series of charts demonstrating the information we collected from our five days with them. On Tuesday (8/5/14) our group gave a presentation to a tourist group about our findings as well as general information about wild dog behavior. Having the chance to talk to this group was valuable for us because it allowed us to share the work we’ve accomplished so far and receive positive feedback. It is important for us to share our work with others whenever possible so that we can enlighten people to the plight of the wild dogs as a species and gain support for our project.

On Monday afternoon (8/4/14) Colin gave us a workshop about stalking techniques to be used while walking in the bush. Stalking in a wilderness environment involves moving in a way that enables you to blend in with your surroundings. These techniques are important for us to use during our observations and anytime we are in the Lifeline to ensure that we get accurate data, and out of respect for the animals.

Colin demonstrating stalking and tracking techniques in the bush

Colin demonstrating stalking and tracking techniques in the bush

On Wednesday (8/6/14) we returned to enclosure where the pack of five lives with their new pups to collect the game camera we had set up a week earlier. We reviewed the camera and found tons of photos of the adult dogs and pups, giving us a bit of insight into their daily (and nightly) activities. Interestingly, the photos showed that the dogs are fairly active during the nighttime. Later in the day we had a meeting with the general manager of Harnas to discuss options for conducting research with the wild dogs. We visited each enclosure to talk a bit about the history of the animals and to discuss possible options for creating a new pack. We ruled out the pack of eight right away as they have five dogs that are too young to be considered adults. Then we made our way to the large enclosure that houses Harnas’ largest wild dog pack, at eighteen dogs. We resolved to spend the majority of our time observing the pack of eighteen as it has the highest number of dogs that would be good candidates for release.

Colin collecting a game camera outside the den

Colin collecting a game camera outside the den


To be continued…

Damhouse in early evening light

Namibia Research Project BLOG – Part 3

On 8/7/14 we joined another member of Harnas staff to track a wild cheetah and cubs that had been spotted on the property a few days earlier. Early into our search we spotted clear cheetah tracks along the dirt road – a mother with three cubs, looking to be about three to five months old. After confirming their presence inside Harnas that morning, it was decided that humane traps would be set for them, in order to hopefully catch and release them into the Lifeline, where they would be safe from nearby farmers.

A female rescue cheetah

A female rescue cheetah

An example of a fresh cheetah track - notice the three lobes, characteristic of a cat track. Cheetah tracks are more elongated and "daintier"than a leopard or lion track.

An example of a fresh cheetah track – notice the three lobes, characteristic of a cat track. Cheetah tracks are more elongated and “daintier”than a leopard or lion track.

On Friday (8/8/14) we began the arduous task of creating a detailed profile for each dog in the pack of eighteen. What made this so difficult is the fact that the dogs in this pack are all very similar in appearance, the majority of them having almost completely blonde coats, with few distinguishing features. Despite this challenge, over the course of twelve days of research we were able to create a detailed profile for each dog, including photos of the left and right side of the body, as well as a description of their behavior. We also gave each dog a name, and after only a few days of observations, our group was able to identify almost all of the dogs in the pack by sight.

The "Platform Pack" feeding on a carcass. Higher ranking dogs have more feeding privileges than their subordinates.

The “Platform Pack” feeding on a carcass. Higher ranking dogs have more feeding privileges than their subordinates.

From the beginning of our time spent with the pack of eighteen, we were intrigued by their high levels of energy and activity, which was quite different from what we had seen with the other packs. We quickly caught on to their daily patterns in terms of where the group chose to congregate within the enclosure, and were able to identify the alpha pair and get a good sense of which dogs are higher ranking. We determined this by carefully watching which dogs interacted most often with the alpha pair, making note of who they allowed to feed and rest near them. It became apparent which dogs were of low rank, as they did not even make attempts to interact with the alpha pair and many of the “insider” group. Despite being of low rank, they usually managed to get a portion of the meat doled out during feedings, often retreating into the bushes to eat without the risk of their share being stolen. Since the enclosure is so large, there were times when we could not observe their activity, as they were simply out of sight. However any instances in which a dog is out of sight during observations also provides valuable information as to the general activity and hierarchy of the group.

Wild dogs engaging in dominance behavior

Wild dogs engaging in dominance behavior

High energy/activity levels within a pack is usually indicative of an impending event such as a hunt, a shift in the hierarchy, the alpha female getting ready to give birth or is in estrous, and so on. Prior to events such as these, social activity within the pack increases greatly. Wild dogs will engage in rallying – a social custom usually initiated by the alpha female in which the dogs use a high-pitched twittering sound as well as other communicative gestures to “rally” the pack and heighten the energy level. The high levels of excitement and social activity prepare the pack for a hunt, and also enforce status within the group. Observing wild dogs rallying is a fascinating thing to watch; so much can be gathered from their displays of submission and dominance.

Platform pack rallying before feeding

Platform pack rallying before feeding

Wild dogs display submission and dominance in a number of ways. Often it is just a subtle glance, with the head slightly lowered to exert dominance; at other times it involves groveling, twittering or whining to show submission. The entire structure and movement of the pack is dictated by these power dynamics. Wild dogs also frequently display their dominance by scent-marking (either urinating or defecating). During times of high energy, the alpha male will always scent-mark over the alpha female, to demonstrate and assert his dominance to other males in the pack.

Wild dogs rallying before feeding

Heightened energy in the pack before feeding

Each morning that we conducted research, the pack’s energy level seemed to increase. Every day we observed more twittering, more rallying, and more expessions of submisson and dominance. For the most part the rallying we observed was centered around the alpha pair, who were more often than not lying down while their subordinates crowded around them. The alpha male (who we named Lennon) constantly followed the alpha female (Yoko) wherever she went, and would not leave her side for more than a few seconds at a time. At first we hypothesized that she may be pregnant, as we noted that her belly appeared swollen and that during feeding she always had the first pick. We also observed that Lennon seemed to guard her from other dogs and would even drop any meat he had for her to eat. If another male dared come near Yoko, Lennon lunged at them with his head down – an overt display of dominance. In this case his behavior acts to ensure that he remains the alpha male, and that any pups Yoko produces will be sired by him.

Finally on 8/15/14 at around 8:30am, all our days of research and hypothesizing came to a head. We observed Yoko and Lennon mating for a total of three minutes. However, no copulatory lock occurred, meaning that it was not successful. When a copulatory lock takes place during mating, the penis actually swells, effectively binding the pair together to ensure a successful mate. On this day the activity of the group seemed to be at a climax, with many displays of submission and dominance between dogs of higher rank. The following days we also observed the alpha pair mating a number of times. We never observed a copulatory lock, however this could have occurred out of our range of vision or during a time we were not present at the enclosure. Pack energy levels remained high during the time that Yoko was in estrous, which lasted for a total of four days. On Wednesday (8/20/14) we returned to the enclosure in the morning and observed a marked difference in the behavior of the pack as a whole. Lennon was not quite as concerned with following Yoko as he had been during the days prior, and other dogs rested quietly. We concluded that Yoko was no longer in estrous.

Since female wild dogs come into estrous only once per year, it is easy to see why there would be a noticeable difference in behavior during this short period of time. In most packs, the alpha female will produce one litter of pups per year, the beta female being permitted to reproduce on occasion as well. Gestation lasts approximately 70 days and the female raises the pups inside an underground den, usually made out of an unoccupied warthog hole. Interestingly, when the alpha female is preparing to give birth, other females in the pack will begin to lactate, even if they have never produced a litter. In the wild, the alpha female often initiates hunting, so when she leaves, other females will act as a babysitter for her pups.

As the research period for the first group of students comes to a close, our work so far illustrates distinct hierarchy within the pack of eighteen. We are still speculating about who the beta pair may be, though we have some educated guesses. At this point we have identified each dog in the pack and compiled detailed profiles into a guide for future student groups to use. When our second student group arrives we will continue our research with the pack of eighteen in our effort to determine candidates for the formation of a new pack.

The last night of the first group’s trip provided a time for reflection and a cathartic sharing circle. The following morning the group left bright and early for the long drive to the airport in Windhoek, and that evening our second student group arrived at Damhouse.

Sunset view from Damhouse

Sunset view from Damhouse

Stay tuned for an analytical summary of the data we collected during our time at Harnas!



Epiphytes growing on a branch in the Aula Global reserve.

Plant Life in the Cloud Forest – Costa RIca

In the Costa Rican cloud forest, where dense cloud cover maintains a humid environment much of the time, one can find a great diversity of plant life. Epiphytic plant life grows here in multitudes, mostly in the forest canopy. Epiphytes are plants which use a host tree for support. Epiphytes are not parasitic to their host tree, but rather obtain nutrients from surrounding water and air, and energy from the sun. Studies have shown that epiphytes affect the cloud forest ecosystem as a whole by their ability to absorb and retain atmospheric nutrients from particles in rain, mist, and dust. They effectively filter out mineral nutrients and incorporate them into their living tissues, with the help of their vast root systems. Eventually nutrients are transferred to other areas of the surrounding ecosystem via herbivores, liter-fall, and through their host’s root system. Epiphytic plants distribute a large percentage of nutrients necessary for cloud forest life. This is essential during dry periods in the cloud forest, when nutrients are not available through rainfall. Aside from their contribution to nutrient uptake of the surrounding ecosystem, epiphytes have been cited as an important force in cloud forest dynamics, influencing forest systems and population variations. Heavy quantities of epiphytes on a host tree can cause an increase in tree and branch falls, resulting in light gaps that provide open areas for germination and new seedlings. The epiphytic ecosystem includes a wide variety animal and insect life, some of which depend solely on epiphytes for food. Each epiphyte contains a micro-ecosystem, in which there can be a food web of arthropods and other animals. When insects die within the ecosystem, they help to supply the epiphytes with nutrients and minerals.

One example of an epiphyte with the ability to host a micro-ecosystem is the bromeliad. Bromeliads have stiff, upturned leaves, which create a cup and can collect rainwater. Some have been found to hold up to two gallons of water when full, supplying a constant source of nutrients to sustain life. The pool of water is important to many species within the micro-ecosystem, such as frogs, mosquitoes, salamanders, snails, crabs, flat worms, and insects. This habitat for small reptiles and insects in turn provides a food source for surrounding birds. There are an estimated 15,500 species of epiphytes and they account for 33% of plant species, with more still to be discovered.  Epiphytic trees can be seen growing on other trees, and it can be difficult to discern different types of foliage supported by a single trunk. In the cloud forest even cycads may occur as epiphytes. Cycads are seed plants typically characterized by a stout and woody trunk with a crown of large evergreen leaves, and include several species of palm trees. There are many orchids, ferns, bromeliads, and woody epiphytes as well. Pleurothallids (can be terrestrial or epiphytic, often with very small and unusual flowers) and other orchids that have little nutrient storing tissue occur here in multitudes as well. Though most epiphytes live close to the canopy, some can be seen growing on tree trunks or vines where there is enough light.




Students navigating through the mangroves

Mangrove Conservation – Baja, Mexico

Magdelena Bay lies on the Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula, near the southernmost point.

Magdelena Bay lies on the Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula, near the southernmost point.

The Global Classroom conducts a yearly in-depth study of mangrove forests located at Magdelena Bay in Baja, Mexico. The study is open to volunteers who are wishing to gain unique field experience in some of the most pristine mangrove forests left on earth.  The goal of this project is to photo document and identify all wildlife found within the mangroves and the surrounding area over a three year period, creating a baseline of data for future scientific and conservation projects. Using GPS systems, the density and distribution of each individual sighting will be added to a catalog of all species encountered over the research period.  Using sea kayaks to navigate the dense labyrinth of mangrove forests, participants will collect samples, note climate and water conditions, and photograph or film the insects, birds, reptiles, mollusks and mammals that use the dense vegetation for food and cover.

A student group enjoying a beautiful sunset on a deserted island

A student group enjoying a beautiful sunset on a deserted island

Participants will learn skills such as animal tracking techniques, GPS data collection, wildlife photography, desert and mangrove natural history, sea kayaking and other wilderness skills. Other activities for our volunteers in Baja may include assisting with blue whale research in the Sea of Cortez, plankton studies and preparing skeleton specimens for a local museum. Community outreach is a critical component of all our projects and participants may also enjoy a day making friends with the locals during a volunteering visit to a local school in a rural fishing village. Volunteers must be willing to share a tent with another volunteer, occasionally wade into deep mud, and participate in camp life such as cooking, cleaning and logistical chores.

Contact us for more information!




Big Cat Research Project – Kruger National Park



Participating in the Big Cat Research Project was one of the greatest experiences I have had yet.  I expected to learn about field research and get a feel for whether that was the direction in which I wanted my life to go, and I gained so much more than that.  Colin and Kathy have a wealth of information to share on big cats and every other species we encountered and are invaluable contacts to have for making future connections.  Kruger Park was all I expected and more, with a surprisingly high density of so many different species.  I learned so much about research in the field, African wildlife, and myself in just two weeks.  The worst part of the trip was getting on the plane to go home.

– Megan, 2013 Participant

This trip was incredible! I had always wanted to go to Africa and see how the animals interact with each other, because all I’d ever seen before had been in the zoo. I also didn’t expect to see so many cats. The way that Colin was able to find them was amazing. The daily life on the trip exceeded my expectations because each day was full, there was never a wasted moment. From driving around to dinner conversations, I learned a lot about the wildlife and cats, as well as about myself and my direction for the future. I am sure I am going to return to Africa.

– Anna, 2013 Participant

My experience in South Africa with Raven Adventures was hands down the most amazing experience I’ve ever had. Being up close and personal with some of Africa’s most awe inspiring animals was mind blowing. To be out in the wild and to see these animals in their natural state was sometimes overwhelming because I couldn’t believe I had waited so long to fulfill this dream. Roaming around Kruger is like being in another world where fancy clothes, fine jewelry and all material goods no longer exist or even matter. You just become so captivated by the beauty of the cats, the other animals, and the landscape that you sometimes forget that the outside world exists. It was an incredibly strange feeling to leave the park and see large infrastructures, plantations and all of industrial society again and this was the moment I realized just how gorgeous Kruger really was. I would give anything to return to the park to see the big cats, sunsets and sunrises again. It was an escape from the “real” world that opened my eyes to the beauties that still exist on this planet and it was an experience I will never forget.

–Lauren, 2011 Participant


The big cat research trip in Kruger National Park, South Africa was an informative, insightful and inspiring trip. Every day, Colin was teaching us information about lions, leopards and cheetahs, as well as the other animals we would come across on the road. We learned a lot about mating behaviors, courtship, hunting strategies, feeding techniques, tracking, and rivalries between the animals of Kruger. Unlike a typical class at a university, where you sit in a classroom for an hour at a time and go through a list of objectives, we learned on the road sporadically.

Nature inspired what we learned each day while we were out there. Not only was this trip very informative on the wildlife of South Africa, it was also an insightful experience. Being disconnected from the internet, cell phone, and facebook, I was able to think for myself without the influence of the media or others. Although in America, we may learn about the loss of the certain ecosystems, and endangerment of many species throughout the world, we never truly understand the detriment it will cause if we lose these ecosystems and species completely because we are not able to witness them with our own eyes. It is truly an “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon that can quickly turn into a tragic reality.This trip inspired me to learn more about conservation and the ecosystems and animals that are suffering.

Given that this adventure not only taught me a lot about wildlife and animal behavior, but it also inspired me to pursue my passions, I would definitely say this trip was a worthwhile experience. I would strongly recommend this trip to anyone who is interested in wildlife and traveling. I learned a lot about the big cats of South Africa, as well as numerous other animals, and I learned a lot about myself, which made this experience truly memorable. I hope to return to South Africa in the near future!

–Jen, 2011 Participant

Being a conservation biology major at SUNY ESF made me want to see conservation in action. My interest in photography and the want to apply it to this major was what made me come on this trip even more. It was a great experience waking up early and driving around all day in the park because it taught me how simply, yet difficult a task like photo cataloging could be. It was also nice that we had a chance to go on a night drive and a bush walk because it gave me some insight as to what I may want to do down the road. If anyone wants to travel out of the country to learn about the wildlife in Kruger National Park, or just want to see the sights, I would highly recommend that you go on this trip.

–2011 Participant

Cheetahs have always been my favorite animal. It took me a while to get enough money for a volunteer internship with the Cheetah Conservation Fund and when I finally decided the time was right, the deadline had passed. Then I heard about Colin’s trip to film and photograph lions, leopards, and cheetahs and I knew I couldn’t pass it up. I’ll admit I was losing hope when the first week passed and we still had yet to see a cheetah, although we had seen plenty of lions and leopards, even African wild dogs, not to mention every other bird and mammal imaginable!

Then one evening as we were heading back to camp for the night, I saw a glimpse of a cheetah in a small opening between thick bushes. Those 15 minutes with this gorgeous male cheetah and his beautiful mate who joined him later were the most incredible and moving minutes of the entire trip for me. It actually brought tears to my eyes and continues to do so every time I look back at my photos or the painting I did from a photo of the male cheetah. Although that was the last we saw of cheetahs on our trip, that was the spark I needed to know in my heart that cheetahs had to be a part of my life. It made the trip the greatest experience of my life and I will never forget the people who were there to experience it all with me.

–Deanna, 2010 Participant

My trip with Colin was honestly a life-changing experience, which is something I never expected from a two-week trip. I knew, before I went, that it would be a good experience, and that I’d probably have a good time, but I had no clue to what extent it would affect me.

It was difficult for me to get the money together for the trip; it was a constant struggle almost until the day I left to have the funds to go, and to pay for what I needed to on the trip. But I never doubted that I would be able to go; it was something that I knew, deep in my bones, would happen. And the struggle was more than worth it. I learned so much from that trip, about Africa, about the world, and about myself. The trip re-kindled my love of traveling, and instilled in me a desire to see all of the wild places of the earth. It reminded me why I go to [SUNY] ESF in the first place; because I love this planet and I want to protect the beautiful things that it gives us. Sometimes it can be easy to forget that, when you’re bogged down with homework and tests and work. The trip invigorated me in a way that I’d never expected, and it’s helped me keep my passion alive.Because of this trip, I’ve realized just how much I love field work, and actually getting out there and experiencing the world. It strengthened my conviction that nature is where I belong, and it’s given me the drive to do my best to see the rest of the world, no matter what it takes.

–Katherine, 2010 Participant


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