logo

Plumes of smoke rise and merge into the leaden sky / A man lies and dreams of green fields and rivers

- Pink Floyd

image

Travel

Mar 12, 2019

Field Notes: Tracking Big Cats – The Life of a Wildlife Field Researcher in South Africa

In a heartwarming tale, it might not have always been the adventure that was expected, but for these researchers, the rewards made all the hardship worth it.

WRITTEN BY

Kelsey Wellington

The tent was completely flooded. There was at least an inch of standing water that had not been absorbed by the ratty twin mattresses that lived permanently inside.

“Looks like it’s the Land Cruiser for the night,” I said to my field partner, a heavy sigh carrying my words away.

Ulysse groaned, knowing sitting upright in a car, cocooned in a sleeping bag, was a guarantee for a sleepless night.

The rain had been unrelenting for nearly a week, and Ulysse and I had spent each morning layering up in rain pants, raincoats, and heavy muck boots. We knew it was a futile effort, that our gear was not meant to withstand ten hours of assault. We returned to our field house at the end of each day soaked through, and our gear would barely dry out overnight before we had to do it all again.

Completely soaked through and muddy after another day of constant rain. Photo credit: Ulysse

Now, it was our turn to trade the field house for the field tent, which sat in a sandy copse along a high ridgeline. Large boulders surrounded the tent, guarding it against the strong winds that whipped through each night, but a dearth of trees left it otherwise unprotected.

We worked in shitty conditions and lived in even shittier conditions.

The rain had finally relented, but our sad excuse for a field “house” was left even more battered than it already was from two years spent in the exact same spot. The sun’s powerful rays had stripped away the weatherproofing on the tent’s walls long before I arrived in Namaqualand. The tent’s poles were wrapped in duct tape in various spots—reminders of the more powerful wind storms that not even the boulders could guard against. Two old, mouldy twin mattresses served as the only anchors inside the tent—beneath the ground’s sandy surface sat impenetrable granite that no stake could defeat.

Our campsite at T2.

And now, those anchors, saturated with a week’s worth of rain, were as heavy as the boulders that surrounded the tent. Between that and the strong winds that blew through each night, sleeping outside was not an option. We were in for a long night in the field car.

I kicked a small rock and watched it roll off the cliff’s edge and into the desert far below. “We might as well make dinner,” I said, making note of the sun that was slowly sinking behind the distant granite cliffs.

Ulysse, my coworker and close friend, who travelled from northern France to work on the project.

I heard Ulysse sigh behind me, an indication of his acceptance of defeat. We both knew there was nothing to discuss, no alternative plans to consider.

This was the nature of fieldwork. We worked in shitty conditions and lived in even shittier conditions. We prayed to Mother Nature for favorable weather and cursed her when she delivered the opposite. The work had to be done either way. We knew that to complain was to mark ourselves unfit for the job. We knew a person didn’t choose this field for the cushy lifestyle, the stellar pay, or the great benefits. Those were the unicorns of the wildlife world.

“I will try to start a fire,” Ulysse said in his thick French accent.

I walked back down the rocky path carved out by previous field technicians to where the car was parked, Ulysse following close behind. Methodically, we unpacked the Land Cruiser, placing the cooler in its usual spot beneath the one large ridgetop shrub, piling up firewood brought from the field house, and unfolding our camp chairs around the fire ring.

This was T2, and in the summer of 2015, it was my “home” every two weeks.

We were wildlife field researchers, Ulysse and I. We had moved to the northwestern cape of South Africa with nothing but a backpack each, high off the promise of handling the “big cat” species we dreamed of as children. In this case, it was leopards—my favorite species— and caracals, a bobcat-sized cat, and our job was to set foot-hold and snare traps to trap the cats and fit them with GPS collars.

T2 put us in range of about half of the research project’s traps. If we stood on the tallest rock on the ridgeline, our transceiver could pick up all twelve radio signals from the traps. By day, Ulysse and I wandered the Namaqualand desert, collecting data on site characteristics and predator kills based on the information received from the radio collars. By night, we checked the trap signals, rotating each hour to stand atop the rock and listen for the faint beeps coming through our transceiver.

Using telemetry equipment (transceiver & antenna) to listen for the radio signals of our traps and collared animals.

If a trap was triggered, the beeping would change from a slow, steady rhythm to a series of rapid beeps that generally incited both panic and excitement in the listener.

We don’t get paid enough for this shit

But this rarely happened. Two months into my four-month commitment, I had not touched—let alone seen—a single cat. My nights at T2 passed in the same pattern night after night: Ulysse and I discussed who was to take which hourly “shift,” we set our alarms, and we crawled into our sleeping bags. We slept fitfully, waking to each other’s alarms and groaning when it was our turn to stumble up the rock by headlamp.

“We don’t get paid enough for this shit,” I mumbled one day as I removed a two-inch thorn from my shin. I shook out my leg, waiting for feeling to return to it.

“We do not get paid at all,” Ulysse countered, reminding me that we had, in fact, volunteered for this job. Such was our desire to work with wildlife, particularly the wildlife of South Africa.

Five months earlier, after an hour-long Skype interview and a few days of back-and-forth emailing, I had committed to trading four months of paid work in the United States to four months of volunteer work in a very rural corner of South Africa—an area where Apartheid sentiment was still strong, where English was not the dominant language, and where foreigners were generally not welcome.

But the work would provide me with the chance to test the waters of my “big cat” dream. I needed to know how realistic it would be to pursue a career in the conservation of large cat species. These species lived in developing countries, where the language was different, the environment was unfamiliar, and the women had fewer rights than the men. I had no idea how to get my foot in the door, but this volunteer position seemed like a good first step.

And so it was that I found myself, five months later, swearing under my breath as I removed yet another large thorn from my body.

Ulysse and I were at the end of what had turned into an 11-hour day—covering over 16 miles—and my exhausted feet had carried me directly into a low-lying acacia bush. The pain of the two-inch thorn hitting my shinbone was what I imagined the pain of a snake bite to be. In my exhausted state, I spent a full ten seconds believing I had, in fact, been bitten by one of the many deadly snakes that inhabited this landscape.

As I pulled it out, part of the thorn snapped off, embedding itself beneath my skin. Blood began to run down my shin and soak into my sock. I sighed. Another future scar, I thought. My body was riddled with them, all from field work. Unforgiving plants, animal scratches and kicks, fumbles while using tools, accidents involving all-terrain vehicles—I had stories for them all and I fondly referred to them as “my collection.” My skin had become a diary for the work I dedicated my life to, and I revelled in the chance to share a story whenever someone pointed to a particular scar and asked, “How did you get that?

I looked up at Ulysse and shrugged. Complaining or crying about the pain was useless—everyone in this field experienced their own version of it; I learned long ago not to expect sympathy from my peers. The only thing to do was continue our weary march to the Land Cruiser. The sun had set nearly an hour ago, which meant we were late. It was an unspoken rule to be back at camp before dark—all manner of dangerous creatures came out at night; to be out was to be putting ourselves at great risk, especially when cell-phone service and civilization were both tens of miles away.

The sight of our field vehicle filled us with elation—the kind a person experiences on Christmas morning—and we stumbled into our seats with thoughts of dinner and a warm campfire. The drive back to camp at the end of each day was always a silent one, our bodies too weary to focus on anything but the beam of headlights that guided us.

It wasn’t until our bellies were full and our bodies warm that we would relive the moments of the day and share our thoughts and hopes for the coming days. The talk was always the same.

“I can’t believe the baboons stole the trail camera!”

“After we hiked 10 miles one way to collect it!”

“That’s going to leave a nasty scar.”

“Getting that porcupine out of the trap was so stressful, I thought for sure you were gonna get quilled.”

“I wish I had tried harder to climb that giant boulder.”

“I collected so much cat scat today, my pack literally smells like shit.”

“Catching that genet today was awesome!

“Do you need another bandage?”

“I would rather shoot myself in the foot than do one more goddamn cluster survey.”

“I can’t believe we have to try to finish 12 cluster surveys tomorrow.”

“How amazing was that view today, though?!”

“I eventually gave up trying not to get pricked and just barreled through the thorns. It saved time, but boy do I regret it.”

“I really hope we catch a cat tomorrow.”

That last statement was a sentiment echoed day after day, week after week.

Finally, nearly nine weeks after I had arrived, the hope became reality. Ulysse and I crested one particular hill in the Land Cruiser and paused. About seventy yards down the dirt track, nestled off the road in the shade of a tree, sat a small rectangular cage trap. Something with a rusty coat was pacing back and forth inside it.

Caracal!” I half-shouted, half-whispered. I turned to Ulysse, his excited expression mirroring mine.

“We finally caught one!” he exclaimed.

I dug for the satellite phone—always stored in the glove box, rarely used—and turned it on. Ulysse shut off the Land Cruiser while I typed out a short message.

Caught caracal. Trap 7. Time: 10:04am.

My first caracal capture! This cat was sedated and very healthy. We monitored his body temperature and breathing to make sure the drugs were not having adverse effects. Photo credit: Ulysse

We prayed it would go through. Sending that message would pull the rest of the team—seven others—from their various locations and to our spot. For some of them, it would be our first time together in nearly two weeks, such was the spread of our field locations.

While we waited, Ulysse and I stepped out of the car to get a better look at the cat. Despite our distance from it, it was hissing and spitting at us like mad. Its teeth and claws were bared, and it frequently lunged at the steel frame of the trap, trying to force its body through the gaps.

My heart raced. I stared into the cat’s piercing yellow eyes, completely absorbed by the wildness in them. This is what I had come here for.

Soon we heard the rumble of the first field vehicle. After about 45 minutes, the entire crew and the on-call veterinarian were there. We watched the vet deliver a tranquillizer using a dart attached to a long pole, then waited with bated breath as the cat slowly slipped into unconsciousness.

Next came the science, the work we were all there for. The body measurements—the cat weighed only 30 pounds—the DNA samples, the ear tags, and the GPS collar. I held the collar in place while my coworker attached the screws, and I marvelled at the deep red color of the animal’s coat, the bright white of his teeth, the softness of his fur. He was beautiful, and I sat in awe of him.

I was drawn to wildlife because of this awe, because of the very definition of the word wild. I revelled in the unknown, in the lives of creatures whose worlds are wholly different from ours, in the languages we will never speak. I longed to see the world the way this caracal did, and, more importantly, I wanted to preserve his world for the generations that would follow him.

The GPS collars were to understand the cat’s movement patterns—his home range, den site, and habits. Local farmers, frustrated by the increasing number of predator-related deaths of their sheep, had been setting kill traps for the cats. Based on the number of cats that had been caught in the kill traps since the start of our research, the local population was at risk of serious decline. The role of my team was to learn as much about these cats as we could and work to implement deterrent strategies.

The same was true for the leopards we aimed to trap and collar, but given the endangered status of the species, the importance there was greater. The hatred of the species among farmers was greater there, too, which meant we were hated for trying to save them.

Knowing that I would go through it all again for another chance to stare into the golden eyes of such a wild thing

Through trail camera photos, we knew of at least four leopards who roamed Namaqualand, but they constantly eluded us. A pair—a mother and her kitten—watched from a distance as our supervisor set out foot-snare traps for them. Too smart to be fooled by the enticing bait, they never returned to that spot. Another leopard—collared in an earlier year of the study—managed to slip his GPS collar one day, after which he was only ever glimpsed in photos.

We never caught a leopard during my time with the team. Although disappointing, this spoke to the truly wild nature of the species, and I eventually found myself grinning at the thought of the cunning cats eluding our traps. I preferred it this way, knowing there were other ways to help the species.

Fresh leopard tracks! Folded knife for size. We followed these tracks for many miles, hoping to glimpse the cat, but never saw it.

After the first caracal capture, we caught two more. Each capture filled me with the same awe as the first. With every release of the cat, my heart swelled with pride, knowing the animal would do wonderful things for science and that we were a part of it, knowing that the weeks of grueling work were worth it, knowing that I would go through it all again for another chance to stare into the golden eyes of such a wild thing.

The night that followed our first caracal capture, Ulysse and I returned to T2. We had eight clusters to get through the next day and traps to check remotely that night. Life was back to normal—monotonous, repetitive, and exhausting.

And yet. We had held a truly wild thing, and we were forever changed by it. We had felt the strong muscles that could bring down an animal weighing three times its body weight. We had glimpsed the sharp teeth that could tear through flesh, and we had run our fingers over the scars that marked the cat as both a fighter and a survivor. And we had stared into the wild and untamable eyes that spoke of a world we will never truly know, no matter how hard we try.

“I wouldn’t trade this for any amount of money in the world,” I said, breaking the silence of camp.

“Good,” Ulysse chimed in, “because we do not get paid for any of this.”

My heart was completely flooded.

All photos were taken by the author unless otherwise specified.

Continue Reading

image

Athletes & Explorers

Jun 25, 2019

REWILD with Tony Riddle: Part 3 – Transforming Your Body

Tony Riddle recommends small changes in our daily lives that will add up to massive lifestyle benefits over time.

image

WRITTEN BY

Davey Braun

The Outdoor Journal has been speaking with Tony Riddle about his paradigm-shifting approach to living a natural lifestyle in line with our ancestors. In Part 1, we introduced Tony’s outlook in Rewilding. In Part 2, we learned about how children internalize behavior from their environment and how we can better preserve their innate abilities. In this installment, Tony discusses how his individualized coaching practices can restore our bodies back to the way they were designed to be.

Training with Tony can help you get in touch with your primal self.

HANG IN THERE

TOJ: When someone comes to you and asks for coaching or attends one of your retreats or workshops, what kinds of changes or transformation are they hoping to achieve?

Tony Riddle: It’s multifaceted. I always use a classic example of my long-time client, Yahuda, who came to me when he was 72. His story gives you some understanding that it doesn’t matter where you are in your evolution, there’s always a point where you can change. He came to me when he was 72, so we’ve been working now for six years together. Initially, he just wanted to re-learn how to walk. This stooped, crumbled up old man arrives at my gym door and his neck is bent forward, his head is bent forward, he’s completely bent in his posture and he wants to learn how to walk.

“Since working with me, he’s walked to Everest Base Camp, Bhutan, the Atlas Mountains, and Mount Kenya.”

I videoed him on a treadmill firstly to show him his posture, because without showing someone what’s happening, they’re subconsciously or unconsciously incompetent. So by showing them the video, they’re now consciously incompetent. He was shocked, “I never knew I walked like THAT!” The first stage with him was to rewild his feet and transform his feet from being shoe-shaped into more wild, natural feet because the foundation is everything. And then I went through various different ground rest positions with him.

Tony demonstrates a series of resting positions that are more natural for our posture than sitting in chairs.

Then we learned how to hang. Hanging is so important for unraveling the spine, lifting the rib cage, opening up the arteries, and even restabilizing where the shoulder blade should be on the thorax. It also develops grip strength. We have all the brachiating abilities as all the other apes, we just don’t hang anymore.

Tony practices his balance on a tree branch.

Once we have all that we start working on the squat. From squatting, we start to walk and so on. Since working with me, he’s walked to Everest Base Camp, Bhutan, the Atlas Mountains, Mount Kenya, and he loves walking.

On the way to work, Yahuda walks to the tube in his Vivobarefoot shoes. Most people ask if he wants to sit because he’s 78. But he doesn’t, he hangs on the bar. When the train’s going he’s hanging, when the doors open he squats. He alternates between hanging and squatting the whole ride. And we’ve just introduced breathing techniques. So he now works on nasal breathing and he does a few breath holds on the tube as well.

Once at the office, in addition to a kettlebell and mobility mat, he has a pull-up bar inside his office with gymnastic rings that he hangs on. At his standing desk, he has a platform that he can stand on with stones in it, so he gets different feedback rather than being on a linear surface.

“If I just make a small change to the way I move today, it will have a massive impact in future years.”

So that’s a person who was completely crumpled up at the age of 72, now at 78 years of age he’ll tell you he’s moving better than he ever has in his whole life. That’s how profound it is. And that’s just by making the small changes.

It’s my understanding that if I just make a small change to the way I move, breathe and eat today, it will have a massive impact in future years. You don’t have to do it all at once, you could pick a month and decide that, “This month, I’m just going to work on my movement brain, next month I’m going to work on my nutritional brain, next month I’m going to work on my breathing brain”. And each time, even if you drop stuff off, you’re still making improvements. Some of it will remain and you’ll figure out what works for you individually. The key to all of this is I have to learn how to be a Tony in this world, not like everyone else. Part of the coaching is to help people recognize that it’s individual specific. On a retreat even, it’s still individual specific. I can hold a presentation and I will be gifting to different people in the room what I feel they need at that particular time and what resonates with them.

Tony offers workshops and retreats to pass on his rewilding practices.

TOJ: When you are teaching someone new coordination for walking or running, are those changes happening in their body or are they happening within the brain?

Tony Riddle: Well it’s both. It’s a symbiotic relationship between the movement brain and the body. We have this obsession with physical muscles, but really there are two systems – you’ve got kinetics, which is the forces and you have kinematics which are the shapes you make to produce those forces.

Let’s take running. Running is a skill, right? In terms of the kinetics of running, there’s gravity. And how does gravity become tangible? It becomes tangible through body weight. I make the appropriate running shapes using the appropriate muscles and tendons to produce that force through body weight. It’s a whole system, a hierarchy starting with perception in the brain and moving down through the muscles and tendons. If you were in a petri dish and you surrounded yourself with amazing movers and you were cultured into that petri dish, your mind’s perception of that environment is how you behave. So everyone ends up as amazing movers. If you have a petri dish full of compromised movers with sedentary, poor hip mobility through to the spine and down to the ankle, and you only observe that behavior, that would be your behavior base. The mind’s perception of the environment is the most important thing and it has to go through that tool before you can make physiological adaptations.

REFUSE THE CHAIR

TOJ: What’s a small change that people can make today to rewild their bodies?

Tony Riddle: For some people, their HR department won’t allow them to have standing desks or they have to drive on their commute to work. Sitting is just part of our culture right now. So my view is that once you get out of that chair, or whatever that sitting position is, do something that will rewild the behavior of standing, which is generally squatting or one of the rest positions. I’m about to fly to LA next week, which is an 11-hour flight, and there’s going to be some brutal sitting going on there. But the thing is, I’ll get a pre-fight squat going, and during the flight I’ll be squatting and post-flight as well.

Even in an airplane, Tony finds space to squat and practice mobility.

TOJ: How do you deal with instances where it’s not socially acceptable to move freely?

“They’re raising socially extreme eyebrows and I’m raising biologically extreme eyebrows.”

Tony Riddle: I used to live between Ibiza and London and I would do two flights a week. I would choose between various different methods. You can kneel on a flight in the aircraft seat. You can even squat in an aircraft seat. You take your shoes off and walk up and down the aisle or go into a larger area and have a squat, move around and do mobility work. And yeah, people might be looking at me as if I’m nuts, but I’m looking at them thinking they’re nuts for sitting down for that length of time. They’re raising socially extreme eyebrows and I’m raising biologically extreme eyebrows.

Check in with The Outdoor Journal next week as we further discuss Tony’s motivation for running barefoot across the island of Great Britain, daily practices for building the body into a “superstructure,” and how Tony moved past childhood trauma and stepped into his power.

Part 1, Tony Riddle: Introducing REWILD
Part 2, REWILD with Tony Riddle: Children and Education
Part 3, REWILD with Tony Riddle: Transforming Your Body
Part 4, REWILD with Tony Riddle: Barefoot Running Across Great Britain

To connect with Tony, visit tonyriddle.com

Facebook: @naturallifestylist
Instagram: @thenaturallifestylist
Twitter: @feedthehuman
Youtube: Tony Riddle

Introducing The Outdoor Voyage

The Outdoor Voyage booking platform and online marketplace only lists good operators, who care for sustainability, the environment and immersive, authentic experiences. All listed prices are agreed directly with the operator, and we promise that 86% of any money spent ends up supporting the local community that you’re visiting. Click the image below to find out more.

Recent Articles



REWILD with Tony Riddle: Part 2 – Children and Education

Tony Riddle explains how our educational system must be reinvented to better preserve childrens' innate abilities and uniqueness.

Tony Riddle: Introducing REWILD

Tony Riddle seeks out ancient, yet socially extreme practices to reconnect us to our ancestral selves and unlock our natural human biology.

Human Lives Are Not More Important Than Animal Lives

Captain Paul Watson, environmental activist and founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society explains interdependence of species and why a biocentric approach is what the world needs.