Life as an intern at the Ongava Research Centre

Hello everyone! I am Rhys, a wildlife sciences undergraduate student at the University of Georgia, USA working in Dr. Jim Beasley’s lab, and I got to spend 3 amazing months as an intern at the Ongava Research Centre. During my internship, I gained an amazing diversity of experiences with various researchers, ranging from working with novel species and environments to new ways of thinking involving different methods and equipment I had never worked with previously.

I spent most of my time at ORC under Dr. Steph Periquet working in the Greater Etosha Carnivore Programme (GECP) learning about carnivores in and around Etosha National Park. I was given the mission to disseminate information about this project to the general public. This included providing some background information about GPS collars deployed on carnivores to people visiting Etosha. To do this, I developed two posters presenting a five-second summary of the goals of collaring carnivores and how this information helps with research questions about carnivore spatial and behavioural ecology, as well as mitigation of human-wildlife conflicts in the Greater Etosha Landscape. These posters are now displayed at Etosha entrance gates and at the accommodations in and around Etosha. As a second outreach project, I helped write an Namibian Chamber of Environment magazine article outlining the general context of the GECP, summarizing the findings of this programme over the past 2 years, as well as presenting current and future projects.

The posters I created about the GECP’s collaring efforts.

In order to get firsthand experience and better understand the information I was conveying, I also went out into the field. I helped service camera traps deployed on the boundary fence surrounding Etosha as part of Maddie Melton’s MSc project focusing on where and how animals cross this fence and interact with it. I also participated in the servicing of the camera trap grid across the whole of Etosha National Park. This grid is primarily used to monitor prey abundance and distribution. I also spent time cataloging camera trap images generated by this grid. I then learned to create ethograms to extract animal behaviour from videos recorded at watering holes on Ongava Game Reserve. I visited these watering holes once every fortnight to collect carnivore scat for diet analysis.

Processing scat for analysis.

But probably the most memorable experience working in the GECP was getting some hands-on time in the bush deploying GPS collars on carnivores. This created memories that I will treasure forever, like transporting a sedated male lion in the bed of a Hilux to help deploy a GPS collar and collect samples in a safer place under the night sky in Etosha. Overall, I learned a lot about the apex predators of this ecosystem and got a small taste of the human-wildlife conflict in the area.

Some memories from collaring lions & spotted hyaenas in Etosha…

But I didn’t work only on carnivores! I came over putting an ear out for more exciting opportunities and got to help Dr. Frowin Becker with a new bat detection program here at Ongava. Through the use of acoustic detectors, this project is initially attempting to determine which species of bats are present on the reserve, but will expand to answer additional research questions in the near future. This was a really cool way to explore the reserve and I’m excited to see the results when I get back home to Georgia.

Deploying an acoustic detector at a cave on Ongava with ORC field tech Simeon Naholo.

As if fieldwork and outreach were not enough, I also got to spend some time in the genetics lab with William Versfeld, which was a very different experience! There, a 65 kg leopard is reduced to a mere 4 ml of blood, from which I extracted the DNA. Under William’s guidance, I also ran a PCR on previously extracted elephant DNA. It was by far the most chemistry I’d done in several years!

The results of my first successful DNA extraction. This is a gel assessment of DNA quality. The furthest left is a marker/control and each well to the right contained DNA extracted from leopard blood, which was moved using electrophoresis to show as the concentrated green, neon bars visible to the right.

I would like to thank Dr. Beasley and the United States Department of Agriculture for giving me this opportunity and everyone that I got to spend time with here at ORC, for being so incredibly nice and incorporating me into their work and lives for the winter. I learned a lot from all my mentors and got to enjoy living and working with them. I even joined the local soccer team which plays a very different style of soccer than I am used to, on a much different pitch. My experience at ORC was amazing and I was very glad to be a part of it. I highly recommend it to other wildlife enthusiasts!

Author: Rhys Medcalfe, UGA Outreach Intern.