Taking our bio-indicator work to Okonjima

My name is Simeon Naholo and I’m a field technician at the Ongava Research Centre (ORC). Recently, I visited the AfriCat Foundation at Okonjima Private Nature Reserve near Otjiwarongo, with the aim of training their staff in ORC’s Bio-Indicator Programme. Okonjima is the second site in the programme and our first site outside of Ongava Game Reserve. I travelled with ORC’s visiting researcher Rebecca Dannock (University of Queensland) to train AfriCat’s staff Lucas Hisikia and Andries Garab to collect seeds and grasses as well as termites, ticks, herbivore molar teeth, and water.

We found it challenging collecting termites as they were very slow to come out of the holes we created. We think this might be due to them staying deeper in the mounds because of poor rains this season. We also had a little trouble collecting water – not because of lack of water, but because of the mud. Both Andries (photographed below), who got stuck in the mud, and Karen (AfriCat’s Director), who ended up in the water, experienced some of the challenges of bio-indicator sample collection. I really enjoyed training Lucas and Andries (AfriCat staff members) on how to use our data collection app of choice, EpiCollect, on their phones. It was also an opportunity for me to learn about the grasses and trees on Okonjima that we don’t have at Ongava. The biggest difference between the two sites is that on Ongava, we must be wary of animals like lions and elephants when we are out sampling. Okonjima doesn’t house these species, but does have many leopards, which I often got to see (see Neo below). Overall, the training and sample collection were a success.

I also got to learn about AfriCat’s own projects including their pangolin research project. I accompanied the pangolin researchers for a few nights to study pangolins. We went at night because they are rarely active during the day. I had never seen a pangolin before but here I got to see two mothers with their babies. I saw them up close and could see that adult scales are larger, rounder and smoother than pangolin pups’ (young pangolins’) scales which are still developing, so they have lines and are pointed at the tip. It was amusing to learn that pangolins are too lazy to make their own houses, which is why they often use aardvark burrows instead. I also learnt that pangolins have long tongues to poke into holes to catch ants and termites to eat.

I was also able to join Lucas and Andries to help feed the welfare carnivores – this was so interesting. AfriCat has cheetah, leopard and lions that were rescued from human-wildlife conflict. The ones at AfriCat now can’t be released back into the wild, so AfriCat looks after them.

Finally, I got to experience my first game captures. The University of Namibia’s (UNAM) veterinary students were at Okonjima to dart (sedation via dart gun) herbivores, and I got to go along and witness the darting of impala, springbok, wildebeest and giraffe – a first for me. This was incredible, especially the giraffe which vets need to use ropes on to safely control the giraffe once it has been darted. It was great to see AfriCat supporting UNAM by providing a site for the vet students gain some practical experience.