11 September 2019

The heat of the day has shifted “field o’clock” to 6:50 AM in the mornings and 3:50 PM in the evenings for the field volunteers to measure weights of the meerkats. This only adjusts my schedule slightly to be ready for bloods a little earlier, but I do sympathize for the volunteers. I’m incredibly fortunate to have an air conditioned lab to hide from the midday sun. Whether it’s the heat or venturing further from the farmhouse and reserve, I’ve been finding a lot of death in the desert. One of the ventures included some fence hopping into neighboring land where we saw a warthog trot up just down wind, allowing us to remain undetected. But when we heard a quad screaming across the valley towards us, scaring the warthog as well, we bolted back to the fence hopping back into the safety of the reserve – we’re just learning the limits of where we can explore. I love finding bones but also find it pretty crazy just how much dies out here, and how frequently. Some of the big stuff from this week – springbok carcass, den (maybe jackal?) with huge bones from a cow or horse dragged into the opening, a tortoise shell, and half of a wild cat. The wild cat was found in the large, dry riverbed on a walkabout that was exceptionally scenic – wildebeest, oryx, a vulture – and upon climbing the tree next to the nest we could see a baby vulture inside, and the two cows we have that have free range of the reserve. This area of the riverbed almost looks like a campground with beautiful trees growing out of the fertile soil but none of the spiky tri-thorn bushes or other shrubs underneath. I even found a purple flower! Surely a future camp spot.

We had a going away party for a few of the senior volunteers that was themed as food groups. My block (where I live) was assigned carbs so obviously I dressed as the chemical structure of my favorite carb – maltose (beer carb). It was a “block crawl” which was a hopeful attempt at a pub crawl. Each block or house was a different food group equipped with costumes, snacks, and music. Though no one could guess my carbohydrate (and I had to look it up to draw it) I was humored for the idea. The next day, quite hungover from too much maltose, I learned how to drive manual in a bucky (pick up truck). The Toyota was very forgiving but I still felt quite accomplished to drive around the sandy dunes without stalling.

The changing weather as we near summer has brought more clouds and even a thunderstorm. It was only a few drops of rain but the thunder sounded amazing and seeing the gray clouds release on the horizon was so cool! The storm hit during a lunch break so naturally we fled for the valley to watch it and chase it up and over the ridge of dunes. The wind picked up and it wrapped around us, kicking up dust devils and launching the sand towards the sky. We checked on the eland we had hoped to reconstruct but its head was gone – we later found it in front of PhD block, someone had snagged it.

We are installing a better wifi system for the molerat lab which involves burying tubes to run wires from the farmhouse to the lab. I offered to go and help pick up the tubing from Van Z (nearest town ~30 km away) in the bucky. When we arrived, it was clear it would be a challenge to load the massive rolls of tubes with just two people but after some sweating, swearing, laughing, sketchy ratchetting, and a lot of hope, we hatched it down. Since I went with my friend, I got to see more of the town beyond the hotel and shop. While we were loading the pipe, I noticed shiny, lifted trucks with snorks (amphibious add on) and other accessories race up the dune trying to breach the top. Most didn’t make it and would bury the back of the vehicle in the sand, bail, and turn around or reverse back down. The houses dotting the top of the dune looked like they were not owned by the same people with the fancy trucks. We took a drive around the settlement afterwards and it was jarring to see the poverty so close to the small stretch of town where the hotel and convenience store is located. We needed to buy sim cards from a store up there, it was barred up with locks on all of the windows and doors. It was a Saturday, so without work people were wandering around the streets and drinking heavily. Skinny dogs followed the bucky as we made our way through the dwellings. I didn’t understand anything that was said, I’m not even sure if it was Afrikaans or a local language. My friend mentioned that most of the people in the community probably have never seen an American before. I struggle with this as I know some of my friends who travel do as well – how is it fair that I am privileged enough to travel, for vacation or work, when the places I explore are the same places that hold the dark secrets of how many people are struggling? Many of the communities living in the Northern Cape are in poverty and the life expectancy is quite low. And here we are, a group of young adults coming in to study the wildlife here and have our food and housing covered and life is easy. I’m glad I am aware of it, but I’m still not sure what I should and am able to do about it. It is an unsettling feeling.

The big news on the project this week was the sighting of a pangolin. Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked animal – poached for their scales, skin, and meat. A group of us were on Dune to Nowhere for sundowners when we got the radio call from a meerkat volunteer that they thought they saw one. We radioed the project manager, piled into the back of the bucky, and drove out to the location. Carefully and quietly, we took turns peering under the bush the pangolin had curled up under. As exciting as it was to see one, it was also a sobering thought that they will likely soon be extinct. This one was off of the reserve and lacked the little protection offered by the wire fence surrounding our project. I’ve never seen an animal like it in real life and it was truly amazing.

A cat skull has yet to be added to the bone collection around the farmhouse. We were worried after sharing the location of the wild cat carcass that it would disappear. But yesterday, during lunch break, we hopped on the electric bikes and charged up to the riverbed. At first inspection, we couldn’t find it, but then noticed the tufts of fur under a bush a few meters from where we first found it. We bagged it up, slung it from a handle bar, and brought it back to my room. For now it is buried (more because it still smells horrendous) but we will either find an ant hill to bury it next to or find beetles and hope they eat the flesh off the bone.

Within the next few weeks I will be finalizing my application to study in Chile in 2021. Somehow, everything is coming together beautifully, and I feel like I will have a strong application for the competitive program. Sometimes I take for granted how many amazing opportunities I’ve been lucky enough to encounter in this career path. Putting together my resume and personal statement reminded me of the experiences, skills, and passion this field provides me. I think that’s pretty awesome.

This month all the lead scientists are visiting the project to start up new experiments. It is quite hectic and the energy is high. It’s really cool to meet everyone and lively discussions about the research ignite over dinner. Some of the new experiments will bleed into my lab – get it 😉 – and there is a big push for the genetics lab to be set up asap. When they ask how I’m liking it out here, I can give them an honest answer with a big smile – I really love it.

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