Primates and Predators – Natasha Bajema

Primates and Predators


Photo from the Primate and Predator Project, Lajuma Research Centre (South Africa)

One last post before I take off on my next journey so that you know what i’m up to when I go offline for four weeks. In a few weeks, I’ll be traveling to the other side of the world on my own and be surrounded by the wild. I can’t wait to collect new experiences, new stories, meet new people and experience God’s beautiful creation.

Truthfully, I’m finally a bit nervous about my upcoming adventure. It’s a good thing that I don’t really think about risks when I plan these things. If I thought things through in advance, I’d likely stay within the “safety” of my own home. Typically, I just sign up for things and worry about it later. When I first signed up for the trip over 10 months ago, I read the entire expedition guide to see what I was getting myself into and was fine with it (no problemo). Well, I recently reread the guide…and it read completely differently now that I’m about to depart in a week or so (gotta love how perspective changes). Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the guide (and my reaction):

The camp has no fence around it (large animals like elephants, lions, and rhinos do not live in the area). Still, remain in camp after dark and use caution during the day because the camp is near a cliff.

No fence, eh? No problem! But that does put a few kinks into my late night bathroom visits to the next hut over. Good thing there are no large animals like rhinos around and only leopards, hyaenas and baboons…uh…okay. The guide recommends bringing a flashlight. Phew! I will be able see them.

And just how close is that cliff to the camp? I’m somewhat klutzy, you know.

Although we rarely encounter leopards, we will brief you on how to respond. The chance of a meeting is greater at night, so remain in camp after dark.

Um, do they know not to come into the camp? Just wondering…cuz, well, I prefer to meet them when I’m in a jeep.

In the field, we may encounter venomous snakes, including black mambas, Mozambique spitting cobras, and puff adders. Although no snake bites have occurred since the start of our program, a bite could be fatal or require hospitalization

Oh good, no snake bites have occurred. Well, there’s always a first time for everything. 😉

South Africa has several species of venomous spiders. The chance of being bitten is small, and no bites have occurred since the program began.

Wait, we’re not done yet? Spiders, too? Crap, I’m not doing this.

Lajuma has no potentially lethal species of scorpions. Mosquitoes, ticks, and other arthropods are generally not a problem.

Finally some good news! No lethal scorpions. I think I can do this after all. Quick question though…does this mean there are scorpions, but they are just not lethal? 

The guide does not end there. It goes on to describe other risks (which the program is required to do) such as plants, health issues, crime and disease. It’s enough to make me want to crawl into my bed and pull the covers over me.

Let me clear something up. Being adventurous doesn’t mean there’s no fear involved. No fear, no thrill. It wouldn’t be called adventure if there were no risk involved. There are few things on earth that can make you feel more alive than facing fears… and living LIFE to the fullest. And that’s what I intend to do for as long as I have air in my lungs.

So why am I going on this crazy adventure? Because I am simply in awe of nature, animals and wilderness. And leopards are high on my list of creatures that fascinate me.  I will never forget the first time I saw a leopard in the wild. I was on my way to Kruger National Park in August 2012. I was still at least an hour from the gate when I saw a leopard napping up high in a tree. Hanging over the branch next to the large cat was a dead impala, its kill for the day. I was extremely impressed. I can’t imagine the amount of strength it would take for the leopard to first hunt and kill and then drag its prey all the way up into a tree. Yes, they are really BIG cats, but males weigh anywhere between 82-198 lbs. That’s not huge. My Doberman is about 85 pounds, and while he is beastly strong, he will not be dragging prey up trees any time soon. No wonder the leopard needs a nap, right?

It’s this kind of story that has me returning to South Africa in July once more for three weeks (and definitely not the last). For two of those weeks, I’ll be participating in a research expedition entitled Conserving Leopards and Monkeys in South Africa sponsored by the Earthwatch Institute. Essentially, I will be working in the field to support scientist on the Primate and Predator Project at the Lajuma Research Centre in the Soutpansberg Mountains. The region supports one of the highest leopard densities in Africa so I will have the best chance of seeing these amazing cats up close. But hopefully, not at night when I have to use the bathroom.

Some of you might wonder what we will be doing day-to-day. Here’s our typical daily schedule:


7:30 a.m.     Breakfast
8 a.m.           Briefing on the day’s activities
8:30 a.m.     Depart either on foot or by vehicle, visit a number of camera-trap stations,     search for scat en route
12 p.m.         Return for lunch or eat a packed lunch in the field, depending on location
Afternoon   Downloading and processing the information from the cameras, or filtering and processing scat at the research center
6 p.m. Dinner

Our team will be involved in any number of activities such as:

  • Following baboons and monkeys. We will wake up before dawn to arrive at the trees where these primates spent the night. Once the primates wake up, we will follow them all day until they retire in the evening, hiking about 3 to 6 miles over rugged terrain and through dense vegetation.
  • Monitoring camera traps. We will go out to the camera traps either by vehicle or on foot. We will download photos and analyze them later: we might see images of leopards and and other seldom-seen nocturnal animals, including aardvarks, bushbabies, hyenas, and civets.
  • Tracking leopards and hyenas. We will spend some mornings hiking to look for animal tracks and collect their scat (feces) of leopards and hyenas. Back at camp, We will analyze the samples you find to determine what these carnivores are eating.

If you want to see what life will be like for me during the two weeks (minus the helicopter ride, I’m guessing), you can watch this cool video (with amazing soundtrack featuring the Game of Thrones theme song):


Next time you hear from me, i’ll be safe and sound back home in DC (well, maybe not so safe) and will write about my latest adventures. Stay tuned.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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