Friday, November 20, 2009

Adventures in the Bush (Gabby)

I have not written in a few weeks, because schoolwork has become both challenging and overwhelming. When we returned from the Western Cape almost two weeks ago we were greeted with independent projects, final exams, insect and plant collections, and final presentations. All of these projects have led to interesting discovery and some events that confirm the often used acronym TIA (This is Africa) to explain away odd and crazy things that happen everyday.

Our independent project consists of five days of field research, two days of planning, and four days of writing. I decided to work on a project dealing with fire in the savanna ecosystem because fire is one of the most important drivers of diversity in this part of the world. While I was not able to light fires, I was able to study the effects of variability in fire regime on structural and floristic diversity of savanna vegetation. The park currently works under the assumption that pyrodiversity begets biodiversity. Basically, a site which burns in regimented increments will be less diverse than a site that burns sporadically and goes for long periods without fire before burning again. This involved 16 100 x 50 m plots and identifying all the trees within them to species and size class. All in all, a group of five identified 5,547 trees in four days. I believe that I personally identified around 2,000 as I was in charge of identification instead of recording. This project, along with the plant collection that I am working has opened me up to the world of botany. While I have previously been ignorant of plants, I now find them fascinating and am considering graduate work in plant life history strategies and competition between species.

Now for the exciting part . . . on our third day in the field we went down a dirt road early in the morning and happened across an abandoned vehicle with the keys still in the ignition. There should not be any empty vehicles in Kruger unless they have research stickers on the side. People should not be out of their cars when lions are out and about. This struck our game guard, Stevie, as odd. He called in the license plate and we continued to our site. When we arrived at the site we heard noises after a few minutes and saw a lion close by that was stalking us. The lion was scared away although we stayed close together. Steve had a rifle, which made us all more comfortable, but we were still looking around for trees to climb at each turn. About 15 minutes later we heard more noises, which Stevie quickly identified as a black rhino. While white rhinos are dangerous, they can be thrown off your course easily. Black rhinos, on the other hand, are like homing pigeons. They lock on you and you are toast. So, we keep an eye out for the rhino as Stevie circles us with the gun and we continue identifying trees. Five minutes after that we see helicopters flying in to the place where the abandoned car was on the road. This struck a note, because while an abandoned cars are a bad sign, the calvary is not usually called in at once.

We survived the black rhino and made our way out to the road to find it swarming with police cars. Stevie drove up to inquire and heard the story in Tsonga, a native language. He laughed along with the police officers after hearing the story and we were confused as to what could be so funny. He translated the following story: the previous night the manager of one of the park picnic sites (who has the keys to the cash register) was kidnapped by two men who stole his car and drove to this spot to leave the car and cross the river to get out the park. The picnic manager was still missing and they were trying to find him. We were welcome to continue our research in the area, but could we please keep an eye out for a body. Stevie then proceeded to joke that his rifle would not hold up against the AK47s of the criminals. We worked on one more field site in the area, did not find a body, and emerged unscathed. It was by far the most exciting fieldwork I have done to date!

In other news, I have had two encounters with wild dogs and pups. They were both brief and it was too dark to get good images, but very neat! Moths and other insects are emerging and the sky is filled with winged termites at night. The bathrooms look like insect graveyards because they are attracted to the lights and meet their death in the night.

I have included an image of a moth that is vibrating its wings and a picture of a chameleon from the Western Cape.

More soon!



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