Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Salmonsdam -it all, I love this place!

So I've posted a bit about Rooi Els, the village where I'll be living and following baboons in a residential setting. Some of you might be asking, where is the love for our reserve ranging baboons? We had a few little delays here and there trying to get all our permissions in order at Salmonsdam Nature Reserve but we finally got everything worked out and things are picking up!

Salmonsdam is a small-ish sized reserve, only like ~850 hectares. It is almost completely surrounded by farmland. There is at least one troop of baboons here, possibly two. I would guess their range is mostly restricted to the reserve, aside from some mountain connectivity to the east.

Hey, thanks Google Earth!
Before we had permission to go off trail here, we spent about 2 weeks just getting to know the reserve. Basically, we hiked around all the trails, looked and listened for baboons, and mapped a trail (with my handy dandy Garmin eTrex!).

Nick, dutifully manning the meter tape.
"Garmin, Garmin, in my hand: Give me waypoints for this land!"
Overlooking one of the ravines in Salmonsdam Nature Reserve
Mapping trails can be a little tedious. But we didn't know the reserve very well and this can really help to get a sense of where you are, what kinds of vegetation and terrain are around you, and whether or not the baboons are actually using any of these areas!

"Leopard's Cave".... Let's hope we don't make any new friends here!
Seedlings germinating out of baboon poop.
When we got the go ahead to go off trail, we decided to do a few vegetation plots so that we can better describe the reserve in our future grant writing efforts. Fynbos is incredibly diverse but there are a few main families of plants that are the most common: Proteaceae, Ericaceae, and Restionaceae (honorable mentions: Asteraceae and Iridaceae). We have a reasonable ability to identify these groups and, fortunately, we had help one day from the nature conservator who works at this reserve.

Nick and Grant talking fynbos
A really furry protea
Pink ericas
After our day with Grant, we began doing vegetation plots. I won't go into too much detail, but basically this involves randomly selecting points within the reserve to set up a plot. Within the plot we count the number of some plants and estimate the coverage/composition of all the plants. Sometimes the plots end up in really convenient locations and they are fairly easy to access.  Other times, they end up in the middle of a ravine or on a steep slope and we have to use one of our alternative points instead.

Trying to figure out where the Garmin thinks we should go
Writing down info
We hear the baboons on most days and see them fairly frequently too. After a few more plots this week, we'll spend some time being human creepers and finally following the baboons around.

The baboons, chilling. Like they do sometimes.
These guys weren't terribly pleased with our proximity (around 100-150 meters away).
On one occasion, I was able to take a little video. There was quite a bit of commotion, we think there may be two groups and they were having a fit because the other group was too close to their territory. This happened on the same ridge you see in one of the photos above. P.S. Sorry for all the sniffles, I was battling a winter cold.


This has been a very different "field" experience for us both. Setting up a field site (picking a location, meeting with all the people you have to meet, getting all the permissions, finding a place to live, setting up logistics, etc) is VERY time consuming. Previously, we've both worked at established field locations so you can more or less just drop yourself into the fold and start taking data. While we've been working like crazy here and we've been doing all the things we need to be doing, we won't be walking away with a lot of data- mostly just stuff to help make our grant applications strong, which is the main goal of pilot research, after all.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

My friend and fellow primatologist, Andrew Oberle

As some of you may already be aware, a fellow UTSA primatologist has been seriously injured while conducting his master's research. Andrew is one of the kindest and most genuine people I've ever met in my life. He is passionate about all animals and very committed to enriching the lives of animals and primates in captivity. He is currently in hospital near Johannesburg.

Here is a link to a web service that has been set up to collect donations for his recovery. If you can, please donate- even something small will help.

I can only tell you that this has been really shocking and upsetting news for us. He has a lot of experience working with animals as a keeper and he's volunteered at Chimp Eden before too. Andrew is a kind, funny, intelligent, and selfless guy. I hope that we can all rally for him to help him recover.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Oh, Baboons, Where art thou?

Hello! Things have been moving along here. Interviews start tomorrow (!!!). We've been out with the village ranging group several times and have started trying to ID adult females and males!

So one day I brought my awesome Flip cam out with us to get what was sure to be some exhilarating footage. Of course, the baboons where nowhere do be found. There are days like this and you hope they are few and far between but they do exist. 

Not wanting to waste a golden opportunity (or deny the request from my Flip cam benefactors for a video update!), we took some video anyway. Lookout Hollywood- the Ellwangers are coming.... 

We did find them later in the week, but it was pretty rainy so I didn't have the camera with us. It always works out like this, right? If you want to see baboons (or fish or rainbows or whatever tickles your fancy), don't bring your good camera!

Special shout out to the Kempers for giving us this awesome Flip cam! I tried to add you in the credits but the program would not oblige.

Afrikaans phrase of the week: Mooi bly. It means "keep well."

So until next time, mooi bly!

P.S. Sorry about the video quality- I had to compress the file in order to post it!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Grooming break

Just another day in baboon paradise. We think there are around 24+ adults, subadults, and juveniles in this group. There are approximately 7 infants including one teeny tiny one who is probably about a month old. He has old man face. This is the Rooi Els village troop, where I will be spending all of my urban baboon time. More updates soon. 

Time for a mid-morning groom-a-thon!

Friday, June 8, 2012

You're not the fynbos of me

Starting on the first of June, we've spent a lot of our days driving to various locations to try and scout out a research spot. This has been particularly challenging for a couple of reasons. First, and probably our biggest hurdle, is that both of our projects examine a baboon troop that lives in fynbos and does not come into much contact with humans or urban areas. Ok, lets break this down. 

Fynbos (pronounced "fine-boss") is an Afrikaans word meaning "fine bush." This is a type of plant community that is completely unique to the Western Cape. There are six "floral kingdoms" on Earth and the Cape Floristic Region which is ONLY found at the very southern tip of South Africa! So, you see, the other floral regions cover massive geographic ranges (like all of the northern hemisphere is one) and the Cape Floristic Region is teeny tiny geographically but huge in terms of diversity. There is a lot of fynbos in the reserves but it is highly endangered due to land conversion for farming/development and invasive species so there is little fynbos outside of reserves, I think.

Fynbos has an average of 16 species/meter squared. That is a lot!

 Baboons can definitely live here and eat fynbos. However, in places where there is urban or residential development next to a reserve, the baboons will come into the urban area to forage, which can cause a bit of havoc for residents. 
Photo from Cape Times (7 June 2012)
The "problem" is one part baboon behavior and one part human behavior! Baboons are really smart, omnivorous, and very adaptable. So they can each just about anything and are easily able to change their foraging patterns to get what they want. Now, I'm not sure I'd say that is a problem- as a primatologist, this is one of the reasons I am so interested in them! But it contributes to conflict between people and baboons. So when people don't properly dispose or secure their garbage or they leave their doors and windows open, baboons will come to help themselves to whatever is on the table for breakfast or in your fridge. It can result in a lot of destruction but it can be avoided by modifying human behavior. Imagine living next to Yellowstone and leaving your garbage bags next to your house and your doors open. It is like an invitation for bears or raccoons to come and have an easy snack.  

Hey, Boo-Boo! Leaving food out is as good an invitation as any !
Anyway, part of my research examines baboon troops that live near humans and use human foods so this will be easy to find. The other half is a comparison with a group that forages primarily on fynbos. Nick's entire project focuses on a group that forages in fynbos. This part has been rather challenging to find. After our big meeting, we gave ourselves a 2 week period to see the different places where the baboons are living and decide where we want to focus on.

First, we visited the vineyards. We had actually seen the baboons here one day when we were driving around to familiarize ourselves with the area. On this day, our contact guy drove us all around the vineyard to show us where the baboons come in and described at length what kinds of problems they have.
"I enjoy the aromas of a nice pinot noir"
Next, we visited up a little town called Caledon. Here, they have a lot of conflict with the baboons. Not an entire troop, but individual baboons coming towards town, a garbage dump, and a nearby a township called Myddleton. People in this township take some pretty extreme actions against the baboons including (we are told) throwing hot water on them :( I couldn't work here because there is no way I could stay objective. It is too horrible. There is a desperate need for management here but that isn't my job either. While we were up here, we also visited a nature reserve (Greyton) to find a fynbos group of baboons. 

This would probably be a good location for a comparative group but large parts of the vegetation had burned in the last year so there was very little fynbos. 

It looked like we had stepped into a sci fi novel.
I mean, this place was crispy. If there were baboons around, they were not anywhere we could see. And, really, there would be nothing for them to eat. Like I said, fynbos is a fire-adapted vegetation. It needs fire in order to disperse seeds. The optimal period for fynbos to burn is on a 12 year cycle. Apparently, the fynbos burns way too often in the Overberg (and probably elsewhere) as a result of careless people throwing cigarette butts (they are called "stompies" here) out the window, for example. So we left Caledon and Greyton feeling a little disappointed
"Hey, Nick, where are the baboons?"
"I don't know but I'm kinda sad right now."
Next, we visit a gorgeous reserve called Kogelberg Nature Reserve (KNR). We were both very excited to come here because it has a lot of gorgeous fynbos and it is next to a few little towns/villages where the baboons visit to forage sometimes. Thus, it would be a great location for both of our projects! KNR is 18,000 hectares. Here is little picture of the area from our map, including some of the surrounding communities where the baboons range. 

The park manager told us that he didn't think there were any baboons in the reserve (or that there was one small group) but we still had to check. How do you go about finding a single troop of baboons in 18,000 hectares of space? You start walking.
"There are baboons over there. I know it!"
Gorgeous, right?
A protea bloom about the size of my head!
So we took a lovely 10 km hike in the reserve and but there were no baboons in sight. This was, although somewhat anticipated after we talked to the manager, very disappointing. Of course, we didn't cover a large area on our hike, but we hit up the majority of the low lying area in the reserve and the spots where there would be access to water. The groups that range into the urban area probably use the fringe of the reserve for sleeping and maybe some foraging but we found no indication that they are in KNR. Actually, we saw NO mammals and very few birds. Sort of confusing, considering the size of the reserve and the quality of some of the fynbos. I did find this hilarious little sign in the middle of the reserve, which reads "Emergency Exit."

"Emergency Exit"... warning: you cannot conduct research here!
Finally, we visited a little spot called Salmonsdam Nature Reserve. It is only about 830 hectares and its basically surrounded by farmland (mostly wheat and dairy pastures). I was very skeptical that we'd find anything here but we were getting a little desperate to find a reserve ranging group in the Overberg! 
Just heading into the "office"
"There are baboons in those hills and I will find them!"
Almost immediately we saw very promising signs that we'd found a group including chewed up and pulled apart protea flowers and poop. Then we found the mother of all promising signs.... a footprint!
Our very own Laetoli
So we followed the trail a little while very quietly until I heard what sounded like somewhat munching down on vegetation. Then we heard a little infant scream and some contact calls between the male baboons (which sound a lot like a dog bark)! So we just stood and waited very quietly trying to hear what we could hear. Eventually we saw a couple of baboons cross the path into the VERY dense and tall (protea-dominated) fynbos.
Listening for the troop.
Thank you, resident baboons of Salmonsdam Nature Reserve!
We stayed with them for about half an hour before they went up a mountain slope away from us and we couldn't hear or see them anymore. I know it doesn't sound like much but this was a huge success for us. On our way back out we saw the troop again over on the other slope (see above). We finally got a quick look at just how big the troop is in terms of group size. We could do a count but I would guess over 50 but under 100. Very exciting! 

So, now we may have a reserve troop but they are unhabituated and we've seen a lot of urban spaces where the baboons are visiting. The next step is to start following some of the urban groups and see what they're up to. We have also been invited to talk to a couple Rotary clubs and participate in a public meeting (observation only!) in one of the towns where the baboons and residents have conflict. I'll update again when there is more to say.

Keep well, everyone!  

Where we live, who we met, and what we do

Now that we are all caught up on our Cape Town adventures, I thought it would be best to get you acquainted with our every day particulars in the Overberg! The closest city to us is called Hermanus. It is a little city (town?) that receives a lot of nature tourism and vacationers from Western Cape province. There is a small, flat coastal area right by the ocean and the rest is very mountainous.

We are renting a little cabin here called Kite Cottage. It is small but perfect for us. We don't need a lot of space because we don't spend much time there, anyway.
Kite Cottage
The ocean and rocky coast nearby our cottage.
We are being sponsored by a little NGO called Whale Coast Conservation. They focus primarily on environmental education in Hermanus and in the surrounding towns, villages, and schools. They've been busy   lately organizing a travelling "energy expos" show where they go into different primary schools or community centers and show kinds about different kinds of energy (potential, kinetic, etc) and also different types of renewable energy models made of recycled materials and toys. They've been a massive help to us by setting us up with a little work space in their office and helping us to navigate and contact all the people here that we need to get in touch with and talk to about setting up research here.

We had a big meeting on the 31st to present our research goals to some interested parties including Cape Nature reps, local conservancy reps, a guy representing some wine farmers, a guy representing the Hermanus community, and even a local radio station manager! The meeting went well and we were given support and permissions to get started to look around at the different areas where the baboons are living. On the 6th, we were invited to do a short radio segment for Whale Coast FM to talk about our research! It was our first time on the radio...very cool. The guy in charge of the program invited us back to do an hour long interview in the next couple of weeks!
The baboon PR campaign
The rest of our time has been spent driving around the Overberg region to meet with people and see where the baboons are hanging out. Once we pick some specific places to do research, we can start focusing more intensely on data collection! But more on that next time....

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Day Two

May 27

(Side note: As you'll notice, I'm a little behind on posting. I don't plan to go day by day except for these first two posts).

So Nick had an equally exciting second day planned for us. We took a drive on Chapman's Peak Road and went to Table Mountain National Park. We finally saw a couple baboons but they were just hanging out at the visitor's center (pictures below).

Chapman's Peak Drive is a coastal road that brings you along the west side of the peninsula towards the tip. It is a teeny tiny little one point you are actually driving INSIDE a mountain! We went on a Sunday, which is apparently a big day for bicyclists and surfers.

Awesome mural...near Masiphumelele (I think).
This picture is of a mural near a township called Masiphumelele. Masiphumelele is a Xhosa word meaning "we will succeed." I haven't really got the space to explain what is a township. Shortly, townships are places usually just outside of an urban area where historically, under Apartheid, non-white South Africans were forced to live. It is hard to describe and I'm not sure I have the proper vocabulary or historical background to do it right. If you have ever seen "District 9," imagine the areas were the aliens were zoned to live.... small, dense settlements with one room houses that are often made entirely of scrap metal. Suffice to say that almost everyone in the US should be grateful for what they have.   

Our first stop (by my request) was to pull over on the side of the road for some pictures of the ostriches at the ostrich farm. Ostrich is very common here.... especially ostrich jerky, which is called biltong!
Nick, reliving some horrifying memories of being chased by an ostrich.
If you don't know, you should ask.
Just a pretty shot of a spider web in the sun on a barbed wire fence.
At Table Mountain National Park

I'm very excited to be here.

At the Cape Point visitors center...cruising the parking lot for a snack.
Momma and a baby
"Just gonna pop into the gift shop for a post card."
Heading to the beach at Cape Point
After a little ostrich gazing, we headed into Table Mountain National Park. We didn't have a ton of time, as we had scheduled a meeting with someone later in the afternoon but we did about a 1-2 km walk down to the beach area "where the two oceans meet" and let me tell you... it is cold! These waters are coming on northernly currents from the arctic! Anyone who wishes to go diving or surfing is hereby insane.

There is a baboon troop that regularly hangs out at the visitor's center so we did get to see some monkeys. On this day, there were only two mommas and their babies. They were sort of wandering around the parking lot and if they saw someone with a car door open, they'd head over to try and get inside for a snack.

After this little adventure, we had a few items of business to take care of and then the next day we visited at the university and headed out to Hermanus!

I'll leave you with one fun fact for the day....

Fun fact: In South Africa, traffic lights are called "robots."