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Life as a researcher

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Recently I got the amazing opportunity to be interviewed on details regarding my masters project and the unique herd of elephants I observe daily. I am so honored to be part of such an amazing family at the lodge and be entrusted in conducting such important research!

“Many of our followers may know that we’ve embarked on a long-term research project to get an understanding of the physiological and behavioural impact, that human interaction may have on the resident elephant herd. This is quite an intensive process that involves a comparison between the free-roaming elephants on Kapama Game reserve and our semi-captive herd. Chloe Grotto, our resident researcher, collects data for this project on a daily basis.

She answered a few questions in order for us to get to know her better:

Where are you from and what brought you to South Africa?

I am from Chicago, Illinois in the United States. I graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a bachelor in Animal Science. I then accepted an internship at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, working as their endocrinologist intern for seven months. There I studied stress and reproduction hormones on animals, ranging from red river hogs to African elephants. I even got to call the hormone drop (progesterone drop) on one of our pregnant female elephants before she gave birth a few days later.

My fellow intern and best friend at Animal Kingdom, Macie Smith, showed me this posting from the University of Pretoria saying that they were searching for a new master’s student. The programme focused on fecal glucocorticoids, and the same stress hormones I had experience with while working at Disney. I immediately applied for the position and was fortunate enough to be chosen.

I literally completed my internship at Disney a month after the University’s offer, packed my bags and traveled home for a few weeks to apply for my visas and get my travel vaccinations, and then was in South Africa the following month! Those two months were quite hectic, but it was so worth it in the end!

Explain to us what research you are doing?

My research project for my master’s degree through the University of Pretoria is on the physiological and behavioural measures of animal welfare in relation to an African elephant interaction programme. Currently I am collecting both behavioural and hormonal data on the herd here at Camp Jabulani, and I am also collecting fecal samples from the wild elephants on the Kapama Game Reserve.  I will compare the stress levels of the wild herd to that of the Camp Jabulani herd. Basically, I am trying to see if there is a significant difference between elephants who participate in human interaction programmes and those who do not. I am hopeful that the findings from this study will help management practices of semi-captive elephants in the future.

What did you anticipate/expect to find in South Africa?

I have wanted to travel to South Africa since I was a little girl and saw an African elephant for the first time in a zoo back in the United States. I didn’t really expect South Africa to be so similar to the States. When I first arrived in Pretoria, I saw all the advertisements, McDonald’s signs and various malls you could walk into and realized it felt very similar to home.  

Were you surprised about what you discovered?

On the second day on campus at the University of Pretoria, I stopped to find multiple people gathered around this tree. Looking up, I discovered a family of monkeys eating fruits off the trees. The campus is surrounded by roads so I was very surprised to find wildlife, let alone monkeys, up in a tree on campus! Squirrels and students’ pet dogs were about the coolest animals I saw at my university back in the States. I was also surprised to find how genuine and incredibly friendly South Africans are! I never expected to make such amazing friends and connections in such a short space of time.

What’s in a typical day for you?

Every morning I get up and get ready to go into the bush with the elephants and their keepers. I put on at least three different kinds of insect repellent to try and deter at least a few of the ticks. I go out with the keepers at around 9 am and walk with the elephants to the assigned area in the bush where they will feed for the day. I usually rotate between the keepers, since I have become such great friends with all of them. I switch between leading and calling the elephants or following behind them, making sure none of the young ones stray too far off. I then walk with two of the keepers throughout the bush as the elephants browse and observe what they are doing for several hours.

Every 5 minutes I observe what each elephant is doing and record it on a large data sheet. I will compile the behavioral data I collect later next year when I am in the laboratory on the university site. Two days a week, I collect fecal samples from all of the 15 elephants in the herd. What might sound like hard and smelly work has actually become one of my favourite days in the week, and that I look forward to! The keepers and I have created almost a competition out of it, seeing which team of keepers and I can collect the most amount of fecal matter in a day. It might sound easy, but you would be surprised how an elephant suddenly becomes too shy to poop on the day you need it most! We are so close to getting every single sample in one day, but our best record so far is 14 in a day.

What challenges have you faced?

In the beginning, it was very hard for me to adjust to the weather here and the time spent in the bush. In Chicago, the weather shifts often and there is usually a decent amount of cloud coverage or a breeze during the day. Adjusting to intense sunlight and temperatures exceeding 40 degrees C (104 F), while walking for several hours in the bush, was quite the challenge. I quickly learned to stock up on sunscreen, taking plenty of water and to always wear a hat!

Do you smell of dung at the end of the day?

Fortunately for me elephant dung is mainly composed of hay and grasses, which are not too smelly! I use to work in an endocrine laboratory before I came to South Africa, and I had to process carnivore and primate fecals. Let me tell you, you will not have any nose hairs left after smelling tiger poop! Decomposing meat is a smell that unfortunately sticks to clothing very well, or so my roommates use to tell me when I came home from work.

Which local words did you learn first, and what do they mean?

I get to lead a bit of a double life out here when it comes to languages. I spend each morning with the elephant keepers, who are primarily from Zimbabwe and speak Shona. I greet them with “Mangwanani Akanaka” which means good morning. When I come back from the bush to the lodge, my friends primarily speak Afrikaans, so I greet them with “Môre Môre Môre!” which means morning as well! It has been really fun to learn so many new traditions, cultures and languages here! 

What is your favourite insect and which one do you find most disgusting? 

My favourite insect out here would have to be the dung beetle, because they are some of my biggest helpers when it comes to finding a fresh sample. As soon as the elephants drop the first bolus, you can see the dung beetles beginning to take flight and scope out their target. My least favourite insect by far is the red roman. They move as quick as lightning, chop off locks of hair to make their nests with and they are classified as an ant, even though they look like a demonic spider. Those things give me the heebie jeebies! Since I have moved to the bush I have really tried to acclimatise from my previous life in the city. I have learned, however, that my strong dislike for certain insects has not changed much.

We are very fortunate to have someone with Chloe’s background, skills and tenacity as part of the Camp Jabulani family, and just know that we are going to learn so much from her and vice versa. Chloe will be bringing you updates on the research process as she goes along, before publishing her final findings in the near future.

Please join us in wishing Chloe everything of the best with her research.

The Camp Jabulani Family”

 

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Sorry I Disappeared!

Hello everyone back home!

Unfortunately, time has managed to escape me here in the bush and before I knew it I hadn’t updated my blog in a few months…woof! There are so many things to catch everyone up on back home that I don’t even know where to start off!

My research is going fantastic currently at Camp Jabulani and I couldn’t be more happy with the behavioral results I am seeing with our elephants. I have become so close to the herd and the elephant handlers, that I have started writing blogs for Camp Jabulani about my amazing times with them. I will start posting my blog posts here as well as sharing them on Facebook for anyone who is interested. You can also follow the Camp Jabulani blog posts and see what else is going on at the amazing place I work at @http://campjabulani.com/blog .

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Ill leave you all off with the beautiful Limpopo. She is one of the funniest elephants in the herd here and obviously one of the most photogenic as well!

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A Birthday in the Bush

 

I cant believe I have already been in South Africa for almost 3 months now and in the bush for 2 months! A blog post has been way overdue, but it does take sometime to settle into a new place and get a routine going.

The days here almost blur together and the weeks pass by so quickly. Never has time seemed to move so fast as it does here, which is incredibly ironic as this place is know to run on “African time”. I think a proper definition for Africa time would be something like, expect nothing to really get done on time and everyone kind of just goes with the flow of things. Anyway, time moved so quickly that I almost forgot that I was turning 23 soon! I’ve been very fortunate to have spent all of my birthdays so far surrounded by friends and family, so this was my first birthday spent abroad. Living in the bush, you cant exactly go to a club with your girlfriends to ring in the big day. So I decided to start out the big day as I do every day here in the bush, with the elephants 🙂

After a good few hours roaming around the bush stalking the elephants, like the huge creep I am, I finished off my observation with a big wet kiss on the cheek from my favorite elephant Jabulani. I then spent the rest of the day reading over some papers and doing some boring research things that no one really wants to hear about I’m sure (trust me not even the researcher wants to talk about the research some days). As I headed home for the evening, my roomie told me to quickly get get dressed and ready to go out somewhere. Some days you just really need a trip into town or some time off of the “farm”, and a birthday was a perfect excuse to do so. After an AMAZING dinner and some drinks with a few of my girlfriends we decided to head back home. Now the day had been jam packed full of guests staying at the lodge, so that meant a long day and night for the rangers and chefs. Usually everyone heads right to bed on those nights, but to my surprise, all my friends were waiting up for us to get back with a few drinks in hand. After a birthday cheers, my friends surprised me with a cake and I got to not only hear “happy birthday” sung to me in english, but also in Afrikaans! How could a birthday abroad get any better than that? Well, my amazing family somehow managed to contact my friends all the way in Africa and had them bake me a beautiful cake, complete with flowers a card and of course some elephant decorations. I am so incredibly blessed to have made such amazing friends so quickly here and have such a supportive and loving family back home. Thank you everyone for the amazing birth abroad!

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A Nutty Situation

So yesterday, as the Chefs and I were leaving to head into work, we heard a really strange noise coming from the back of the house. It became progressively louder and sounded like something was crying out in distress. One of the chefs ran to the back of the house to see what was going on and found Patches, our fierce leopard house cat, chewing on a baby squirrel! After an intense wrestling match, she was able to get the baby away from Patches. The baby was very weak and obviously upset that it had almost been eaten by Patches. We took it back to get some food, warmth and rest. Later that day we discovered the baby squirrel was a boy and it was named Timone. I have now somehow become one of the official baby sitters for Timone, as his mom cooks in the kitchen and dad takes guests on game drives. My proposal is due tomorrow morning and I have a baby squirrel sitting on my shoulder nibbling at my ear. What is my life?

Oh and if anyone was wondering, baby squirrels love tummy and neck rubs and shake their hind leg much like a dog would when getting loved on. So freaking cute!

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Am I a Disney Princess Yet?

Sometimes my friends like to bring me little surprises in mysterious boxes. Most days its something that makes me scream internally like a snake or scorpion, but today it was a Chameleon! I decided to take on the role of Rapunzel and adopt him as my little animal sidekick, giving him the fitting name of Pascal. Instead of sitting on my shoulder, like a typical animal sidekick would do, he decided he liked climbing up my hair much better and the view from on top of my head. After getting lost in my hair for the 10th time, I decided to  release Pascal back into the bush. It was a fun day being a princess of the South African bush!

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My Favorite Part of the Day

I’ve only been in the field for a little over a week now and it’s already starting to feel like home. Lucky for me, I’m not all alone out here with only the lions for some company. I’m conducting the behavioral observation portion of my research with a group of elephants that live at this camp site within the Kapama Game Reserve. There is a beautiful lodge there where guests can stay, go on game drives, eat really really good food and even meet a few elephants throughout their trip. There is a whole team that goes into making these daily operations possible for the lodge and I’m super lucky I got stuck with them, or should I say that they got stuck with me?

My favorite part of the day is in the morning when everyone is just waking up and all groggy. I run on over from my room to the main house where all the chefs and some of the office staff lives. We all pile into a bakkie (Pickup truck) and cruise on down across the reserve towards the lodge hitting some “speed bumps” along the way. I really needed a chiropractor visit before I came here, but every time I have a kink I just hop in the car and hope it jolts my spine into place.

Once we arrive at the lodge I take a big swig of water and prepare myself for the biggest task of the day…saying good morning to everyone. Now this may sound silly, but saying good morning around here is a quest that is not for the faint of heart and can get competitive. Instead of saying “Good morning”, like us boring Americans say, South Africans use the term “Môre” (pronounced mora), which is very beautiful and consists of a nice long tongue roll on that r. Now many of you may know that I am not the best at learning languages, especially when it comes to a language like Spanish which involves heavy tongue rolling for correct pronunciation. Okay, so Afrikaans is like Spanish on steroids. SWEET MERCY! Mom and Dad where was the essential tongue rolling gene when I was created, because I am struggling over here!?! Oh and you don’t just greet someone by saying “Môre” once. Hahahaha, NO! You say it at least 5-6 times… to each person! So everyone sounds like a bunch of little purring cats, cooing back and forth at one another beautifully, wishing one another a happy day, while I’m over here choking on my tongue which refuses to roll properly, so I have to make the Chewbacca wookiee noise as loud and quickly as I can. “MORA MORA MORA MORA MORA MORA!!!” Fortunately for me, everyone is very kind here and usually just laughs at my horrific attempts at trying to speak Afrikaans, but hey at least I’m trying, right?!

Anyway, after my horrific attempts at greeting my fellow comrades, it’s time for some coffee. So, instant coffee is all the rage here and I must admit, though one could say I am a coffee snob after working as a barista for several years, instant coffee is actually pretty good (If anyone from Brew Point reads this please don’t hate me). So, when you decide to make yourself a cup of coffee, if you are the first one at the station you can bet you will have a list of drinks to make besides your own. I feel like I’m a barista all over again, running from room to room asking who needs a refill or a fresh cup of Joe. They even have a little table chart with each person’s names and how many coffees and creams and sugars they take. Fun Fact: When making instant coffee, use a teaspoon not a tablespoon. I almost killed one of the chefs one night after giving him a serious overdose of caffeine in one of my first coffee making attempts. The absolute best part about the coffee making process is that everyone here has their own special mug. For the first week, I would make everyone coffee in their special mugs and bring it to them followed by my unholy shrieking gurgle of “Môre!” I would return to my coffee, looking utterly depressed in its sad plain white mug that was claimed by no one. I never realized how important a little old coffee mug could mean to me. Well, I went into town to buy some essential things for living and such and guess what was at the top of my list?

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Home sweet Home 🙂

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Over the river and through the woods, to the bush we go!

Sorry I haven’t written in a while everyone, but things have become more hectic then ever. So long story short my parents left and I was finally moved into school. I had my own room and already got blessed with some amazing roommates from all over the world. As soon as I get all unpacked and start making friends my professor informs me that I am traveling to the field site for 10 days. Though it was a huge pain packing everything up again and saying goodbye to friends I just made, I knew I would be back super soon. Plus, I was finally going into the field and was getting the chance of a lifetime to work with elephants. So I was just a bundle of nerves and excitement, not really knowing at all what to expect.

So to give you guys an idea of what I was expecting, I brought a tent and a sleeping bag because I thought I would be living outside. Well turns out that “the bush” has mush more civilization than most would guess. After a long 6 hour drive, my professor and I made it to the Kapama Game Reserve, where the lodge I would be conducting my research at was located. A big safari truck comes winding down the road and the ranger offers us a lift up to the lodge. My professor insists that I get in and he will follow behind; “Consider it your christening into the bush”. So here we go trekking it down this sandy path, with wild animals all around us and the wind blowing in my hair and it’s like an absolute dream. But then this GIANT insect comes screaming into my face and hits me at warp speed smack in the middle of my forehead. So I’m trying to keep quiet and pay attention to the ranger whose showing me all of this amazing wildlife, but I can barely concentrate because I was internally screaming the entire time as one insect after another hit and began to crawl over me. We make it to the lodge finally and I am excited to wash all of the dead bug parts off of my face before my big meeting with the head of the camp. At the meeting we go over my research plan and whats doable and what is not. After some talking for a while we all come to a consensus and I am crazy excited to start conducting my research. Oh, but those 10 days? Yeah that turned into 2 and a half months…

I have been in the bush a week now and I am still alive. Insects are everywhere, but you learn to become one with them after the first few days. I fall asleep to the sound of squirrels trying to chew through my roof and Red Romans crawling through my door jam. I run into the bush daily chasing after elephants and recording their every move. I have a pet gecko I have named Finn that lives in my room and eats all of the mosquitoes for me. Lions occasionally walk and call by my front door in the middle of the night. Oh, and I cant recall a time in my life that I’ve been this happy 🙂

Oh and for those of you wondering, this is what a Red Roman is…

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Yeah… its technically an ant… oh and the best part about them? They run at the speed of lighting, defy gravity and they cut pieces of your hair off in the middle of the night to make their nests. Sick right?