Friday, 10 June 2011

End of fieldwork

They say that every good thing must come to an end. With the removal of the final GPS collar on 4th April, almost 2 years to the day since the first GPS collar was deployed, the current fieldwork phase for the project ended. It was sad to say goodbye to the zebra that I have been following closely for the last two years but a relief that we were successfully able to remove all of the collars.

At the beginning of March the Makgadikgadi was incredibly dry, mosquitoes were non-existent (a very pleasant bonus) and waterholes were drying up. I began to wonder whether the zebra would have migrated prior to darting, really messing with my plans. I need not have worried though as the few small showers that taunted us were followed by a couple of bigger storms that passed through the park towards the end of March. The rain encouraged zebra out of the woodlands and back onto the pans and I swear you could even see the zebra smiling as the rain began to fall.

However, by the time we began the darting, the zebra had moved away from the edge of the pans to the centre of the park, an area that they hadn’t visited since November. This is the traditional end of wet season area and from here many of the zebra will make the short journey back to the Boteti. Others will head east and gamble on there still being some water remaining in the surface waterholes before they too return to the Boteti.

Thanks to the experience and skill of the vet, a little luck and sheer determination we were able to remove 10 collars in 5 days, a feat which didn’t seem possible after the first day when we were only able to find one collared zebra. We were also able to weigh all of the zebra with the heaviest zebra tipping the scales at 435kg! This zebra has a 5 month old foal at foot meaning that her weight is all muscle and fat reserves and, at more than 100kg heavier than what most books suggest is the average weight of a plains zebra, provides plenty of food for thought.

My trusty Landrover also knew that the end was nigh and with the arrival of more rattles and creaks it was telling me that it needed some time away from the harsh Makgadikgadi and the numerous aardvark holes.

I am now looking forward to the next phase of the project which involves the detailed analysis of all of the data collected so far. To do this I will return to Bristol to immerse myself in a world of papers, books and statistics to help understand what is happening within the Makgadikgadi. This is perhaps the most exciting phase of the project but one which will require a different set of skills to that needed for fieldwork.

Due to the current location of zebra within the Makgadikgadi, and the likelihood that they will soon return to the Boteti, I have decided to delay the planned Aerial survey until January 2012. This is to ensure that the survey will be conducted at the best possible time and in the best possible conditions. I don’t want to rush the survey now and have an estimate of the population size that is not reliable. If anyone would be willing to support this survey then all contributions would be gratefully received.

I would like to thank everybody who has contributed in any way towards the success of the fieldwork phase of the project. This support is greatly appreciated and has helped make the last two years so successful and enjoyable despite the numerous challenges.

As the write-up progresses I will keep you updated with new findings and interesting results. If you have any comments or queries about anything regarding the Makgadikgadi Zebra Research then please get in touch.

Friday, 11 March 2011


It has been a relatively quiet month in the Makgadikgadi. Very little rain fell and so the ground has hardened up considerably making it easier to travel around as the zebra move off the pans and into the woodland areas and the grasslands closer to large waterholes. Rains in late February have encouraged zebra to move back down onto the pans while the water remains fresh. It will be interesting to see whether we continue to get late rains this year like we have for the past few years.

Fieldwork has continued throughout the month taking its toll on the research vehicle which is now visiting the car doctor for some expert love and attention. The research vehicle will be back with me soon as I conduct the last month of field data collection for this phase of the project. Then, at the end of March and into early April, all remaining collars will be removed from zebra with the assistance of a qualified veterinarian.

There have been no unexpected sightings to report this month, I keep hearing Lions calling through the night but they remain elusive when day breaks. I have been conducting observations this month and it is fascinating to watch the dynamics within the zebra herds as bachelors look to start a harem while harem stallions fend off the attention of other males.

I am continuing to plan the aerial survey which I hope to undertake either later this month or in early April. I would like to thank SAVE Foundation and Kalahari Kavango for their pledged support for this survey in offering to meet some of the costs. Additional funding is still required and if anyone feels that they might be able to support the project and help to meet the costs of this survey then please let me know. I am also still looking to secure funding for the chemical analysis of grass and faeces samples collected during fieldwork. Any support for either of these targets would be greatly appreciated.

The Makgadikgadi Zebra Research project is featured in the latest issue of The Smithsonian Magazine which chose to make it the cover story. The story was written by Robyn Keene-Young who visited the project in November 2010 in order to learn more about the research, its aims and the challenges faced while working in the Makgadikgadi. Robyn provides a very good view of the research and the feedback that I have had so far has been very promising and I am glad that so many people are interested in the research. You can read the story at the following link: There is also a video of zebras and the research on the website which you might be interested in watching.

I hope that this finds you all well and if you have anything which you would like to comment on then please feel free to get in touch.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

A New Year

As with much of Southern Africa, and seemingly many other places in the world, Botswana is currently receiving some fairly heavy rainfall. Maun is getting rain nearly every day while the level of the floodwaters coming into the delta from Angola, as a result of rainfall there, is currently higher than previous records for this time of year. The Makgadikgadi is also receiving some good rains but these are often very localised heavy showers with only the occasional storm affecting the whole park. This means that the pans are getting progressively wetter and muddier making conditions a little tricky in places. So far I have avoided getting stuck but there have been times when it’s been touch and go!

Throughout January the zebra have been grazing on the grass islands along the edge of the pans. With the presence of fresh rainwater in the pans and waterholes these grass islands, where the grasses there have grown significantly in the last month, become easily accessible and the zebras are making the most of it.

Newborn zebra foals and wildebeest calves are thriving and it is interesting to observe the differences in their behaviour. Wildebeest calves of a similar age join together in large crèches and run around while their mothers graze. Foals on the other hand largely stay with their mothers within the family harem, only playing with other foals if they are from the same harem.

We have had a busy month of fieldwork with behavioural and grazing observations conducted, population counts done and water, faeces and grass sampled. With all of the zebra on the pans it makes them slightly easier to find with less time spent travelling between areas searching for the herds.

When water sampling we spotted a lone cheetah sitting on a ridge a few hundred metres away. We approached slowly as cheetah in the Makgadikgadi are often very nervous but unusually this one was incredibly relaxed and not fazed by the car at all. After taking a couple of photos we moved to carry on with the sampling when I realised that 15 zebra were about to walk straight past where the cheetah had laid down and so I moved back to a ridge a hundred metres or so away to watch what would happen. Through my binoculars I watched the cheetah scan along the line of zebra and settle on the smallest foal. When the foal was at its closest point the cheetah took off and rapidly caught up with the foal bringing it down. Within seconds of the cheetah getting the foal, the foal’s mother and father were on the scene defending the foal and trying to chase the cheetah away. At the second attempt they succeeded and the cheetah retreated to a nearby bush but the foal stayed down. Around a minute passed before the foal sprang back to its feet and trotted rapidly off in the opposite direction to rejoin the harem having only a slight scratch on its rump but a more serious cut on its face to show for its close brush with death.

It all happened so quickly that it is difficult to piece together the images of the event in my mind. I was torn between wanting the foal to survive the attack but also wanting the cheetah to complete its hunt successfully as predator hunts often fail with only around 1 in 4 hunts successful. It was, however, fascinating to watch the zebra come in to defend their foal without hesitation and I have no doubt that the cheetah, a big and healthy male, will be more successful in the future.

I am now into the last few months of fieldwork for the project and I am looking to complete the last few pieces of the jigsaw. As well as taking the remaining GPS collars off in early April, I am hoping to conduct an aerial population count of zebra within the Makgadikgadi. I have tried to plan this in the past but have had to postpone it due to a lack of funding. I am planning this now and, as with anything that involves flying, it is likely to cost a significant amount of money – around £1,000.

To understand more about the movement of zebra within the Makgadikgadi and the reasons behind this movement, I have been collecting grass and faeces samples for analysis. The influence of dietary protein and minerals is going to be very important in understanding more about the zebras’ movement and long-term requirements. These samples are sorted initially at the Okavango Research Institute in Maun but to be analysed in more detail it is likely that I will have to send them to South Africa. To get these samples analysed I will have to pay between £5 and £10 per sample depending on the analysis required and due to the number of samples I am expecting to have to pay £2,500 to £3,000 for this analysis.

If you feel that you would able to contribute towards meeting the costs of the aerial survey or the sample analysis then I would be very happy to hear from you and any assistance would be greatly appreciated. I should also remind you that all donations are tax deductible.

Best wishes to you all,


Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Happy New Year

2011 has arrived leaving me wondering what happened to 2010 which just seemed to come and go in the blink of an eye. Maybe the Mayan prophecy for 2012 is correct after all!

December began with zebra spread out across the Makgadikgadi with some still drinking from the Boteti River and grazing nearby whilst others were grazing on the eastern boundary of the National Park. Rains had been quite light and sporadic with only a few of the surface waterholes containing water. This meant that many of the zebra chose to remain near to the Boteti River until there had been further heavy rainfall to ensure that there would be drinking water available to them before they headed east. Other zebra decided to take a risk and moved east in the knowledge that there should be some water available to them but they would have to search for it.

Unfortunately, one of the collared zebra which had remained near to the Boteti River had a very close encounter with the resident lions. They are two of the biggest female lions people have ever seen with both weighing over 200kgs and so it is no surprise that the collared zebra didn’t survive the encounter.

As December wore on everything began to dry out even more until a couple of big storms passed through just before Christmas. One storm caught me whilst we were grass sampling and instantly flooded the roads causing us to seek shelter and wait for the storm to pass – we were sat there for 3 hours! As always, the sun eventually reappeared and quickly began to dry everything out once more allowing us to carry on with our work.

With the recent storms it appears that the zebra herds have finally migrated east with large numbers being seen around Jacks Camp. I hope that this means that the wet season has now arrived in earnest which brings its own challenges. I’m sure it won’t be long before the mosquitoes are everywhere and I will have to be very careful not to get stuck in the wet mud of the pans!

With the arrival of the rains comes new life. In the last update I mentioned how one of the collared zebra had recently given birth, I can now add that a further collared zebra gave birth around the 10th December. There are more foals being born all of the time and it is quite incredible to see so many young foals within the herds.

I have recently posted some photos from the Makgadikgadi in 2010 to my website and if you click on the following link you can view these images -

I would like to thank you all for your support for the research during 2010 and I hope that this continues through 2011. I hope that you all have a very happy and prosperous 2011.