Sunday, 27 December 2020

Publication: Tortoise mortality along fence lines in the Karoo, Journal of Nature Conservation

From experience, electric fencing burns are very painful: but of course, we can move away fast and get away from the pain!

But imagine getting shocked again and again for hours and hours. It was 2013 when I first recorded dead tortoises on an electric fence on a bird survey route north of the Baviaanskloof. Since then, I’ve seen hundreds more as electric fencing has become a dominant predator control strategy across South Africa. Tortoises, once shocked, withdraw to the safety of their shell and hope it stops. It never does… they endure pulse after pulse of current until they die. It is inconceivable to me that there are no controls on this infrastructure that take this into account: there are simple solutions that will allow the use of these fences without killing tortoises.

Fences require daily patrolling to remove tortoises. Alternatives could include thermostatic switches which turn off fences when tortoises are most active, or programmed ‘escape’ periods. These solutions are offered with the realisation that electric fences are not going away: they are too valuable for the control of predators or for restricting the movement of big game (SANParks have major electric fence infrastructure on many of their parks). 

Dead leopard tortoises on electric fences are an obvious problem. What this research also showed was the standard mesh fencing is bad for the smaller tortoise species (most of the species), which get wedged and stuck. This fence type is prolific across the rangelands of southern Africa. All of this is not good news for the world’s tortoise hotspot.

This is a situation that makes me feel sad and powerless: all I could do as a scientist was help document this tragedy. My effort to draw attention to the problem by making a YouTube video has had all of 150 views in 4 years. So: there we go, I offer the world another piece of sad information and hope those with the power to make change (which should be all of us) will act upon this.

I’m very grateful to Matt Macray, Conservation Biology MSc student at the Fitz, for doing the groundwork on this; as well as to Biosphere Expeditions for their support. I was able to facilitate this work through a postdoctoral research grant through SANBI: thanks to Phoebe Barnard for that. I’m grateful to Professor Graham Alexander, Wits University, for his collaboration and herpetological expertise. And lastly, I always thought my first co-authored paper with Professor Peter Ryan would be about birds: but life can be funny like that.

The paper is free to view until February 2021, and I'm happy to provide a copy on request. Elsevier, the publishing house, were very fast and efficient in getting this article online after acceptance.  

Saturday, 12 December 2020

2020: A summary of a Blue Hill year in the shadow of Covid-19


I guess the year started normal. January, like most of the end of 2019 was steering the formation of the "I Love Nature fitness and environment center" (aka ‘the gym’) in Uniondale. That project of course would soon be put on the back-burner. February, I was in Kenya with Biosphere Expeditions helping a small conservancy, Enonkishu, monitor wildlife with a combination of local rangers and overseas participants. Despite heavy rains and floods it was mostly positive experiences with the memory echoes all positive: seems so long ago.

I managed to get back to South African beginning of March, a few weeks before the world realised what trouble it was in and hard lockdown was implemented, which lasted all April. We had a volunteer with us, Jeb, a charismatic 19-year-old Londoner into Tai-chi and telling stories, whose 2 week stay ended up being closer to 2 months before he got onto a repatriation flight.

With all tourism cancelled and repayment of Blue Hill Escape deposits, it was a significant financial blow.  Luckily, most running expenses for Blue Hill are covered by Chris and Elaine, who continue to be generally healthy despite additional age induced aches and pains. Importantly, Anja still had teaching income and translation contracts, all done by Zoom now of course. My time was put to home-schooling (wow was that hard at the start: a test of my patience and expectations, and Elena certainly missed school, friends and her far more patient teacher).

In-between depressing updates of a world on the brink, we had a constructive time at Blue Hill, in no small way aided by Jeb. The garden looks the best it has since 2012, we built a pizza oven from scratch, and a chicken run which is now populated with very keen egg-laying chickens. The ‘roads’ were dissuaded from their perpetual efforts to turn into dongas, another couple of dongas were straddled with stone bridges.

Winter was a mild one: but temperate afternoons outside enjoying the sun are always tempered with the nagging of ‘why is the winter so mild’. Of course, cold fronts did mean some days as well as the early mornings were spent with everyone in the kitchen around the wood-fired stove. A spectacular snow storm provided much needed light-relief, as well as moisture for life in the mountains. Thanks to that, spring was kick-started with a profusion of beautiful fynbos blooms. That would provide lots of opportunity to populate my latest hobby: uploading photos to the citizen science nature documenting platform iNaturalist. Nature on Blue Hill Nature Reserve can now be viewed here:

With the SA Covid curve flattened, but paranoia running high, I’d also pack up Elena and Charlie for a camping trip to the Overberg to assist Sanjo Rose with her MSc project examining breeding biology of Agulhas Long-billed Lark. Then, only a few weeks later I was seeing some of the most spectacular Namaqualand flower displays being posted on Social media. Seemed like a good idea to drop everything and head that way for a second camping trip (September), except Francois van der Merwe gave us use of his empty research centre, so we could still social-distance and wander the Hantam Karoo looking at some of the most incredible botanical displays I’ve ever seen. Lots of hiking meant Elena and Charlie were now easily as fit as me, and certainly fitter than mom. Seemed like a good time for them to finally get to the top of Bloukop (Blue Hill) using their own 2 feet, which was accomplished in October. Another milestone in their lives ticked off. Another hiking trip to Duiwekloof in the Baviaanskloof at the end of November would round off the hiking year (so far…). Supposedly that leaves me with December to catch up on writing tasks, maybe do a bit more bird ringing, which had been mostly neglected without someone to help at the nets.  

I’m grateful to Mark Anderson for commissioning me to write up an article on the history of Ostrich, with the journal turning 90 this year. Certainly, the editorship of Ostrich continues to occupy much time, albeit sporadically: either lulls or storms. Most science writing has been done courtesy of Krista Oswald, writing up her PhD work on Cape Rockjumpers: the crowning good news on that is that they are to be bird-of-the-year 2021! Apart from that, a book review, an article on BirdLasser and a co-authorship on the Karoo birds work were the sum of my published ornithological contributions: a paper looking at bird size change having really been completed the previous year, together with a paper summarising body size metrics from the SAFRING database. But ornithological duties continue to demand attention: somehow Colleen Downs managed to draft me into the organising committee for the International Ornithological Congress to be held in Durban in 2022.

All in all, we end the year, healthy, with many marvellous memories to overshadow Trump, EFF and Covid induced misery, and optimistic that 2021 will be a good year too. If I could just have a few more braais with a few more friends, I’ll be happy. So here’s to you, wherever you are: we’re thinking of you and hope to see you face to face one day again.  



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