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JohnR

Volunteering on Ongos Game Farm

22 posts in this topic

Posted (edited)

I spent the middle two and a bit weeks of September 2010 as a paying volunteer on the Ongos game farm which is a small (by Namibian standards) farm of about 10,000 hectares to the north-west of Windhoek in an area known as the Khomas Hochland. It is in a pretty special position in that it shares its south-eastern boundary with Katutura, the shanty town of about 40,000 inhabitants on the outskirts of Windhoek. "Katutura" means "the place we don't want to be" and was created by the authorities when they moved all the shanty towns out of Windhoek proper. It has slowly expanded westwards until it has just reached the edge of the farm.

 

In order for a farmer to own the game on his farm Namibian law requires the farm to be surrounded by a high game fence; otherwise the game belongs to the government. As soon as the farm is fenced, the game has to be managed to prevent numbers getting out of hand and the farm stripped of vegetation. There are a number of related issues such as human predator conflict with the nearby township, rabies in the kudu population, management of predators on the farm. Also you would prefer the leopards to eat cheap animals like warthog and springbok rather than expensive roan or sables.

 

So the farmer, Ulf approached Biosphere Expeditions and asked for help in building reliable statistics of both predators and prey as well as gather data for some other scientists with studies on the farm. In addition to owning the farm, Ulf is a veterinarian with a clinic in the township and has a game translocation business. So he sees many sides of the game farming and hunting worlds as well as dealing with disease in game, cattle and household pets.

 

The Biosphere Expeditions model is to make a grant to support the scientific study and a loan to build the infrastructure to house 12 paying volunteers and an expedition leader with the loan being repaid through housing and feeding the volunteers. BE are also sponsored by Land Rover as part of their Fragile Earth programme by loaning and maintaining 4 Defenders (2 double-cab pickups, a single-cab pickup and a station wagon).

 

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The accommodation was originally intended to be "rustic" but Ulf decided to construct 10 safari style tents on concrete bases each with two single beds and storage, as well as a flush toilet and gas powered shower.

 

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The central "lapa" is a magnificent construction of trees, thatch, concrete and stone with kitchen, offices for the scientists, storage for Biosphere's equipment and a cooler for the beer.

 

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In addition to Ulf there are three field scientists and it is their data we are collecting on leopards, brown hyena and rabies in kudu. The tools used are box traps, camera traps, tracking, waterhole observation, searching for carcasses, game counts (on foot and in vehicles) and telemetry with collared animals (one female leopard so far).

 

The volunteers arrive twelve at a time for a two week period (a "slot"). I was in the first slot which mostly sees what works for the volunteers and what doesn't and we were led by Matthias Hammer, cofounder of Biosphere Expeditions. The next slots will be more settled and are more likely to see and capture predators. The assembly point is a German style pension in Klein Windhoek called Casa Piccolo, a conveniently short distance from Joe's beerhouse.

 

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Edited by JohnR

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On arrival we were given a safety briefing which went on for several hours but it boiled down to "if you behave sensibly then it is safer than DIY" and the most likely accidents would be on the road in the Land Rovers. However we were told not to wear our head torches on our heads as it provides a target for spitting cobras, and a black mamba was seen. There are also scorpions around.

 

After that the training began on the various activities and the drivers taken for some 4x4 lessons. The non-drivers went with the scientist, Kristina, and set some camera traps as well as seeing something of the farm.

 

The activities

The twelve volunteers are divided into four groups of three, each with at least one driver. Each of the four groups engages in approximately two activities each day in rotation. In the morning they generally last from 7am to 11.30am and in the afternoon from 2pm until 6.30pm. These include (and you will note there are more than eight...)

 

Foot game count

Vehicle game count

Tracks and scats

Waterhole observation

Checking box traps

Checking and collecting data from camera traps

Telemetry

Community survey

Community education

Data entry

 

Before each activity involving a vehicle, the vehicle is checked for leaks and damage, fuel level, and tyre pressures. After returning the vehicle to camp, it is again checked for damage, any trapped vegetation removed (fire is a major hazard on the farm) and its windows cleaned.

 

After a full rotation of 4 days a more major maintenance check is done on all fluid reservoirs under the bonnet, the air filter and radiator cleaned and underneath the vehicle checked for leaks or damage to the suspension, brake lines, differentials, etc. They are cleaned inside and out and equipment checked. Things like wheel braces mysteriously migrate from one vehicle to another even though there are as many as there are vehicles, so the tools are also restored to their correct places.

 

In the first slot all surplus and defunct equipment was removed as these vehicles came from another expedition with different terrain. We would rely only on the high-lift jacks for wheel changing despite the extender being a bit short to reach the jacking point at the back of the vehicle due to the overhang of the truck bed (I had to change a rear wheel high in the mountain region).

 

Foot game count, vehicle game count

In the foot game count all four groups went out at the same time and walked approximately 4km in parallel lines separated by about 1.5km each. The terrain is hilly scrub and quite dense thorn bushes in places so no-one escaped encounters with stay-awhile bushes. At the end of the count one of the Land Rovers drove round picking everyone up. We each team carried a range finder and binoculars (donated by Swarowski), a GPS from Garmin, and a device to read off a bearing relative to our path. The rangefinder was to determine if the animals seen were within 150m, the binoculars to count them and determine gender, the GPS to record our position when we saw the animals.

 

Vehicle game count is similar except we drove on roads in each of 4 regions of the farm, and counted animals up to 250m away.

 

Tracks and scats

We walk a prescribed route looking for predator tracks or scat. This is done early in the day before cars have driven over the tracks obliterating them. For this activity we take a local tracker with us as we can all spot fresh tracks but not after they have been eroded by the wind and insects. If recent activity is found it can indicate a good place to put a camera trap.

 

Waterhole observation

There are a number of waterholes around the farm dating from its use as a cattle ranch. Being on an early slot meant we were intially building hides rather than observing. My group constructed a hide at waterhole 6, a dam high in the mountains. A later slot has observed large numbers of warthogs coming to drink there and I found leopard tracks.

 

Checking box traps

At the time of writing there are two box traps in action baited for leopards and hyenas. So checking them does not take long and this activity is extended by either moving the traps to a new position or by looking for tracks and scats.

 

Checking and collecting data from camera traps

Digital camera traps are tied to trees, gateposts, etc and their GPS position recorded. These are checked daily and data cards removed and replaced with empty ones. If there is no significant activity the camera could be removed or moved to another position. Mostly the cameras record moving grass and herds of kudu or warthogs. Occasionally they pick up a brown hyena or leopard. If a apredator is passing regularly then it might indicate a good place for a box trap.

 

Telemetry

So far there is one collared predator, a female leopard who was discovered to be pregnant when immobilised. She is still on the farm and has a VHF radio collar and presumably one or more cubs. The farm is quite hilly, so finding her is not a trivial exercise. Actually there are two collared leopards: Induna, the pet leopard has escaped from his enclosure in the past so he also has a collar and can be used to test the telemetry equipment.

 

Community survey

The farm has a common boundary with the township Katutura to the north-west of Windhoek, so one group is going into Katutura and walking around talking to the inhabitants. They are friendly and when they see we are not from the authorities they are quite open and willing to discuss their problems. Mostly the problem animals are baboons stealing food, and snakes going into their houses. We had thought there might be problems with predators like hyenas but few people have ever seen them in the area. They report the sound of jackals calling at night but again they don't often see them.

 

Community education

The aim is to give groups of children from local schools an outing on the farm. Many African children have never seen much of the wildlife which westerners pay so much to come and photograph or shoot. On my slot we went to the Family of Hope Services school based at the Hainyeko Community Centre. The children there are outside the normal school system and some are being brought up to speed to be able go to a state school, others are HIV/AIDS affected either as orphans or undergoing treatment. The latter needs good nourishment so the school gives all the children a good meal each day. Teachers had selected 15 teenagers and they divided into 3 groups each with a teacher and joined us in the back of the 3 Land Rover pickups for a drive to the farm, a meeting with Induna who was waiting to greet everyone (and receive his dinner). Then we picked up the binoculars and animal identification sheets and went for a game drive and saw rhino, giraffe, zebra, kudu, baboon. After that we stopped by a road with lots of antelope and baboon tracks as well as scat so they could try to identify which animals had to to the nearby waterhole. The camp cook had prepared an African snack (like a berliner) and drinks and then we had a group photograph taken before driving the kids back to school. They were clearly delighted with the wole experience and back at the school the other kids all wanted to know when it would be their turn. That was a definite hit.

 

Data entry

All that data we were collecting needs to be entered into a computer, the camera trap cards sorted and junk deleted. There were several people on the slot with good keyboard skills (not me) who made the process efficient. Over time the game counts will be converted into game distributions over the farm using software designed for collecting data on a linear transect and deducing area densities. Ulf estimates it will take around 5 years before the data collection reaches a steady state and becomes reliable. Clearly the camp and associated activities are creating a big disturbance at present so will be causing some redistribution of the game.

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I was interrupted before I could add images above, and now there's no edit button, so here are a few

 

 

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This is a tremendous experience and makes interesting reading, thanks for letting us share it with you.

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This was a great summary - I appreciated getting a first hand report of a paid volunteer experience.

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Very interesting, thanks a lot for sharing!

 

/Tom

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Excellent read - thank you!

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A holiday like this can depend very much on the other people on your slot. Maybe I have been lucky, but this is my fourth time with Biosphere and each time I have had a great bunch of people. There are a mixture of nationalities with the chief scientist, Ulf, being Namibian, the other scientists German whilst the volunteers are 4 English speakers (2 Brits and 2 Yanks [i use the term with affection]), 4 French speakers (2 French and 2 Canadians) and 4 German speakers (a Swiss, 2 Germans, and a journalist, Austrian for the first week and German for the second). The journalists were there to experience the expedition so were treated the same as volunteers and did the same work as everyone else.

 

My team of three included Daniela (Swiss) and Margret (German and a field biologist) so were often speaking German. I spent two years at the University of Bonn so that was no problem for me. Regardless of nationality the official language of the expedition is English but I think the French were a little lost with the rapid colloquial English and German being spoken around them.

 

The introductory briefing stressed the three S's: Safety, Science, Satisfaction. Meaning Safety comes first at all times, after which the Science comes next and finally our personal satisfaction. This means we are not on a photographic safari but we can stop to take pictures when it is safe to do so and it does not interfere with collecting the scientific data. We also look after the other members of our team, making sure they are drinking water, not falling behind or entangled in a stay-a-while thorn bush.

 

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In the middle of our slot we get a day off. We unanimously turned down the offer of a lift into Windhoek to go shopping or sightseeing, instead we take a Land Rover and drive to one of the more remote waterholes to sit and relax in the wonderful Hochland scenery. I think we are all hooked on this place.

 

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I enjoy this kind of active holiday as it is a complete contrast with my desk bound occupation and volunteer for all the odd jobs whether it is filling sandbags as last year or crawling under the cars for the visual checks or transferring diesel from a bowser to the electric generator using a jerry can 10 litres at a time.

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What a great report on a different kind of holiday. You mentioned this was your 4th Biosphere Expedition. What

were the other ones?

 

 

Is the leopard cooperating with the guy changing its collar? Is it sedated?

 

Thank you for the hint about not wearing my head torch so as not to provide a target for spitting cobras. Yikes.

 

I hope you have many memories of this trip when you return to your desk jobm maybe even a photo or two to adorn the desk.

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Thanks John for this report.I have followed Biospheres for over 3 years and have bookmarked their Altai Snow leopard research project , wishing like hell I could get on it.

But desert elephants with EHRA , Elephants-Human Relations Aid, Namibia have seduced me, so much that I'm booking to go back.

But this project also caught my eye some time ago , so the downside of your report is that you've left me swinging.....

 

Wish I'd never read it! :D

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ATravelynn,

 

My previous 3 expeditions with Biosphere were all in Namibia as well. Partly this is dictated by timing as there are others I would be interested in, but they are during the university teaching term so I cannot go. So far the Namibian expedition has had one or more slots entirely in the summer vacation.

 

Induna is still a juvenile, and hand-reared so human habituated. When Martin climbed into his tree Induna came down to greet him by rubbing heads. Then he came down to greet everyone in turn and be fussed over. On a previous evening we had gone to see him but he did not choose to come and greet us so we just sat on a rocky outcrop high in his enclosure and drank sundowners while the sun set over the farm. When he did put in an appearance it was after sunset and we were actually driving out of the enclosure when he was spotted in a tree. This meant using a high ISO setting of 6400 on my camera to get some pictures and they are full of chroma noise.

 

jimshu,

 

Volunteers seem spoilt for choice in Namibia and other people have mentioned the desert elephants project in very positive terms. The Altai snow leopard study seems to be in another beautiful location but the timing is bad for me and I'm not getting any younger so might find the high mountains difficult going.

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Yeah the altitude would get me these days too John.So I just dream about it.

Namibia is one of my favourite countries and the desert ele experience one of my best times travelling.Some would wonder why we pay to go on these projects, but when you read about what Johannes and his team and volunteers are doing ,stopping conflict between humans and the desert eles, it's a project that needs support, and well within my capabilities to help.

And yes it is a different way of travelling.I'd encourage anyone to get involved in Biospheres projects as well.

A point about volunteer experiences like this is that you learn so much more about a country, it's eco-systems, and it's culture and people because you're there in one place working with locals in their environment for a long period.Rather than the usual tourist thing of getting from one spot to another just to look and move on.

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Obviously I've never been on something like this myself, but having spoken with JohnR in London, and read his report here, (and similar experiences) a trip like this offers you a chance to do something that you would not necessarily have. Other trips may offer better safari bang for the buck, but here you are having hands on. Great memories and thanks for the report JohnR. Matt

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A fantastic report. loved the level of detail.

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Oh this is brilliant, thank you John, gives a really really great idea of what this kind of trip can be like.

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GW,

 

Will do.

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Update:

 

Reported in the Namibian Algemeine Zeitung:

 

The two young white rhino pictured below and in my report were poached and murdered at the end of March 2013. Both horns were removed. They were raised as orphans and became family pets. The youngest was just six years old and was found abandoned by its mother soon after birth.

 

 

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ffs

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awful news. all the four letter words came to mind and remain unwritten.

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I am so sorry to learn of this horrendous act.

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Dreadful so sad

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