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A Zoo Biologist’s Lessons from the Wild

by Emily Anderson

As a student in applied animal behaviour, I have spent my masters studying captive primates at Zoo de Granby. Don’t get me wrong. I love it. I enjoy the idea that my research might help to improve the life of animals that are in human care, but after two field seasons, I was itching for something different. I wanted to hike and get dusty and muddy. I wanted to feel grass under my boots. I didn’t want to have to answer the question “Where is the waterpark?” five times a day. Most of all, I was looking to broaden my research experience, so I wasn’t typecast as only a zoo biologist. I decided to look for a field course that would fulfill all these desires. What I found was even better: Sepela Field Programs.

Through this organization, founded by Dr. Brandi Wren, I was able to take a University-level Field Primatology course in South Africa. Dr. Wren has been teaching field primatology courses since 2007 and is very familiar with both the wildlife and culture of South Africa, so she is able to plan a very thorough itinerary. Not only did this course earn me a credit towards my master’s degree, it gave me the opportunity to explore the methods used to study wild primates and their habitats. I even got to meet some of the members of the Rising Star team who were involved in the recent discovery of Homo naledi. Overall, we had a very solid trip booked: three weeks, four field sites, a primate sanctuary and lots of learning!


Dr. Brandi Wren instructing a student on how to take a GPS location.

Our first day in South Africa, we recovered from jetlag at Lesedi Cultural Village, where we learned about the people and traditions of South Africa, and got to indulge in some native cuisine. There wasn’t much time to rest though, because the next day, we were headed out to begin our research. The first stop was Loskop Dam, where we collected data on a troop of well habituated vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus). A great deal of the day was also spent learning the different tree species found in the area, collecting data on vegetation diversity and canopy cover and performing transects. In the evening, we would make dinner and have a lecture on subjects ranging from behavioural data collection techniques to ethics in field work. During one of our days at Loskop Dam, we were even lucky enough to be invited by the conservation staff at the park to watch a rhino relocation!


A vervet monkey at Loskop Dam.


Rhino relocation by park staff at Loskop dam.

Our next three locations were just as spectacular as the first. From our desperate (though unsuccessful) search for Samango monkeys (Cercopithecus albogularis) at Blyde River to our work habituating chacma baboons (Papio ursinus) in Krueger Park with the baboon whisperer himself, Graham Cooke, it was a very exciting, not to mention educational experience. Did I mention all the other extraordinary animals we saw? Elephants, aardvarks, civets, the works! To finish the trip of right, I flew down to Cape Town with Dr. Wren and attended the South African Primates Association’s annual conference to learn about some of the interesting work that was been performed by students and researchers in this country. All in all, it was really the trip of a lifetime!


Chacma baboon troop at an artificial watering hole in Kruger Park.

Field courses are a great learning experience and I feel privileged that, thanks to the funding I received from the QCBS and Concordia University, I was able to go on this adventure and share so many fond memories with such amazing people. 

On this final note I just wanted to share some of the things I learned:

1) As a zoo biologist, I am very spoiled. Every day, I show up and my animals are right where I left. I don’t have to work that hard to tell them apart, since they are only a couple meters away from me, and they are already habituated to people. It is no wonder it takes so long to do research on wild primates!

2) Everything in the field in South Africa has thorns, so you either wear pants or come home looking like you got in a fight with a small animal (and lost).

3) Elephants will pretend to eat while you are watching them, with the hopes that you won’t notice they are actually watching you back.

4) You meet the most fascinating people at a field ranger training camp and it will make you want to give up all your life plans and go be a safari ranger.

5) South African cream soda is GREEN and they have the best flavours of potato chips.

So my advice to all you is to participate in a field course at least once in your academic career. You will learn much more than you would have ever hoped to.

Post date: December 20, 2016


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