A lilting French accent broke the silence of the Karoo dusk in Anysberg Nature Reserve.
“I really feel at home here,” said zoologist Marine Drouilly, as we sat on the stoep of one of the cottages in the remote reserve, located between Laingsburg and Montagu. A jackal howled nearby and the Magellanic Clouds hung like blazing chandeliers in the ink-black sky.
Marine told me she’s from a small village in the Champagne region of northeastern France, where plentiful rainfall and gentle sunshine coax vineyards from fecund soils.
What is a 27 year-old French mademoiselle doing here, in a semi-desert at the bottom of Africa, where the preferred beverage is not Moët et Chandon, but Klippies and Coke?
If Marine’s choice of new home wasn’t challenging enough, then her topic of research should keep the energetic student on her toes. The subject of her PhD is “the ecological mechanisms and dynamics behind predator and farmer conflict.”
Simply put, this means Marine is trying to figure out the parameters that drive the killing of livestock on farms by jackal and caracal.
It’s long been a controversial topic. Conservationists and farmers continue to argue their respective positions, while the situation remains largely the same. Despite hunting, trapping and poisoning predators for three centuries, farmers have been unable to rid their properties of jackal and caracal.
And all the time, predators continue to kill livestock.
Surprisingly few extensive scientific studies have been done in South Africa on this topic and when there is no hard evidence, emotions can quickly spiral out of control.
Into this breach stepped the softly spoken Marine, who has an MSc in conservation and ecology from Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, and has already worked around the world with brown bears, polar bears, genets and leopards.
She emphasised to the farmers, however, that she would not offer them solutions to their problems.
“All I can do is present the scientific evidence, which will help everyone to make better decisions. But I’m not here to solve the all the problems.”
Marine is using about 100 camera traps – each placed 2km apart – to survey the biodiversity on both farmland and Anysberg Nature Reserve, and then to compare the two areas. The weather-proof Bushnell cameras use infra-red light to detect motion and then take photos automatically when an animal walks past.
It’s one of the largest ever camera-trap surveys in the country, and Marine – who once climbed Mont Blanc – has hiked, scrambled and 4x4ed all over the region to install the cameras. The Anysberg mountain range is largely unexplored, but a rugged 4×4 trail in the reserve offers superb views and fabulous rock formations.
Marine is yet to complete her study of Anysberg Nature Reserve itself, but the camera-trap photos on the farms caught the attention of everyone.
“There is way more biodiversity on the farms than some people expected,” Marine said. “Duiker, steenbok, hares, kudu, springbok and rhebok are the most common, but there are also good numbers of aardwolfs, Cape foxes and bat-eared foxes – and of course jackal and caracal.”
And leopards? “We haven’t picked up any evidence of them on the farms, but there are several in the reserve itself,” Marine said. Reserve manager Marius Brand has photographed several on the reserve with camera traps.
Setting up home in the Karoo wasn’t easy for Marine, who speaks no Afrikaans and doesn’t eat meat.
“I didn’t realize it was so hot and dry! I had never been here before and at first it was a bit lonely. But the farmers were very nice, and once I got to know one or two, they would take me to meet the others. They would say to their friends: ‘This is Marine, she’s from France, she’s a vegetarian and she loves caracals.’”
“So that’s probably NOT the best way to introduce someone to a Karoo farmer,” Marine laughed, “but they found it very funny!”
Along with the camera traps, she is also analysing predator dung – or scat; an irrefutable way to prove what the caracal and jackal are eating. In six months working on 22 farms, Marine has collected exactly 58 caracal scats and 203 jackal scats.
“Only three – maybe four – caracal scat contained sheep hair,” Marine said, “which is very interesting, because it’s commonly believed that caracals kill plenty of livestock.”
“My research so far suggests that caracal as a species don’t kill many sheep, at least in this area. There are maybe one or two individuals that do, but the mass killing of caracals won’t solve the farmers’ problems.”
There were no surprises when it came to the jackal scat.
“I need to confirm this with lab tests but about 50% of jackal scat on the farms contained sheep wool, which is what was expected.”
Once Marine has finished her study of the nature reserve, she will be able to compare her data of the farmlands and the protected area. Then, as reward for all her hard work, she’ll enjoy a glass of Champagne – or Klippies and coke.
If you want to contact Marine, email her on firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Conservation partners BirdLife South Africa, Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, CapeNature, Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Gorongosa National Park, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.