Tag Archive | Lucy Hughes

The Little Guys

##### Today’s blog is a guest post from our own Lucy Hughes. ####

We all love the cats don’t we, the majestic lions, the graceful cheetahs and the elusive leopards. There is something about getting one of these cats to ID on Snapshot Serengeti that makes you feel you hit the jackpot. Then there are the elephants, buffalo and giraffe ‘the big guys’. Lions for instance always get the most ‘likes’ on our facebook page. Let’s not even talk about wildlife documentaries; they always manage to star ‘the big guys’, the crowd pleasers, elephants, tigers, lions, whales.

So what about ‘the little guys’? When was the last time you saw a documentary on aardvark or civets?



It seems that the documentary makers don’t think we want to see a whole hour on these little guys. Most people know that lions live in prides and that when a new comer ousts the dominant male he will kill any young cubs. They also know that thousands of wildebeest migrate through the Serengeti, preyed upon by lions, hyena and crocodiles. Who knows how many offspring aardvark have at one time? Or who knows how far a honey badger will walk in one nights foraging.

They are fascinating to say the least these smaller mammals and they are totally deserving of their own starring roles in documentaries and the media. Luckily for us they do appear regularly on Snapshot Serengeti’s camera-traps. Next time you get a porcupine, serval or aardvark stop and think what you know about them.

Zorrilla -- a rare find!

Zorrilla — a rare find!

For me one of the most fascinating small mammals is the sociable mongoose. On the camera-traps they are usually banded mongoose or dwarf mongoose. These guys bustle around all day risking ground based and winged predators. They have complex social lives that find them forever challenging each other of reaffirming bonds. To put it simply they are busy animals.

Dwarf mongoose! One of the cutest critters out there...

Dwarf mongoose! One of the cutest critters out there…

I once had the pleasure of a very close encounter with a group of wild dwarf mongoose. One super hot day I was ambling in the bush checking out camera trap spots, following game tracks, looking for likely spots when I came across a beautiful shaded clearing, not very big, a few meters in diameter. I decided to sit awhile and cool down so propping my back against a boulder and stretching my legs out I sat quietly listening to the sounds of the African bush. A sudden black flash and a drongo had flown into the opposite side of my refuge. Now these birds are adept at following mammals and catching any insects scared up by them so I was curious to see if anything else would arrive. Sure enough a rustle in the dry grass and here popped a dwarf mongoose into the clearing. The diminutive creature was followed rather noisily by about 10 or so more of its group. They fanned out each their own direction and immediately started searching for anything edible. I kept very still and tried not to breathe too much until one of the younger mongooses was sniffing my boot. A second scrambled right over my leg and I was entranced. Then the wind must have changed or an adult must have realised the strange rock might just be alive because a squeal was uttered and the whole group scarpered in one direction their drongo with them. The whole episode lasted about 6 or 7 minutes but it has endeared me to these ‘little guys’ for ever more.


The sound of silence?

## Today’s guest post is from our moderator and regular contributor Lucy Hughes. ##

African sunset 1

What does silence mean to you? Maybe it’s that moment at the end of the day when the telephones stop ringing and the office hubbub finally stops and you can hear yourself think. Maybe sitting in your garden listening to the insects and aeroplanes pass overhead. Or maybe it’s that first 5 minutes of waking before the baby starts howling. Whatever it means to you the point is silence isn’t really silent. Something is always making a sound even if it’s a leaf rustling in the wind or a cricket singing.

In the African bush night time silence is deafening.  Just before sunset there is a rush of activity. The day shift starts looking for a place to spend the night whilst frantically searching out that last mouthful of food. Young banded mongoose are scolded into their burrows by older siblings. Antelope take a drink before heading to thicker cover. Francolins are calling out their staccato calls whilst sandgrouse flock to drink. As the sun sets and darkness looms everything quietens down, the last to make a noise are the guinea fowl who wait till it is just dark to, one by one, barrel up to adorn their favourite roosting trees like giant Christmas baubles. They finally settle down, and the nearby baboons stop squabbling and there is a moment’s peace before the night shift takes over.

African sunset 2

The Scops owl is first with its ‘poop poop poop’ call sounding almost like an insect.  Then the night-jars join in. A distant rasping bark and the jackal are off calling ownership of their territory. They stop suddenly and a moment later there it is, the slow wo-oop! Woo-ooop! and the hyena clan are declaring they are up for business.

There has been no respite to the constant noise of the African bush during this transition between day and night; a seamless mix between the two sound tracks. As the evening wears on and the night shift are out hunting in earnest it gets quieter.  If you are lucky enough to experience this it is unforgettable. The silence is thick, it hurts your ears and you want to shake your head to clear it. You are straining to hear anything out there in the blackness and your senses have you on high alert, never mind that you are in a vehicle your primal instinct knows this is Africa and beasts roam that want to eat you.

The only sound is a cacophony of insects and it is this that gets in your head, it is a relief when a spotted eagle owl calls breaking the pitch and giving you perspective again. Staring into the blackness you see a shape move , you can’t make out what it is, then comes a noise that goes right through you, a guttural, low sawing sound, a leopard is calling broadcasting its presence using the ground as a sounding board. He walks out in front of you, pauses for a moment, then strides off purposefully into the night.

The silence of the African night is palpable. You could slice it with a knife. It is so full of promises of wonderful animal encounters that I never want to sleep. It’s my favourite sound of silence; what’s yours?

Guinea-fowl flying to roost

All in the name of science

Today’s guest blogger is Lucy Hughes. Lucy lived and worked on a private nature reserve in South Africa for four years, carrying out field research that included a camera-trap study into the reserve’s leopard population and twice monthly bird surveys for Cape Town University’s Birds in Reserves Project (BIRP).black-divider

Arrhhh, that really hurts! A three inch thorn had just penetrated my, admittedly inadequate, footwear and was stuck deep in the sole of my foot. Thorns are a serious hazard of camera trap placement in the South African bushveld where plants with thorns or hooks seem to make up about 90% of species.

My colleague Michelle ran back to the landy to get a first aid kit whilst I set about extracting the thorn, there seemed to be an awful lot of blood. I watched the path eagerly for Michelle’s return but as she got near she seemed to slow down and as she opened her mouth to speak I knew exactly what she was going to say. “Luce, if it’s not too painful, what about spreading your blood around a bit?”

Callous as it may seem it wasn’t a bad idea. We had been having trouble with capturing clear night shots of leopards. They always seem to be in a hurry and the shots we had were often blurry making it impossible to id the individuals. We needed a way to get the leopards to pause for a second or two in shot of the camera trap.


We had been advised that scent was the answer and were experimenting with various different ones and now it seemed human blood was to be the next test. I dutifully hobbled out in front of the camera and scraped my bleeding foot around on a nice flat rock Michelle had procured, wondering about the sensibleness of using human blood as bait for a predator. My slight discomfort was all in the name of science.

In the end it didn’t work, It rained a couple of nights later and my efforts where washed away. We never did find the perfect scent.  We were told that tinned sardines worked wonders as well as catnip and perfume. We tried them all. It seems our cats where immune to these. The only thing that stopped them in their tracks was the scent of other leopards. I did learn however that the scent of tinned sardines was particularly interesting to giraffe of all animals. My method was to bury a plastic cup up to its rim in sand and put a blob of sardines in the cup. Now you would have thought that giraffe would have walked on by but as the picture below testifies, giraffe just have to take a closer look. You always learn something new!


Spot that leopard!

Today’s guest blogger is Lucy Hughes. Lucy lived and worked on a private nature reserve in South Africa for four years, carrying out field research that included a camera-trap study into the reserve’s leopard population and twice monthly bird surveys for Cape Town University’s Birds in Reserves Project (BIRP).

Trying to discover how many individual leopards used a reserve in South Africa was challenging work in more ways than one. Unlike the Serengeti Lion Project’s (SLP) 200-odd camera traps, I could count ours on one hand.  That said the study area was much smaller at around 2,500 hectares. The technique was also very different. Whereas the SLP is trying to get a snapshot of animal interaction over a vast area I was interested in individual animals, so setting the camera traps up systematically on a grid basis was not the best option. Instead, to make best use of our limited camera traps, I selected sites that I thought a leopard was most likely to pass.

These sites fell into two categories, the survey sites and the random event sites. Based on recent tracks and scats on game trails and roads, the cameras were moved around the reserve on a regular basis in an attempt to survey the whole area. One or two cameras were reserved for the random events: a fresh kill, old carcass, or hunches about certain water holes or koppies (rocky hills).

My job was to trundle around the reserve, mostly on foot, searching for signs of leopard.  Looking for tracks and scats on the network of sand roads was easy and for the most part it seemed these big cats do love a nice clear road to walk down. Wandering down a dry river bed following a set of tracks idly wondering if the leopard is asleep in one of the big Marula trees is one thing, but suddenly realizing that the pug marks seem to have doubled in size and that you are hot on the trail of two lions jolts you to a stop.  Finding signs off these roads was a little harder, the substrate of the game trails was often tangled with grasses and small thorny bushes and picking up tracks was virtually impossible.

Half an eye was always on the sky watching for vultures. Their activity often led  to carcasses but it was the sense of smell that served  best. The smell of rotting carcasses is fairly potent and travels far and my nose became super sensitive to the whiffs. Unfortunately not having the skills of a bloodhound I would flounder around in the bush turning this way and that trying to pin down the source of the smell.

Setting up a camera trap on a dead wildebeest

Setting up a camera trap on a dead wildebeest

Other than spending just a little too much time around dead things, camera-trapping carcasses lead to some great data. One surprise was just how often kills seemed to be ‘shared’. The following two shots from the same eland kill highlight this. You can see even without comparing spot patterns that these two leopards are different.

Female 1

Female 1

Male 3

Male 3

The first is a young female and the second is the reserve’s dominant male so it’s hardly surprising that he has stolen her meal.  At other kills, though, we had various combinations of leopard visitors including three different adult males within two nights to the same zebra kill. The fact that the leopards stayed put in front of the cameras, munching, meant we managed to get shots from every angle, which helped a lot in putting together ID charts. At no time did we tie down any of the carcasses so clearly the leopards where not fazed by the cameras.

This following shot shows a jackal at the same eland kill. The leopards on this reserve where under very little pressure from lions, which only passed through occasionally. They hardly ever resorted to stashing kills up trees as leopards in areas of high lion density would.

Jackal at eland kill

Jackal at eland kill

This meant that many smaller mammals took advantage of the leftovers. Other than the obvious spotted hyena, we recorded brown hyena, side-striped and black-backed jackal, honey badger, civet, bush pig, and mongoose. This following shot looks harmonious, but the series shows that the honey badger definitely had the upper hand on the jackal.

Honey badger and jackal

Honey badger and jackal

The one thing that fellow researcher, Michele, and I were always aware of was that we were spending a lot of time in places that big cats also spent a lot of time. When you are setting up a camera on a fresh kill you can’t help but wonder if the killer is laying somewhere close watching you!

Check out the time stamps on this next set of pics to illustrate this point!

12:35 - Setting camera

12:35 – Setting camera

15:58 - Leopard

15:58 – Leopard

Photos copyright Michele Altenkirk/Lucy Hughes, Lisssataba NR

Brown Hyena

Today’s guest blogger is Lucy Hughes, an undergraduate working with us since “Serengeti Live” (Snapshot’s predecessor). Lucy lived and worked on a private nature reserve in South Africa for four years, carrying out field research that included a camera-trap study into the reserve’s leopard population and twice monthly bird surveys for Cape Town University’s Birds in Reserves Project (BIRP).

Brown Hyena !!! The shout went up so loud I don’t think I really had need to pick up the radio and call head office with the news. The news being I had just got around 30 camera-trap images of a brown hyena polishing off the remnants of a waterbuck carcass followed by several shots of a rather disgruntled looking leopard whose meal I suspect it had originally been. This was news because in the 20 something year history of the reserve no one had ever spotted a brown hyena. The camera-traps had done it again; they had shown us something we didn’t know!

brown hyena

The brown hyena replaces the striped hyena as you move from eastern to southern Africa. Larger than its striped cousin, it rivals the spotted hyena in size and has a rather shaggy appearance, looking more dog-like. It is, like its Serengeti striped counterpart, a tantalisingly elusive creature with few sightings in the surrounds of my study area, South Africa’s Lowveld. In fact, in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, it has been hotly debated for years as to whether they are even present in the park — that is, until a camera trap study finally came up with concrete evidence of their existence there.

This is the beauty of camera traps. They lay there in the bush performing tirelessly capturing image after image, both mundane and exceptional. Admittedly pictures of impala and zebra passing by are not hugely thrilling even though they give us valuable insight into the ecology of these animals and are the mainstay of any research project. Every once in a while though a camera-trap captures something truly remarkable and this is every researcher’s magic moment. The thrill that pulses through you when you click from one repetitive shot to something totally unexpected is addictive. Some of you have probably experienced it when working through the snapshot Serengeti data. Camera-traps are wonderful tools that help researchers gain valuable insight into the animal world with minimal human disturbance and their place in the field will continue to grow.

As for my brown hyena, in two years he passed through the study area on average once every four months turning up in every corner. (It was a tiny study area compared with the Serengeti.) A camera-trap even captured a brown hyena using its anal gland to paste a blade of grass. Unfortunately we never knew how many individuals used the area as it was outside the realms of our study, but this side track from our leopard survey shows what a powerful tool a camera-trap is. You never know what the pictures might tell you about the wildlife in your area, be it your target species or one of the many others that make up the ecosystem.

Looking for Leopards

Today’s guest blogger is Lucy Hughes, an undergraduate working with us since “Serengeti Live” (Snapshot’s predecessor). Lucy lived and worked on a private nature reserve in South Africa for four years, carrying out field research that included a camera-trap study into the reserve’s leopard population and twice monthly bird surveys for Cape Town University’s Birds in Reserves Project (BIRP). 

The purpose of my study on this relatively small reserve was to try and identify how many leopards were using it as part of their home range. Leopards were rarely seen on the reserve but signs of their passing – scats and tracks – were plenty. The fact that there was only an occasional lion passing through the reserve lead us to believe that perhaps the leopard density was greater than expected. So a colleague and I set out to try and identify the individuals using camera traps. Part of our strategy was to look for animals killed by leopards and then set up camera traps nearby in the hope that we would get plenty of shots of a leopard with which to start identifying spot patterns. The method worked well except it meant spending a lot of time hanging around decomposing carcasses. It’s amazing to see a leopard usually thought of as picky munching on a rotting carcass that you would think was fit only for spotted hyenas and vultures. In fact we had a wealth of animals recorded at these carcasses. As well as the expected leopard and spotted hyena we recorded brown hyena, jackal, honey-badger, civet, bush-pig, warthog and even a kudu picking at the remains of ruminant. Needless to say the high smells made us super efficient at putting up our cameras quickly.

The leopards on our reserve were not under pressure from lions and so tended to stash their kills under bushes rather than up trees, probably to keep them out of sight of the vultures. This meant it was easier to set the cameras. On a number of occasions we would return to a kill to collect the camera only to find the bare bones strewn far from the original bush and thousands of pictures of squabbling vultures.

Whilst out scouting for leopard signs, I once came across a dead juvenile baboon. It was lying at the bottom of a power pylon that the baboons would sleep in at night time. It had no obvious injury so I presumed it had fallen from the pylon that night. I decided to put up a camera trap at the site as leopard in this area are quite partial to baboon. I left the camera trap for two nights then went back to check. The baboon had gone and I had around 150 shots on the camera. What I found on those shots is why camera traps are so fantastic. Over 80 shots where of the troop of baboons returning to the site at dusk. The troop of 30 or so baboons each spent time with the dead individual, some touching it, some just sitting around it, some sniffing but for over an hour they remained with the dead individual as if saying good bye. The troop seemed more fascinated with the body than distressed. The following evening, the body by now grossly swollen, four juveniles came close to touch again but then ran off. I think the smell must have scared them. After dark, two spotted hyena came and took the body away. The leopard evaded us this time but thanks to the unobtrusiveness of camera traps we where privileged to witness an amazing moment in the life of a baboon troop.