I am not going on vacation. This will not be a wild safari adventure. Well, it might, but that is not the goal. I’ll be spending a week in the Okavango Delta doing pilot research for my dissertation. This is the glorious part of being a physical anthropologist – I get to go places like Botswana. I’ll be in South Africa too, but that is mostly for personal reasons.
The trip will be a bit of a whirlwind. Time in Botswana will be just long enough to get a feel for the sounds, smells and hurdles associated with working there. I will find out if I can do a dissertation project in the delta, perhaps as soon as next year. I’m going to be working with a carnivore conservation group called the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust. They have been working to conserve the wild dog population as well as the other carnivores, for many years. It’s an amazing group and I feel grateful that they are letting me stay with them. I am particularly happy that they have GPS and radio collars on many of the carnivores. My interest is in leopards and the prey they eat, what kinds of bone remains are left at the end of a meal, and so forth. I will try to track a leopard for a day or two and see if I can find anything that it ate. That’s one piece of my research. The hope is that there will be baboon remains. The leopards in the delta are known to have taken baboons in the past, but even if there are no partially eaten baboons, it will have been worth it.
The other component of my research is landscape taphonomy. Taphonomy is the study of what happens to organisms after they die. Essentially, I want to scope out many areas on the landscape and record information about the bones that I find. Animals die of natural causes, they die of starvation, they die because they are eaten. What happens to their bones? Do they decompose quickly? Do they get buried? Are they completely eaten? The utility of this study is it can provide an idea of the fossilization potential for a wetland savannah like the Okavango. Our ancestors from 2-3 million years ago sometimes lived in similar ecosystems. If I can gather enough data over time, then maybe I can say something meaningful about what we find in the fossil record.
This trip has been in the works since last winter. I applied for grant money, I made connections, I planned. There were so many unknowns and uncertainties up until just a few weeks ago that I’d been stewing with anxiety for months. I tried to plan every little logistic detail. But now I have much more to do. The preparations are no longer in the trip logistics, they are in my research. I haven’t looked at a bone in months. I’m not sure I can still identify the distal end of a femur correctly. Is it a zebra? An eland? Crap. I have to brush up. Do I know enough about the actual live animals? Do I know enough about how to behave when I see a pride of lions a few meters from my Land Rover? Because the thing about the Okavango is that the animals are not afraid of people. They haven’t learned to be. There are no guns allowed inside the park boundaries, so the animals are safe. That means it can be a bit dangerous – more so than in the Serengeti or Kruger or some other big national parks. Not that I will really be in danger. I don’t want to scare anyone. As long as I’m in a vehicle I’ll be fine. But sometimes I’ll have to get out of the vehicle in order to collect data. I’ll have a lookout, of course, but I maintain what I think is a healthy level of fear resulting in me taking cautionary measures. I have heard enough lion-encounter stories to know that I should be prepared for anything. I have read that certain groups of traditional hunter-gatherers in Southern Africa practice being faced with a lion. They do mental exercises, staring an imaginary lion in the face and remaining still or making themselves appear bigger than they are. Seems like a good method to me.
Now that I have completely frightened my family and close friends, let me reassure you that I firmly believe I will be fine. People visit and work in the delta every day without harm coming to them. I’ll be working alongside people who know these carnivores extremely well, and I have no doubt that they will provide me with ample guidance. Still, I have more work to do.
On a less exciting level, I need to brush up on my animal track knowledge. I may not need to actually track anything the old fashioned way (lord I hope not), but being able to recognize different animal tracks (footprints, scat) is enormously helpful. As of right now I think I can identify things to Order (i.e. carnivore, ungulate, primate) and in some cases Family (zebras, cats and dogs), but I’m not very good at it. Not enough practice. For this pilot study it’s probably not a big deal. But I want to be good at it. I want to know that when I go back to do my dissertation research (assuming this all goes well), that I am more than prepared, I am clearheaded and confident.
Then again, this is a dissertation. Part of the process of doing research for a dissertation is learning as you go, making mistakes and figuring out better ways to do things. So as much as I want to be an expert in the mammals of Botswana, I guess I can’t expect myself to be an expert before I’ve even been there.
Apart from my little anxieties about preparing, I can barely contain my excitement about this trip. In fact I am trying hard to keep it under the surface so that I don’t create expectations. Being prepared is a far cry from creating a set of expectations that cannot possibly be met. So I never do (or at least I try not to). I am holding my breath with anticipation and methodically getting ready for what will undoubtedly prove a fundamentally surprising adventure.