Category Archives: Fieldwork

Embracing Change

I was fortunate to know from a relatively early age where I wanted my life to go. I had a vision and crafted a path to get there and all in all (and after a lot of work!) things came together rather well. Of course through the years as I learned more the vision matured and developed but it always existed in the realm of wildlife conservation. Immediately after graduating with my undergraduate degree, I moved my life to Namibia to start my ‘dream’ job.

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Working on the ground in ‘front-line’ conservation for a very well respected organisation was everything I had hoped… and more. The once-in-a-lifetime experiences, professional (and personal) skills gained, and knowledge acquired were so worth the years of work invested to get to this point.

Zinzi Darting
Photo: Bobby Bradley

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I was working first-hand with my favourite species in one of the most beautiful places on Earth doing things that very few people in this world have ever done. So, I get the question all the time ‘Why did you leave?’, and its answer is something I have to remind myself of frequently.

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Planet Earth is the most unique and precious thing that exists in our wide wide universe (if you haven’t seen BBCs ‘Planet Earth II’ do yourself a favour and go check it out), but everything that makes it such an incredible place to call home is under immense threat. AND, as ironic as it would seem, we humans are to blame. There are those who have committed themselves to fighting these threats, and victories have been won here and there. My organisation for example had done an incredible job at addressing the threats to this species in Namibia, and is currently working very hard at expanding its programmes throughout Africa. However, on a global scale we are failing.

This being said, we gain more and more ground every year and I know that we can win this fight if enough of us are (actually) willing to get up and do something about it; I can’t let myself believe anything else. I loved my job and loved the work I was doing, but I felt that there was so much more that I could do (and needed to do) and that is why I left to continue with my studies.

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This is not at all to say that what I was doing before was not meaningful, or that the work of my organisation was not good enough. It’s just that I felt for me there was more to do and I knew I needed to go and find what that was. Though life in Oxford is not particularly for me, I’ve joined a community of people committed to the same goal (or set of goals at least – check out the other awesome entries on the blog!) and though I’d probably rather be back in the bush, I know that this experience is a necessary step to achieve my vision.

That childhood vision is alive and well, but I now realize that there is not necessarily one place it leads to. Just like in conservation science, as I continue to learn and experience more in this messy world, my vision for the future will continue to shift and grow… I (and we) just have to be willing to embrace whatever change that may bring to our thinking and our reality.

all photos by Eli Walker unless stated otherwise

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Dissertation on frog monitoring in Madagascar

There are many things I absolutely loved about the MSc BCM programme, which was an enlightening year. But what was the most special part for me was definitely my dissertation project. I was lucky enough to carry it out in northwest Madagascar, on frog monitoring employing very cutting-edge technology.

I can trace the motivation for this project mainly on the biodiversity technologies course during the second BCM term. This course outlined the current frontiers of various technologies that can be applied to conservation (e.g. drones, remote sensing…), and it really inspired me to do something cutting-edge, innovative, useful (and cool), and apply it to one of my favourite taxa: frogs. Globally, amphibians are threatened with extinction, and many species and ecosystems are severely understudied especially in developing countries, which halts proper conservation action. Therefore, for my dissertation I wanted to contribute to improve this situation.

After a few months of being a part-time student part-time fundraiser for this project, I flew in mid-June 2016 to Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, from where I travelled to the town of Mahajanga and finally to the Mariarano forest.

Only in Madagascar lemurs try to break into your car!
Only in Madagascar lemurs try to break into your car!

This area is not formally protected; however, it is rich with an outstanding and relatively understudied biodiversity. My dissertation aimed both at gathering more knowledge about the amphibians living in this area, and determine what is the most effective way to monitor them. An important part of my research was to assess the feasibility of including automated sound identification software to the acoustic surveying of frogs. To make acoustic data analysis faster, several algorithms are currently being developed to automate the identification of the vocalising species, and their accuracy is in constant improvement. In the future, hopefully it will be possible to easily deploy acoustic recorders which automatically identify the species filling in the soundscape, making the surveying of an area a lot quicker and cheaper. The programme I used is called SoundID, and it is a recently designed pattern-recognition software. For it to work, firstly the user needs to create templates from clear recorded calls of the target species. Then, once a library of templates has been created, this is used to analyse a longer recording collected from the field and look for any matches. Furthermore, I compared the effectiveness of manual acoustic surveys and capture-encounter surveys to detect the local frog species through the calculation of occupancy models.

My field work was based on repeated visits to permanent water bodies at night, which was really good fun. I would normally visit them between 8PM and 2AM, which made my average day extremely long: sleeping in, in a tent in Africa, is quite a challenge! However, full of mud, bugs and new good friends I had the best times looking for frogs and recording their calls. On an additional note, Madagascar wildlife is amazing, and the people extremely nice and helpful, which made my dissertation trip a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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Me in full field gear: recorder and headphones!

Overall, I was able to find two species which had not been recorded locally in previous surveys, (which I was extremely happy about!), counting nine frog species in total.

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Heterixalus tricolor, one of the local species

The use of SoundID proved to be very challenging due to the quality of recordings that I was able to collect with my equipment, a Roland-R05. Most frogs called from the middle of the water bodies sampled, and this meant that the signal strength was generally very low. However, my work showed that SoundID has the potential to be used in the field to aid the recognition of frog vocalisations, but more work is needed get better recognition rates, and better equipment is necessary to collect recordings with a higher signal-to-noise ratio. Perhaps one of the next BCMers will be keen to pick up this project and improve it! #teamfrogs