Claire's African Ecology field trip

Claire Smithson, a third year Biology student on the MBiol course, tells us about her experience on the African Ecology Field Course.


Sitting at my desk in Leeds as October draws to a close, I can’t help but think back to one of the most incredible summers I’ve had. When I tell fellow students that I was given the opportunity to travel to South Africa as part of my degree, the response is often the same; muttering that biology is so much more interesting than their chosen degree programme.

I have always enjoyed field work – with memories of trips to Scarborough and Malham Tarn as part of my first and second year respectively filled with good times, laughter…and rain; inevitable when planning to spend any extended time in the British outdoors. So when I was offered the opportunity to travel to the Eastern Cape to undertake a field trip I applied immediately – a decision I will never regret.

On the last Sunday of August, I left work in a small cricket club in Hertfordshire and headed to Heathrow to undertake a two week field course in South Africa. After a short stop over Johannesburg, we arrived at Port Elizabeth Airport, before heading onwards to the Shamwari Game Reserve.

The first day was undoubtedly the most exciting. On the approach to the lodge where we would be staying, we got our first sight of the wildlife we would spend the next two weeks with. As someone whose only experience with the large African mammals had been in various zoos and safari parks in Britain, seeing wildlife able to roam free was a breath of fresh air and led to far too many renditions of the Lion King over the coming weeks.

The second day we were taken on a drive around the main reserve to introduce us to our study sites for the next two weeks. During this first drive, we were unbelievably lucky – to the point that our guide Simoné told us to close our eyes or we’d be late for tea. During this 4 hour drive we were given the privilege of seeing white rhinos, lion cubs, a black rhino, giraffe and countless impala, zebra and springbok (Pictures 1-6).

Whilst in Africa, we unfortunately did actually have to do some field work. As a group of 22, we split up into 4 groups to plan and perform individual projects based around the ‘Landscape of Fear’ (the idea that animals change their behaviour depending on the perceived risk of predation). I was part of the group collecting data on the various species of birds present in the area. Despite a few teething problems (or monkey problems; Picture 7) we ended up having over a thousand data points by the end of the data collection periods. This data was presented to the rest of the groups in a very low tech. manner (think flipcharts and board markers) at the end of the week.

Over the duration of the field trip, we had some truly unique experiences to complement our fieldwork – ranging from lectures from academics in African ecology (covering topics from fossils to rhino poaching), a boat trip, night drives, bird ringing, meeting with students from Rhodes University in nearby Grahamstown before finishing our trip with a night’s stay in the Addo Elephant Park (Pictures 8-10).

South Africa is a field trip that I will not forget and I’d like to thank lecturers Stephen Compton and Rupert Quinnell for allowing us the opportunity to go on this field trip.

Here’s looking forward to my next (and unfortunately final) University of Leeds field trip – see you soon Kenya!

Images from top to bottom:

1. A pair of Southern African giraffe – the giraffe is not native to this area, but has been introduced to Shamwari Game Reserve

2. Three zebra feeding in the grasslands of Shamwari 

3. A springbok – the national animal of South Africa

4. A lion cub hidden in the bushes with two adult females and another 3 cubs while they feed (the ribs of the prey are visible above the cub’s head)

5. A female black rhino feeding in the vegetation. Black rhino are much shyer than the related white rhino and thus are harder to be found

6. A female adult Rhino followed by a juvenile

7. One of the monkeys disrupting our observational bird study, scaring the birds away

8. One of three cheetahs on the Shamwari Game Reserve; spotted during a night drive

9. One of over 600 elephants in Addo Elephant National Park

10. The sun setting over Addo Elephant National Park and a truly amazing fortnight