Arrival in the Kalahari

There are a lot of things about the Kalahari that are unusual and extraordinary. One of its many wonders are moonrises, the moon coming up blood-red and huge on the horizon; and this was my greeting on Monday night as we rattled from Upington to the Meerkat Project in darkness. Welcome back to one of the most magical places on earth!

It was no secret that by the end of July I was nervous to return, and reluctant to leave the UK. So it has been a wonderful surprise to find myself easily assimilated into the new group here, enjoying my days in the field, and feeling very much at home. From my desk in my room I can see dunes, thorn trees, and the unmistakable Kalahari sky – a deep blue, dotted with cartoon clouds. My assistant Leena and I have had only a short time in the field, and I have little to report so far except that I am re-acquainting myself with the meerkats and the protocols, and hitting the ground running as far as work is concerned with a renewed sense of purpose. It’s going well!

Things happen fast in the Kalahari. The seasons swiftly progress – already summer is crackling into being. The sun rises and sets with a speed that is wearying in our dawn-led mornings, and alarming in the night, the light giving way to a dead black. Yesterday a dominant female unexpectedly gave birth, and within minutes had eaten all four of her premature pups. Nothing is treated with sensitivity here – not even time.

Settling in at the Kalahari Meerkat Project also happens fast. I’ve been here before and I know, quite literally, the lay of the land. How to step out of my door in the morning and know from the wind and the heat of the air what the day’s weather will bring. Our landmarks here are different, and I know them too – gates, riverbeds, dams, electricity lines that sparsely criss-cross the dunes, the dunes themselves. The Kalahari remains full of surprises though, and though every day with the meerkats follows the same reassuring pattern, no two days are the same. Yesterday we were sand-blasted by strong winds that had them dancing in unrest. Today’s chill morning had us all shivering at the burrow unusually late.

Despite never quite knowing what tomorrow will bring, my data collection is going well. Already we have collected over thirty hours of focal data on subordinate females that will go toward providing the baseline information on their “normal” behaviours, against which I will compare their foraging strategies and investment in cooperative behaviours during the period in which they are allolactating. Apart from the unfortunate abortion of the four pups, none of the dominant females have yet given birth, so I’m not certain yet which of the females I’m following (some 35 individuals) will undertake to allolactate for the dominant pups. Yet another uncertainty in the Kalahari, that can only be solved by time.

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