I haven’t written much lately, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that nothing’s been going on. We are now in the peak lactation period, with seven of my groups now suckling rambunctious and adorable pups. My count of allolactators has swelled to four – not as many as I’d hoped for, but a reasonable number. And, soon-to-be eight dominant lactators are also providing data more generally on the costs of lactation. All in all this is a very pleasant time of year here. Though temperatures have soared (despite now being in a cold snap that has bewildered the meerkats and made fishing out packed-away duvets a necessity) the heat is not yet uncomfortable, and the multitude of cute little faces at the burrow in the morning and evening is an easy reminder of what a fabulous study species we work on – not just because the pups are lovely, but especially because being able to be so close to them is a sign of the level of habituation we have achieved over the last 20 years of work at the KMP. To be able to sit with and handle young with the total trust of the group is very special, and very rare in wild populations. I remember nothing but fun and delight from the last time I was here of the latter stages of the pre-weaning period, when pups grow bold and start to venture out with the group, as they begin to do now. Being privy to their spurts of growth and character is an unrivalled joy.
As much fun as the meerkats provide, work goes on around the fun, and the work grows wearying indeed. Six days a week of rising at 5 has left me tired to the bone, and no matter how early I go to bed, I never seem to catch up on rest. But this time the Kalahari isn’t just demanding physical toughness – the responsibility of running my own project with many hurdles to overcome is a strain that faces all field biologists, and it requires mental fortitude, resourcefulness, and a dose of good luck. I’m not short on problems – from equipment breakages, to fighting for field time on the rota, and working around some big experiments going on out here. My assistant left today, six weeks earlier than planned, and though a contingency plan has fallen into place, I’m never free of the anxiety of potential time lost or wasted when I didn’t foresee this turn of events. There are many hammy allegories I could make and parallels I could draw with the tough heat of the desert, how it moulds its landscape through fire, which blooms against all the odds… instead I’ll just say, wish me luck for this second part of my field season: one more month to go.