(Tales from a Wildlife Management Teacher and Student)
It all started when I innocently sent Nadja LeRoux, my friend and the coordinator of KAWDCP, a WhatsApp message from Montreal, Canada, back in February saying “Hey what are you doing at the end of April...I’m coming to Namibia!?!”. I didn’t expect her to say “Going into the bush to track the two wild dogs KAWDCP collared”, nor did I expect her to ask if I wanted to come along. But somehow, 2 months later, after sort of kidnapping one of my Vanier College students away from her 2nd Namibian conservation internship, I found myself in Swakopmund, in a bar, with Nadja and Serena making plans for a one-week bush excursion. Serena’s eyes were wide with delight and desire listening to us, and within 5 minutes, we were concocting a new plan for her to end her internship early and head out on the road with us. How could one finish their college studies any better than by joining their teacher and a stranger with an unbridled passion for painted dogs (and her two canine sidekicks), on a wild adventure into the unknown Namibian bush!?
After packing up the Land Rover and loading
the four-legged companions into the back seat
(Serena quickly discovered just what the word
cramped means), we set out for a week in the
bush with Nadja.
Many hours later, when we hadn’t seen
another soul for kilometers, we set up camp
for the night at the edge of the dogs’ home
Of course, Nadja’s version of “camp” is
parking the car in the least thorny spot
possible, laying out a bedroll for herself
and her trusty bush dogs, Vundi and
Askari, and promptly falling asleep,
leaving the surprisingly comfortable
two-person roof tent for Brandee and
Serena to share.
We’d be lying if we said we weren’t constantly exchanging looks of “what the F____!?!?!”. Two
Canadian girls, one Wildlife Biologist and college prof, one Wildlife Management student, both
used to the rugged outdoors, but without all the thorns, and fear of hard-core African predators,
including the very dogs we were trying to track. Nadja fell asleep within minutes of unrolling her sleeping bag. Serena and I stayed
awake whispering about what we should do if Nadja, the only person who could
actually drive the 25-year-old Land Rover, got bitten by a scorpion, or snake, or spider,
or any other of the hundreds of animals in Namibia that could and would, kill you.
Thankfully, the 9 hours of driving had taken their toll and the incredibly starry night
lulled us into sleep quickly.
And so continued the routine from there, wake up, curse the surprisingly cold African mornings, take down camp, have a good old PB&J for breakfast and head out for the day. Only, of course, after getting Nadja her much-needed caffeine, after which she was ready and raring to go. The rest of the day was pure, unadulterated focus on the signals emanating from the dogs ‘collars. Our goal was to find the two dogs that were collared together in July
but had since separated and formed two different packs. We were hoping to get a visual on them, ascertain their pack size, check out points of interest from our GIS generated maps (thanks Nikki!), and potentially uncover a den, a watering hole, or some other landscape feature that you just had to explore if you were an African Wild Dog with FOMO.
For those of you who have never tried telemetry tracking, this can be a very frustrating
experience, especially when in a rock valley where your signal bounces off every object around you. In other words, west is east, north is south, and two dogs can appear in 40 locations at the same time. Needless to say, we did a lot of driving! Nadja put me, Serena, in charge of monitoring the telemetry. I had to tell her when the signal was getting stronger and from what direction it was coming from. I had been trained in the technique back in Canada, which involves using an antenna to capture the signal emanating from the collar in real-time to get the animal in question’s location, but I had never imagined that I would be applying it in
such a context. I mean, we were tracking the only two collared individuals outside of
protected areas in Namibia, of the most endangered large carnivore species in southern Africa, and I was doing it with the very teacher who had taught me the technique in the first place, and even better she couldn’t dock me points for doing it in Crocs! It was all
beyond my wildest telemetry dreams.
I don’t think Serena or I were prepared for this
experience. I mean we were, in terms of knowledge,
technical know-how, vanlife, and living off the beaten
path but this was different. Namibia is vast. And
deserted. And dry. You can sit in one spot and watch
the sunrise as the moon sets on either side of you and
vice-versa. You can watch birds of prey fly between
trees in an environment where there is seemingly
nothing to eat. You can examine tracks made from
wildlife that you can’t see, no matter how hard you look,
because the tall grasses hide even the least stealthy of
predators and the prey species are even more
camouflaged. There didn’t even seem to be people in
this place. Unless you knew where to look. Which Nadja
did. She wasn’t new to these parts like we were. She knew
where to locate water (which was fortunate considering
our reservoir was leaking), to find locals, and especially
to zero in on the seemingly only branch, on the only
tree, on the only farm, that might, maybe, could, would,
somehow, give you 10 seconds of data, just enough to receive the latest GPS points from the
And with farms, come farmers. Or should I say farm men, or farm boys, or maybe just boys who are doing their very best to get by with the little they have. And this was definitely a reality check for both Serena and me. After all, we are Canadian. We come from the 1st world, the North, the place of “haves” vs. “have nots”. We come from a place where 20-something-year-old boys do not live alone, in the harsh, dry, burning conditions of the Kalahari desert, looking after cattle and getting attacked by leopards. Or worse, being ambushed by so many flies that you wished you were being attacked by a leopard. So this was new. And different. And unsettling.
For these boys, losing a calf to a predator like an African wild dog could mean the difference
between having or not having enough money for food for the next month. Suddenly, the issues surrounding human-wildlife conflict that we so often talked about were incredibly real. Seeing their living conditions, watching their interactions with Nadja, and witnessing their fear of and respect for wildlife was mesmerizing. For people who stand to lose so much, they are so incredibly willing to listen and learn and make compromises to live in, perhaps not harmony, but at least a tentative kind of peace with the wildlife of the area. It made me want to renounce all my worldly possessions to become a Namibian farmer. And made me want to hold tightly to everything to never find myself in that situation. A strange juxtaposition of wanting to shed stuff while simultaneously wanting to amass things in order to ensure my own freedom and security.
For people who have so little, at the very least by North-American standards, they were so
incredibly generous with us. From hopping on the back of the truck to direct us to the best water source, to coming in on the back of a donkey carrying a metal bucket that Brandee would use, in addition to some water from that very donkey’s trough, to do some much-needed laundry (our extra gas tank was also leaking and all Brandee’s clothes smelled like diesel). They did this without question and despite a significant language barrier. In return, they asked for nothing, except maybe a coke, if we had one to spare.
Unfortunately, our journey had to come to an
end. Despite 6 days of searching morning, noon and
night for AWDs 5878 and 5879, the wild dogs
outsmarted us. Several times, our telemetry gear
indicated that we were within tens of meters of our
goal. Multiple times we sensed their proximity so
strongly that we were on the roof of the Land Rover,
with binoculars, cameras, and recording equipment,
ready for them to jump out of the bush at any
second. But each time, they were out of reach. The
more we wanted to spot them, count them, observe
them, the more they
Until that final day. We had all but given up when the
signal was so strong that we nearly peed ourselves
with excitement. We were all on our best behavior.
Quiet, attentive, alert. The domestic dogs were
confined to the front seat. The three of us were
outside, each with our own roles. Serena, monitoring
the telemetry equipment, Nadja, taking care of the audio calls, Brandee with camera gear ready to shoot, all of us scanning the horizon for dark ears poking out above the tall grass. The signal came to 0 with the hand-held antenna. The dog was within 30 meters. He was ours. We looked, we called, we listened, we waited. Brandee and Serena even took the antenna for a walk to see if we could get closer. But the more effort we put in, the more the dog stayed away. Eventually the signal started getting weaker no matter how hard we tried to locate it. By noon, when the sun was at its peak, and the heat was unbearable, even for mammals like us with barely any fur, we had no choice but to call it quits. But moments before we did Serena caught a glimpse of a tail from behind a bush, perhaps 15 meters away, before it disappeared. Later, we found tracks behind that very bush, confirming the sighting.
Although we never got a great visual on the dogs, the experience still left us awe-struck. The resilience of both the people and the animals in the area, including Nadja who has dedicated her life to protecting this incredible species, further solidified the special place that Namibia holds in both of our hearts.
We are both looking forward to our next adventure with KAWDCP as we are hoping to
contribute more of our time, knowledge and effort to help conserve this majestic species. We
are both grateful to Nadja for trusting us enough to take us out on this wild journey. And we are both a little bit better, a little less cynical, a little more human, from having the great fortune of spending a week trying to think like an African wild dog.