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Duttenhaver Conservation Field Study Program – 2014

2014 Team Traveled to South Africa with Earthwatch

The 2014 Duttenhaver Conservation and Field Study Program team had the amazing opportunity to travel to South Africa with Earthwatch.  They spent two weeks at the Lajuma Research Centre, a remote research station in the Soutpansberg Mountains, working with scientists of the Primate and Predator project.  They checked camera traps and analyzed their images, built bomas to catch leopards and baboons for collaring, conducted phenology and vegetation plot analysis, washed leopard scats, followed two habituated troops of samango monkeys, hiked the majority of the research centre and beyond, searched for signals from the 3 collared leopards and 4 collared hyaenas with the UHF and VHF transmitters, worked with the Eco-schools program teaching local school children conservation and science lessons, and ate incredible meals in the company of the resident chacma baboon troop.

The gift was inspired by the donor’s belief in the positive impact of international travel and study, and matched the Zoo’s interest in developing field opportunities for students evaluating a future in biological science.

Mentors

Jess-Kohring Candace-Sclimenti
Jess Kohring Candace Sclimenti

Students

Kyle Alvarez

An Unorthodox Look at Africa

We all have a mental image of what Africa is suppose to be. What it is suppose to look like, how the weather is, what kinds of animals and plants live there, but the experience I received was far different than our normal expectations. When I arrived at the Lajuma Research Center, the classic “safari” experience was immediately whisked out of my mind. There was no open, dry flatlands covered in tall grass with giraffes, lions, and zebras hiding around every corner. I tried very hard before this trip to keep a very open mind, but it was inevitable that I formed a few expectations. All of my expectations, however, were completely blown away.

We were welcomed into the Lajuma Research Center with open arms, feeling right at home within minutes. The camp was beautiful in itself, a collection of thatch huts and stucco buildings that oozed comfort; not our modern day luxury, but simple distractionless accommodations. Our food was of five star restaurant quality and meals quickly became one of the most anticipated activities of the day. From everyday food like pizza and sandwiches, to traditional African and English favorites, we never left the table unsatisfied.

Many of our days were spent trekking through the dense bush or walking along the brick red trails. Though some of the hiking was difficult and left you a little breathless, the views and scenery completely took your breath away and made all your work worth it.

The questions I received from everyone were, “What animals did you see there? Did you see any leopards?” Well the answer to the second question is no, I did not see any leopards. After I respond as such, I receive looks of disappointment and remarks of empathy. But we were fortunate to see a variety of animals while we were there. On several occasions the glowing eyes and fluffy bodies of bushbabies could be seen darting through the trees at night. Bushbuck, a local antelope species characterized by their scattered white spots, were spotted many times. One of the local troops of baboons spent plenty of time exploring our camp and the nearby trails, making sightings a common but exciting event. Rock hyrax, mongoose, birds of every kind, and some reptiles graced us with their presence. Sometimes it was only a quick glimpse, but you knew that they were there. But the fact that you knew the animals were there or had been there not too long ago is what made this trip worth it. To know that you had walked along the same path as a leopard, or that just the night before, a picture of a hyaena was taken in the exact spot you were standing, was incredibly mind-blowing. Being able to go through some of the camera trap images was one of the best activities we were able to perform because it allowed us to see just how close we were to some of the amazing wildlife.

The researchers offered us a variety of activities that delved into their work with the wildlife and ecosystem of the Soutpansberg mountain range. This was probably one of my favorite things about our trip. We were not outsiders doing small tasks and observing. We got our hands dirty. Every one of us was allowed to immerse ourselves into the duties that make this research possible. The team focused on two aspects: the environment and the local wildlife. Activities like phenology, which is a visual analysis of trees, and constructing vegetation plots, a section of land that is cataloged and surveyed, help determine the health of the environment. It also specifically provides information on the indigenous primates. Most of the wildlife work involved primates and predators, which is the name of one of the main projects Lajuma works on, The Primate and Predator Project (PPP). From late, cold nights out leopard tracking, to following a troop of samango monkeys, we were able to participate in so many influential activities. One of my favorite events was when we were able to bait leopard traps with cow fetuses.

Other areas of our work were not so glamorous, but equally important. Two days were dedicated to weeding a nearby field as an experiment and to removing a hazardous old fence. Although every day was packed full of exciting research adventures we also received a glimpse of differing cultures. A trip to a cultural center showed us art and tribal traditions, as well as introducing us to local South African women, who might have been more excited to meet us than we were. One day was dedicated to welcoming and educating a group of school children brought up to Lajuma camp. The best part of that day was the time the children spent trying to teach us their language, Afrikaans, and the hysterical laughter that followed as we failed to imitate them.

Because the “zoo” team only made up a little over half of the Earthwatch team, we also created close bonds with the other members of the group. These relationships were not only great for our limited social lives in Lajuma, but they also allowed us to see a different side of our experience. The zoo team comes from a very information-based background, while many of the people we met did not. Although this did not mean that they had little to offer. Their life experiences, beliefs, and personalities dictated what and how they saw South Africa; enlightening the rest of us to ideas and perspectives we may not have noticed by ourselves.

As our trip came to an end, I was truly sorry to leave. Not only because of the amazing connections we made at Lajuma, but also because South Africa is unlike any other place I have experienced. Its beauty was unparalleled and a sense of peace could always be felt. Lajuma offered no distractions save for the hard work occurring there and its amazing views. It seems untouched and that is one of Lajuma Research Center’s main goals: preserving this environment and all that lives within it. I believe what the Lajuma team is doing and will do is highly beneficial to not only this ecosystem, but others as well. They are setting an example and a standard that, although may be hard to reach, should be attempted. I could not have asked for a better experience and am thankful I was lucky enough to enjoy a side of Africa that not many people are able to see. I learned so much while I was there and hope to return one day to the beautiful, peaceful Soutpansberg mountains that I came to call home.

 


Kelly Chang

The entire experience feels so surreal. I still cannot stop telling my friends the story of my trip to South Africa and how it all started with our 24-hour plane ride.

When we stumbled out of the car and onto the red dirt of South Africa, I could not help but exhale a sigh of relief—my teammates and I were finally able to stretch our legs out, and we spoke little as we gazed at the vast beauty that surrounded Camp Lajuma. After only a few seconds of unfolding our legs, we were flooded with friendly faces and handshakes. And with helpful fingers pointing here and there, we finally were able to drag our suitcases to our rooms to settle down and unpack. You would imagine that we all wanted to take a shower but a delicious aroma reached our noses first. Although we still felt the airline food fresh in our stomachs, one whiff of the smell caused us all to drool. It was our chef’s amazing cooking that made us all feel at home. With second helpings and dessert in our stomachs, we were ready to brave the rest of the expedition—especially the spiders in the bathroom.

It was our first day activity that allowed me to feel a part of our 14-person team. I adjusted my eyes to the bright sunlight and gazed down the horizon as we drove through the brushes of the neighboring farms. I saw Vervet monkeys and warthogs dash before my very eyes, heard the mongoose calling to warn its family of our presence and “danger”, and caught a glimpse of the shy bush buck scurrying away from our rumbling car engine. But these weren’t the only wildlife I was able to spot. After collecting data from six camera stations, we all had the opportunity to view the photos. I loved the rare and hilarious selfie of a monkey, curious about the strange contraption it was seeing.

It was the norm to see the baboons and Samango monkeys wander into camp every day, but it was the predators that made us strain our eyes in hope of catching a glimpse. The most memorable activity we participated in was the drive out to the nearby properties in hopes of downloading GPS information from the leopard collars. Sitting on top of the stick shift Volkswagen, the near 30 degrees night air nipped our cheeks red, but we were all excited for the opportunity to track down a leopard. Though the paths we traveled down were all paths we had seen in the morning, the darkness and shivering moonlight created an eerie feeling as the branches screeched against the car. We held the antenna high over our heads, turning it in a 360 circle, and listened for a click to come from the tracker. Any leopard within three miles of our car would have automatically sent its information to our GPS. The night remained silent of clicks, and it’s safe to say we all had sore arms after an hour and a half ride around the grounds. Though we never heard a click, the experience and thrill of seeing the camp at night helped me appreciate the efforts of the workers at Camp Lajuma and how they use all of their resources to help conserve the protection of the leopards.

When we weren’t out doing activities, we spent our time with the rest of the team around the campfire.  Though we were all strangers at first, twelve days with everyone at Lajuma helped us all bond into a small family—it was as if we never ran out of things to talk about. Not only were we able to meet the staff at Camp Lajuma, but we also conversed with research assistants from around the world. They were always there to lend a helping hand, to push through the thorns when you hesitated, and to find a way to the road whenever we got lost.

It was the countless number of activities that we did that helped me gain enough knowledge to help me realize that working with animals is something I see myself doing in the future. South Africa was an experience that cannot be encompassed into words. I will never be able to pass my happiness and excitement I felt there to my friends and family unless they travel there themselves. I appreciate what the people there have given to me and hope that one day, I can give the knowledge I have gained at South Africa, as well as the Los Angeles Zoo, to someone else.


Sophia Han

I never dreamed that I would be involved in such an amazing trip to South Africa! I remember going in for the interview. I have never been so nervous in my life. I was literally shaking. Finally, I got the call that I would be participating in this year’s Earthwatch expedition on my birthday. I couldn’t ask for a better present. I couldn’t stop blabbing on about how excited I was with everyone around me. I’m pretty sure my friends eventually got annoyed with my ongoing talk of going out of country to work with exotic animals. I started packing my bags the day I found out about going on the trip. The anticipation of going to Africa was killing me! However, when we actually got on the plane, it felt like years before we actually got to South Africa. Being in a plane for about twenty-four hours, and waiting for our next ride in an airport for about ten hours was excruciating. Eating awful plane food, sitting in the same position for hours, and airsickness was dreadful. However, arriving at our campsite was like being in another world. I just couldn’t believe that I was actually in South Africa! Every morning we would wake up around six-thirty a.m. to calls from animals, including the Chacma baboons.  Then, I would walk towards the edge of the mountain to look at the extraordinary view. At breakfast, our incredible chef, Kyle, would cook us mouth-watering food for the activities we had scheduled for the day.

The Earthwatch team usually split up into two groups. I think it was awesome how there were other people from different places on the team. It was exciting meeting new people and getting to know them. Because of that, we really had to be team players. We were working with six other unfamiliar faces. We had numerous activities including: boma building, camera imaging, phenology, vegetation plots, scat washing, camera trapping, eco-schools, fence removal, etc. My favorite activity of them all was Samango monkey tracking. In our daily lives we are surrounded by drama and stress. In Africa none of that mattered. Being surrounded by the Samango Monkeys helped me escape into my own world. I felt like nothing else mattered, and it felt amazing not having to worry about every single little detail in my life for once. Everything in Africa was just so mind blowing. In my own backyard the coolest animals we see are coyotes or raccoons. However in Africa, we got the chance to see giraffes, zebras, baboons, and monkeys. It was amazing to see that the baboons and Samango monkeys went along with their lives, even though we were only a couple feet away. We see these animals at the zoo, but being able to see these animals in the wild was a whole other experience.

Since it was winter in Africa, the weather was dry and cold, but it was perfect for hiking up treacherous mountains and bush. It was nice not relying on technology and automobiles to get us around. Having to hike everywhere not only gave me massive thigh muscles, but also let me enjoy the beauty of life. Since we were also up in the mountains and in another country, we had no Wi-Fi or cellular access. I have to say it was pretty hard not having access to social media to post pictures and make everyone back at home jealous. But it gave us more time to really talk to other people and take in everything that was going on around us. We just sat by the fire pit and relaxed, took in the incredible view, or mingled among ourselves. Before bed, we would always turn on our music and sing in our blankets. Then one by one, everyone would start to fall asleep. It was a great ending to the hard day we had.

The research coordinators, Katy and Sam Williams, and the research assistants were incredibly welcoming. In fact, they answered every little question we had and let us actively participate in all the research projects going on. Every day we working along side research assistants and students, getting a first hand experience on what real research is. It helped me observe the patience and knowledge needed to actually carry out an experiment project. I can’t talk for my fellow teammates, but I know for a fact that the skills and knowledge required on this trip will be useful for our future educational careers. After realizing how diverse and well traveled the research assistants were, I was inspired to continue traveling and see the world. I am actually considering finishing my schooling outside of the U.S. It was really amazing being surrounded by so many people with different accents, life styles, and cultural views. It broadened my mind on how many different cultures and people there are out in the world.

The trip went by so fast. I learned so much and I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my family and friends what I have learned and have seen. But I just didn’t want to leave. Our last day consisted of nonstop hugging and taking pictures. I didn’t want to leave the loving people and the breathtaking views. Most of all, I wanted to stay to learn more.  I wanted to stay another couple months, or even longer than that. This trip helped me learn more about what I could do with my future. The research was truly intriguing. I couldn’t wait to see the results of what we achieved there. I gained perspective on a lot of different elements.

This trip to South Africa was eye opening and inspiring. I am more excited than ever to use the skills that I have acquired and apply it to my first year in college. I hope I get more chances throughout the years to travel the world and gain more knowledge about animals and research. This was a life changing experience and I cannot wait to use this knowledge in the future. I can’t even begin to thank our mentors Jess and Candace, and Heather who organized everything! But most of all, a big thanks goes out to Linda Duttenhaver for giving us this opportunity. I will never forget the memories of the animals, wilderness and the people of South Africa.

 


Darragh Hettrick

A Trip Like No Other

There are few people that have had the chance to travel out of the country, and fewer still have had the privilege to go to Africa. However that was not originally what I had signed up for; Our Earthwatch group was meant to go to Thailand to work with elephants but because of the recent coup the trip was deemed too dangerous. They had given me a choice after the trip was canceled, stay with this group and see what happens or wait until next year and go with the next group. At the time, I wasn’t sure I was ready to go on a trip out of the country after the passing of a close family member just months before. Then they told us our new trip destination and my mind was made up.  Our destination was even more remote then the last. We would be venturing to Mount Lajuma, in  South Africa’s Soutpansberg mountain range, to work with the Lajuma Primate Predator Research Project.

The trip there with layovers took around 30 hours of flying and driving so by the time we arrived we were exhausted.  The program leaders, Sam and Katy, assigned our rooms, I was granted a room to myself since I was the only seventeen year old male in the group. That first night we unpacked, ate and went to bed. Over the next couple of days I started to get to know the six other fortunate members of our Earthwatch group as well as the college students working there, the staff, and the group leaders. Everyone made our stay at Lajuma very welcoming, not to mention the amazing food we were greeted by after the long days work.

The meals were mainly traditional English dishes or South African with the occasional springbok burger thrown in as an American South African mix. All the meals were prepared by the cook Kyle, who is half South African half English, hence the theme of the food and his assistant Ticha who is from Zimbabwe. Both Ticha and Kyle were amazing cooks. Both were very interesting and fun to talk to, although Ticha being very shy didn’t talk very often. Kyle always found a way to cheer everyone up no matter how tired or unwell someone was feeling. Not only did the meals they cook taste good but they also made alternative options for those with dietary restrictions.  Both Ticha and Kyle went above and beyond to make our stay at Lajuma pleasant and comfortable. Some of my favorite dishes were the beef and ale pie, and the wildebeest and oryx stew. The deserts however were just as delightful and also helped to keep us ready for the presentations that came afterwards.

Each evening, we would be given a presentation on what we would be doing the next day as well as some information on the topic. Everyone working at Lajuma, including Oldrich the former guide and now resident of Lajuma, Ian the owner of the property we were staying on, the two project leaders Katy and Sam, and most if not all of the college students researching there presented. Some nights it would be on the history of Lajuma or leopards on Lajuma, others would be on what some of the college students were working on and studying. But each night was filled with new information that helped us learn about the area, culture, history, and wildlife. Each presentation gave us a snapshot of what adventure we would undertake the next morning. Every night we would be give choices as to what we would do the next day and be divided into three or four groups. These activities ranged from baiting leopard traps to doing a ten mile hike to reach a camera station. Each camera station is set up with two cameras each with sensors to take pictures of anything that walks by. Every couple of weeks the SIM card is retrieved so the pictures can be cataloged and tagged for animals. Some of the most exciting days were when we went on these hikes as well as the smaller activities like following the Samango monkeys or fence removal. All of the activities brought every member of our group closer together in some way or another. Even when we weren’t actively doing something, we were generally sitting by the fire telling stories, jokes, or questioning why we see thing the way we do and how that affects us.

Often times people say that it’s the journey not the destination that matters. Now I know that this statement is not true. The journey getting to Lajuma was hard and long and took a lot out of all of us, but the destination made everything better. Something about flying for nearly an entire day makes a person weak, but then again, something about climbing to the highest peak in the Soutpansberg Mountain range and seeing a large portion of South Africa and then turning around and being able to see Zimbabwe, Botswana, and a little bit of Mozambique turns that weakness into something much more precious and brings people together. I was the only one who didn’t know anyone else in the group in some way, so going on a trip with them to another country was a little bit daunting. However, over the course of those next two weeks, I made connections with not only the five girls in my group but my two mentors Jess and Candace, who were my acting legal guardians during the trip, and the six other group members on the trip along with all the people working at Lajuma. And finally, with South Africa. I know it’ll be a while before I go back there, but one thing I know is that this trip changed my life. And one more thing, I’m dying to go back.


Minden Nakamura

After thirty hours of grueling, exhausting travel, we finally made it to Lajuma Research Centre, a zoologist’s paradise hidden deep within South Africa’s Soutpansberg Mountains. I left behind my everyday lifestyle in the highly modernized city of Los Angeles and stepped into the rural lands of hopping Vervet monkeys, wattling guinea fowl, high soaring birds, and diverse vegetation rooted into the deep brick red soil.

Upon arrival, we were welcomed by the research team, Oldrich Van Schalkwyk, Sam Williams, Katy Williams, and several research assistants, who were extremely kind and always went out of their way to make us feel at home. Not only did they share their breadth of knowledge but also their different cultural views and lifestyles. They come from around the world, including Sweden, Croatia, the United States, and France.

Along the cliff side exists a wilderness camp where our team of eight, the zoo crew, and our fellow Earthwatchers began and ended our busy days. Every morning, we woke up to the crisp air and sometimes to the loud vocalizations of a Chacma baboon troop. Every night we warmed our bodies around a blazing fire, sharing stories and creating bonds with each other. Wilderness camp became our home away from home.

When away from wilderness camp, we were busy conducting research for the Primate and Predator Project. This project is focused on conservation and ecology of primates, Samango monkeys and Chacma baboons and predators, leopards and brown hyenas. Through their research, we have been able to broaden our knowledge about the predator and primate interactions with each other, humans, and the environment.

Everyday, new experiences were created. We participated in various activities such as camera trapping, camera tagging, Samango monkey tracking, fence removal, boma building, baiting leopard traps, field weeding, phenology, vegetation plots, and even scat washing. Beyond the objectives of our research, we were also given opportunities to experience and learn about the history of South Africa, including the people and the environment. For example, on a ten mile hike to a camera trap, I saw ancient paintings where the bushman used to inhabit. The paintings were faint, but I was able to decipher hand prints and paintings of animals and people. Not only did I gain first-hand experience in conducting field research, but I also learned about an ancient culture that has broadened my world view.

Along with helping with the field research, we had small, but interesting and informative lectures at night that gave us a deeper understanding of all the research being conducted. These lectures were presented by the researchers and research assistants. We learned about the history of the Lajuma Research Centre, the research being done on the baboons and Samango monkeys, and specific leopards and hyenas that have been collared and their whereabouts.

On our recreational day, half of the Earthwatch team went to Madi-a-Thava, a cultural center, and the other half went to Blouberg Nature reserve. I went to Blouberg, which is a reserve located on the north side of the Soutpansberg mountains. The north side of the mountain is much dryer and hotter than the south side, so the terrain and wildlife was vastly different. The south side of the mountain has a moist environment because of the mist belt that comes from the Indian Ocean. At the reserve, we saw impala, kudu, giraffes, and vultures. It was a breathtaking scene of wildlife in its most natural state. As we drove back to Lajuma, we were able to see an incredible sunset which was unexpected treat after a long day.

A few days before we had to leave South Africa, a school came up to Lajuma to learn about Primate and Predator Project through a small lecture and a couple of games. I loved interacting with the kids because they were fascinated by things that most kids in Los Angeles are not. Not only were they interested in the project, but they seemed to take an interest in learning new languages. A couple Earthwatchers taught the students a couple of words in Spanish and Chinese. In return, they attempted to teach us Afrikaans, the language most commonly spoken in South Africa. They laughed at our terrible accents and jumped with excitement that we pronounced a word correctly. Besides teaching and learning about languages, I loved seeing faces of excitement, laughter, and moments of happiness that this small field trip was able to provide for the children.

For most of us our zoo crew, we can say that the food was one of the best parts of the trip. After long exhausting days of work, we were welcomed back with heavenly authentic food made by our personal chef, Kyle Stuart. I have had several traditional dishes, such as chicken curry, wildebeest stew, and a springbok burger. My food repertoire has expanded and my taste buds have developed an appreciation for culturally authentic dishes.

The two short weeks I spent in Africa was a life-changing experience. Isolated from the rest of society and free from the confines of imposing technology, I was able to fully engage with the research, the people, the cultures, and the beautiful environment. The time that I have spent in Africa has strengthened my passion for wild animals and veterinary medicine and has sparked interest in becoming a world traveler. This trip wouldn’t have been possible without a handful of people, so I would like to say thank you or baie dankie in Afrikaans to Katie Williams, Sam Williams, Oldrich Van Schalkwyk, Heather Shields, and Linda Duttenhaver.

 


Sarah Wang

I was wholly unprepared for the uninhibited beauty of the Soutpansberg Mountains on the Duttenhaver trip to South Africa. Everywhere I looked there were lush green forests and majestic mountains under a sparkling blue sky. There was never a dull moment throughout the entire trip, as every day was filled with new things to learn and do.

The excitement began before we even arrived at camp, as we traveled along on the bumpiest road I have ever been on, nothing more than a narrow dirt road meandering through the dense forest. It felt like we were ragdolls being thrown around the inside of the 4×4, but it was all great fun because it made the experience all the more authentic. Our driver, Oldrich, worked for Lajuma Research Centre, and he became our go-to man for all kinds of knowledge about the region, always ready with an answer about any animals, plants, or the surrounding area.

As soon as we arrived at camp, we were introduced to Sam and Katy Williams, the research team leaders. They then showed us to our living quarters and the camp, these quaint, rustic wooden cabins nestled between the edge of the forest and a sheer cliff. There were no furnishings in the cabins besides some beds and a few stumps, giving us a taste of what “roughing it” felt like, kind of. We did still have running hot water, plumbing, and electricity, after all. What I appreciated about the camp, however, was that for most of the day, everything around camp ran on solar power. The backup generator was only turned on at night, so the research team could use a wall projector to teach us about the area, and so we teenagers could charge our ever-present phones. Prior to our arrival at Lajuma, we were told to expect local, game food we might not be used to or like. It was a pleasant surprise when we discovered that we had a fantastic cook who made mouth-watering British and South African-inspired dishes. Kyle cooked us cultural specialties such as beef and ale pie, quiches, and various dessert tarts. Every meal left us satisfied and almost uncomfortably full.

We were always extremely appreciative of the delicious meal because of the long, tiring days we had. Every day was filled with a new adventure, be it camera work, building, or other miscellaneous activities all designed to help the researchers learn more about the flora and fauna in the region. Activities such as boma building, phenology, and camera runs kept us busy and active, though we enjoyed every minute. It was a real testament to how excited we were to simply be in South Africa, as we were even enthusiastic about the more mundane activities, like field weeding and counting leaves on trees. Even those activities had a purpose, whether it was experimenting with baboon behavior or gathering data to study Samango monkey feeding habits.

One of the most memorable activities some of us did was carving up cow placentas as bait for leopards. Fresh, raw cow fetuses were brought in from town, and we drove around to the leopard traps we had built to pre-bait them. According to the research coordinator, we were unnaturally excited about hacking open the fetuses, but actually we were genuinely fascinated by the whole process. We were also extremely fortunate to have been able to observe some of the local species up close. The research team arranged for all of the Earthwatch team to follow troops of Samango monkeys over a course of a few days, and it was mind blowing how tolerant the monkeys were of a human presence, as well as the habituated baboon troops. They were so used to humans at the research camp that they would sit on the very edge of camp and occasionally even travelling through. Throughout our trip, we were also lucky to witness giraffes, zebras, kudu, and other incredible wildlife in their natural habitats. Camera traps gave us glimpses of other animals, including the magnificent leopard. We were taught to identify the leopards based on the pattern of their spots, and consequently discovered a new, unnamed leopard! It was definitely a surreal moment.

The people that we met at Lajuma were undeniably a huge part of what made the trip so memorable.  There were always research assistants in the adjacent camps, all college students who were selected to join the research team for a certain length of time. They were the ones who led us on the hikes, showed us the wildlife, and taught us how to do real field work. We had an incredible time talking to them, learning from them, and laughing around the campfire. They were a part of an excellent research team that also included our wonderful cook, Oldrich, Sam, and Katy. The whole time we were at Lajuma, the research team made us feel right at home while also making sure we saw and did as much as we could, which was greatly appreciated. By the end of the trip, we had all become great friends and immediately friended each other on Facebook as soon as the plane landed back in America.

Over the 10 days we were at Lajuma, hiking was a common activity. Numerous camera traps were only accessible on foot, so off we went on some of the most incredible hikes any of us had ever been on. We traversed a multitude of terrains, including wide open golden fields in valleys, over and across magnificent mountains and enchanting forests. Despite the physical strain of many of the hikes, the views we were treated to on the hikes were breathtaking. After struggling up the seemingly steepest mountains we could climb without rock-climbing gear, when we saw the vast landscape spread out beneath us, the fatigue seemed to just melt away.

I never thought I would get to experience such an amazing opportunity, but I feel so blessed to have done so. We learned, we laughed, and we made unforgettable memories. I was captivated by the stunning scenery, awed by the people, and left Lajuma having gained knowledge, life experience, friends, and memories to last a lifetime.

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