Cape Town - A lilting French accent broke the silence of the Karoo dusk in Anysberg Nature Reserve, located between Laingsburg and Montagu.
“I really feel at home here,” said zoologist Marine Drouilly as we sat on the stoep of one of the cottages.
A jackal howled nearby and the Magellanic Clouds hung like blazing chandeliers in the ink-black sky.
Marine told me she’s from a small village in the Champagne region of north-eastern France, where plentiful rainfall and gentle sunshine coax vineyards from fecund soils.
What is a 27-year-old French mademoiselle doing here, in a semi-desert at the bottom of Africa, where the preferred beverage is not Moët et Chandon but Klippies and Coke?
If Marine’s choice of a new home wasn’t challenging enough, then her topic of her PhD research should keep the energetic student on her toes: “The ecological mechanisms and dynamics behind predator and farmer conflict.”
Simply put, this means Marine is trying to figure out the parameters that drive the killing of livestock on farms by jackal and caracal.
It’s long been a controversial topic. Conservationists and farmers continue to argue their respective positions, while the situation remains largely the same. Despite hunting, trapping and poisoning predators for three centuries, farmers have been unable to get rid of them.
Surprisingly few extensive scientific studies have been done in South Africa on this topic, and when there is no hard evidence, emotions quickly spiral out of control.
Into this breach stepped the softly spoken Marine, who has an MSc in conservation and ecology from Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, and has worked around the world with brown bears, polar bears, genets and leopards.
She emphasised to the farmers, however, that she would not offer them solutions to their problems.
“All I can do is present the scientific evidence, which will help everyone to make better decisions. But I’m not here to solve all the problems.”
Marine is using about 100 camera traps – placed 2km apart – to survey the biodiversity on both farmland and Anysberg Nature Reserve, then to compare the two areas. The weather-proof Bushnell cameras use infrared light to detect motion and take photos automatically when an animal walks past.
It’s one of the largest camera-trap surveys in the country. The Anysberg mountain range is largely unexplored, but a rugged 4x4 trail in the reserve offers superb views and fabulous rock formations.
Marine is yet to complete her study of Anysberg Nature Reserve, but the camera-trap photos on the farms caught everyone’s attention: “There is way more biodiversity on the farms than some people expected,” Marine said.
“Duiker, steenbok, hares, kudu, springbok and rhebok are the most common, but there are also good numbers of aardwolves, Cape foxes and bat-eared foxes – and, of course, jackal and caracal.”
And leopards? “We haven’t picked up any evidence of them on the farms, but there are several in the reserve itself,” Marine said.
Setting up home in the Karoo wasn’t easy for her, as she speaks no Afrikaans and doesn’t eat meat.
“I didn’t realise it was so hot and dry. I had never been here before and at first it was a bit lonely. But the farmers were very nice, and once I got to know one or two, they took me to meet the others.
“They would say: ‘This is Marine, she’s from France, she’s a vegetarian and she loves caracals’.”
Along with the camera traps, she is analysing predator dung – or scat; an irrefutable way to prove what the caracal and jackal are eating. In six months working on 22 farms, Marine has collected 58 caracal scats and 203 jackal scats.
“Only three – maybe four – caracal scat contained sheep hair,” Marine said, “which is very interesting, because it’s commonly believed that caracals kill plenty of livestock.
“My research so far suggests that caracal as a species don’t kill many sheep, at least in this area. There are maybe one or two that do, but the mass killing of caracals won’t solve the farmers’ problems.”
There were no surprises when it came to the jackal scat.
“I need to confirm this with lab tests, but about 50 percent of jackal scat on the farms contained sheep wool, which is what was expected.”
Once Marine has finished her study of the nature reserve, she will be able to compare her data of the farmlands and the protected area. Then, as a reward for all her hard work, she’ll enjoy a glass of Champagne – or Klippies and Coke. - Cape Times
l Ramsay is a photojournalist focusing on Southern Africa’s protected areas. See www.yearinthewild.com. For Anysberg Nature Reserve, see www.capenature.co.za. Contact Marine Drouilly on firstname.lastname@example.org.