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Introduction to the Blog

Mini Wild Mol has been created by me, Molly Boyd, with the intent to enlighten the world about subjects I enjoy. The main subject of this blog will be wildlife (hence the “wild” in the blog name). This will include species profiles and also topics of interest. I hope that I can educate people, and spark passion about wildlife and the natural world. I may also include topics on minimalism (hence the “mini” in the title. In no way is this an indication of my rather small stature). When I say wildlife, I mean mostly African wildlife, because this is my most travelled continent, and I have gained a fairly large knowledge base on this area of the world. I will also look into other species in other areas of the world that hopefully one day I will get to see for myself.   

Why have I chosen these topics and what qualifies me to talk about them you might be thinking? 

Well the wildlife topic is my most qualified subject. In July 2019, I graduated from the University of South Wales with a 2:1 in a BSc (Hons) Natural History degree. This has given me a very broad range of knowledge on the way the wild world works. As well as this, I have been fortunate enough to travel to Africa 8 times since 2014. Over these trips I have gained vast knowledge about the wildlife that resides in this awe-inspiring place, gained from field guides and a lot of wildlife books. I hope to be able to travel to other wild areas of the world in the future such as Asia and The Amazon Rainforest. My two favourite animals are leopards and hornbills (this includes all species of hornbill). 

Minimalism came into my life around January 2017. I am still very much new to the idea of living with less and consuming less. In no way would I consider myself an expert, but things that I have heard and read have resonated with me. Now that I am trying to live my life this way, I feel other people may benefit from the things I’ve learned and the mistakes that I may make along the way so that the same doesn’t happen to them. At least no one needs to feel bad for making “mistakes” with minimalism if they see that someone online does too. I have found that travelling with less makes the experience a whole lot less stressful though, so I will try and provide some tips for this especially.

My plan with this blog is to post once a week at first to get a feel for the work and to be able to create some quality content for my readers. As minimalism has shown me, it’s quality not quantity that counts and I hope that it shows through the progress of this blog. 

I also have some experience in photography, mostly wildlife and pets, and so I’m hoping to pretty this page up as some old photos are prettied up ready for sharing. 

An additional section to my wildlife blog

As well as producing blog posts on wildlife topics and animal fact files, I am going to have a section dedicated to nature book reviews. These books will include all forms of Natural History writing, whether a story-like book or field guide. If the books are in my growing collection, I will post about them in this section. The first book review will be out around the 9th of July, as this is the official release date from the publishing company for the book I am writing about. 

How Covid-19 Zoo Closures Have Affected the Animals

With zoos reopening across the UK on Monday (12th April), I figured this was a fairly logical topic to write about this week. 

Giraffe photographed at Marwell Zoo 2017

A study undertaken by Williams. E. Et al (2021), looked at the effects of zoo closures on animals’ behaviour. The study looked at a few species including Chinese goral (Naemorhedus griseus), Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi), Swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor), Rothschild’s giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi), Nyala (Tragelaphus angasii), Chapman’s zebra (Equus quagga chapmani), Snow leopard (Panthera uncia) and Amur leopard (panthera pardus orientalis). These species were split across two different zoo sites, with observations carried out by the keepers during a period of when the zoo was closed and when the zoo reopened. 

A scan sampling technique was used during each sampling (observation) period which lasted five minutes each time. The behaviours were recorded for the group as a whole, rather than identifying the individuals to see if the behaviours were unique to that individual. The behaviours being recorded were to collect data on whether specific behaviours were present or absent within the group. 

The behaviours being recorded were listed in an Ethogram so that all participants observing the animals had an accurate description of each behaviour and could identify the behaviours easily. 

The Ethogram used was: 

BehaviourDescription
VigilantAlert – showing a heightened awareness of their environment (including looking at visitors)
Human-animal interaction (positive)Moving towards or seeking interaction from humans
Human-animal interaction (negative)Avoiding, moving away from or showing fear of humans
Foraging/feedingLocating and consuming foodstuffs
ComfortAny self-maintenance or self-grooming behaviour
Social (positive)Engaging in positive social behaviours (e.g. social play, grooming)
Social (negative)Engaging in negative social behaviour (e.g. fighting, displaying)
LocomotionMoving around the enclosure (on land or in water) in a non-repetitive pattern
Interaction with the environmentInvestigation or interaction with things in the environment (other than food).
Resting/sleepingSitting or lying motionless with eyes closed. No other behaviour is being performed
Abnormal repetitive behaviour (ARBs)Repetitive behaviour with no obvious function or purpose
OtherAny other behaviour not detailed in the ethogram
Out of sightAnimal out of sight of observer

The results of the study showed fluctuations in behaviour across all the species studied, however with the inconsistencies of the observations, the significant differences in frequencies of performance were not always detected. 

The behaviours to note from the study included Nyala showing no vigilance behaviours during the period the zoo was closed with no visitors and reduced staff numbers, however, their were signs of vigilance recorded when the zoo opened, which remained at similar levels of the zoo being open <1 month and open > 1 month. They initially showed a decrease in feeding behaviours when the zoo was open less than a month, but then increased their feeding behaviours to even more than the closure period when the zoo had been open for more than one month. 

The Rothschild’s giraffe in the study showed a steady increase of both vigilant and feeding behaviour over time from the zoo being closed to being open for more than one month. Their resting behaviour decreased over this time and no resting was observed when data was collected after the zoo had been open for more than one month. 

The Chinese goral showed more vigilance behaviours when the zoo had been open for less than one month, however, this behaviour decreased over time and reduced to the same levels of vigilance as the closure period after the zoo had been open for more than one month. 

Chapman’s zebra showed a decrease in vigilance when the zoo opened, but showed an increase in feeding behaviour. The Grevy’s zebra had fluctuating levels of vigilance and feeding behaviours throughout all states of zoo opening and closure periods, with no set pattern recorded. 

Swamp wallabies showed an increase of vigilance behaviour over time, from the zoo being closed to being open for more than one month, however the majority of the behaviours shown was resting behaviour in all time periods. 

Amur leopard photographed at Marwell Zoo 2017

Amur leopards showed a reduced level of vigilance behaviour over time, from the zoo being closed to being open for more than one month, however, their locomotion behaviour increased during the period that the zoo had been open for more than one month. Snow leopards were either resting or out of sight during all observation attempts, no matter the time period. 

Overall, most species exhibited behaviours that are what we would expect from them from both zoo sites, whether the zoo was closed or open. The Grevy’s zebra showed more comfort behaviours being performed during the closed periods compared to when the zoo was allowed to open. The Chinese goral showed more interaction behaviours with its environment during closed periods compared to open periods, with no environmental interactions being observed when the zoo was open. 

So what does this mean for the zoo animals when all the zoos start to reopen on Monday? 

It means that they could start to show a few behaviours that we may consider to be negative during the first few weeks of opening, remember, they haven’t seen the public for the last 3 whole months plus a bit, so the noise and visual stimulus of lots of humans is a bit alien to them again. They don’t have an understanding as to why humans they’re not used to keep appearing and disappearing at random times throughout the year, and so it could be a little stressful for them to start with. However, the majority of zoo animals have spent their entire lives in these environments and so it won’t take them long to become habituated to having visitors at the zoo again. 

Do we need to do further studies in this area as to whether reduced visitor numbers are better for zoo animals? 

It would certainly be an interesting study, especially to determine if having limited guest numbers is better for them than unlimited numbers where there could be tens of thousands on any one day during the summer, and only a couple thousand in the winter during normal times. 

Studying juvenile animals that have been born during the lockdowns who haven’t witnessed crowds of people would also make for an interesting study, to see how dramatically their behaviour changes with different stimuluses in their environments that they have never seen before because it was not possible. A study into how their behaviours adapt and change over time to the new stimulus of a large crowd would also be interesting. 

In the majority of animals, we shouldn’t see that much of a change in their behaviours as it has been a part of their lives for a long time, but it may take a few days or weeks for them to become used to it again. Please remember when visiting your local zoo, that you should try and be respectful to the animals by not being too loud, this will help them a lot if we show them some respect. Please also remember to follow the directions of staff at the zoo and follow covid rules so that they are able to stay open to not suffer any more drastic financial losses. 

Close up of giraffe (potentially Cotswold Wildlife Park)

Reference:

  • Williams. E., Carter. A., Rendle. J., Ward. S. J. 2021. Impacts of COVID-19 on Animals in Zoos: A Longitudinal Multi-Species Analysis. J. Zoo. Bot. Gard. 2021, 2, 130-145. https://doi.org/10.3390/jzbg2020010

Easter in the Wildlife Calendar

Mallard Duckling, a classic Easter baby.

Easter is a holiday that a lot of us look forward to, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, and even more especially when you’re involved in wildlife conservation and have a general interest in wildlife. Easter marks the start or very near start of baby season in the wild and in a lot of farm animals too. It is at this time of year where birds will be coming together to breed, lay their eggs and hatch their chick, there will be baby lambs on many farms across the country, all over the New Forest we’ll start to see foals, calves, baby donkeys and maybe a few hares and rabbits about the place. 

New Forest calf photographed a few years ago

Why do we see so many young animals appearing at this time?

This time of year starts to see better weather, which includes more sunshine, slightly less rain and warmer temperatures. This change in season starts to see buds appearing on trees and bushes, flowers starting to sprout out of the ground and therefore starting to provide new food to the animals on the lower end of the food chain. This new abundance of food means that animals have the energy to produce young, and also have the means to provide for their young once they are born. When the herbivorous animals produce their young, that gives omnivorous and carnivorous animals a bigger selection and abundance of food choice too. 

Signet (baby swan) photographed a few years ago.

It is important that young animals have an abundance of food to eat as they need the energy to grow and become strong, allowing them to mature into adults and leave their parents at the appropriate time. Without an abundance of food, the parents would also suffer and put their health at huge risk of not being able to recover if there isn’t enough food for them too. 

Other areas of the world with an abundance of wildlife at this time of year

I’m not sure if too many other areas experience a baby boom of wildlife at this time of year, especially the southern hemisphere as they are going into autumn and starting to prepare for winter at this time; however, countries that exist in the vicinity of the equator seem to have babies appearing at this time. 

This zebra foal had been born literally minutes before we found it, you can still see a few of the blood stains left on its legs.

I visited Tanzania in March 2018, experiencing the baby season of the wildebeests in the southern corner of the Serengeti. There were hundreds of thousands of wildebeest calves being born, zebra foals and perhaps more herbivores that I didn’t see at that time. I also saw a fair amount of lion cubs at this time too. The southern Serengeti was in its rainy season, making the grass grow lush and long, attracting the wildebeest and the other animals that migrate with them to the area. With this abundance of new grass, it made the perfect areas to give birth. Not only did it provide a large amount of food for the new mothers so that they could produce a good amount of milk for their young, the long grass also helped to hide their young from predators. With the abundance of young wildebeest and zebra, being easier to catch as they are a lot smaller and more grabbable than the adults, it provided predators with a good food source to provide for their young, which made sense why everything seemed to be having babies at this time of year. 

Young lion cub, found not too far away from the young zebra foal in the previous photo.

Helping the wildlife out

Due to this being the baby season for wildlife, it is imperative that we don’t disturb any animals when we go out to enjoy nature. 

Some simple rules to follow include: sticking to already made paths – in doing this, you’re reducing the risk of walking through a ground-nesting bird area, or stumbling across an animal giving birth which already puts them on edge. Always remember to watch your step so that you don’t accidently damage bird nests, fall down rabbit warrens or step in icky after-birth. 

Dogs should be on leads in wildlife areas – there is a huge risk of dogs either accidently or purposefully injuring/killing young wildlife, and in this day and age where numerous species are suffering low numbers, we must do everything we can to give the young animals the best chance of surviving. 

Also, always observe from a safe distance – new mums can be especially feisty and could harm you if you get too close, especially if they fear you pose a great threat to their young. 

Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius)

Total length: 3.4-4.2m

Shoulder Height: 1.5m

Tail length: 30-50cm

Weight (mass): 1,000-2,000 kg (males), 1,000-1,700kg (females)

IUCN Red List Status: Vulnerable 

Population Trend: Stable

Population numbers: estimated at 115,000 – 130,000 individuals

Hippos are semi-aquatic mammals, spending most of their day in water. They are large animals, with smooth, hairless skin, short legs and a very large head. The mouth contains huge tusk-like canines, although these teeth play no part in eating activities, but are used for attracting mates and showing strength to competing males in dominance battles. 

Hippos are now only found to the northern and eastern parts of southern Africa, only extending as far south as the KwaZulu-Natal at present, however they were previously found in Cape Town, along the southern coastal belt and along the entirety of the Orange River until colonial settlers hunted them out of those areas. The distribution of hippos is patchy across the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, but they are widespread. 

The type of habitat required by hippos is a sufficient water supply so that they are able to submerge themselves. They show a preference of permanent waters containing a sandy substrate. They can be found in rivers, dams and lakes. They feed on grass, and so the surrounding areas from the water must have a suitable supply. 

Hippos, as I’ve previously said, spend a lot of time in water, however, in winter, they spend a significant amount of time lying up on sandy or muddy banks, mostly to be in the sun. Most often, hippos will be found in pods containing 10-15 individuals, however larger groups and lone bulls are not uncommon. 

Hippos are often difficult to photograph, they’re shiny and in bright sunlight it’s often difficult to get the right balance. I turned this photo to black and white, otherwise it was very bright and difficult to see the hippos

The pods are usually made up of cows and their calves of varying ages with a dominant bull in charge of the group overall. The territories of hippos tend to be narrow in the water, but broaden out on the grazing grounds. Dominant bulls scatter their dung to mark their territory. The scattering is done by flicking the tail from side to side, very fast and vigorously, they will spread their dung onto rocks, bushes and other objects, as well as in the water. 

Adult hippos are able to stay under water for around 6 minutes. They are able to close their nostrils and ears to stop water getting in. 

The skin glands on hippos secrete a reddish fluid, which is often mistaken for blood, however it is most likely used as a skin lubricant and moisturiser. Hippos have very sensitive skin which can easily burn if exposed to the sun for too long, which is why they tend to come out of the water to feed at night-time. 

Hippos are very vocal creatures, and you will often hear their grunts and snorts. The only way to describe their grunts is that they sound like very large frogs or toads, or an evil old man laughing slowly and cunningly. 

If hippos are provoked, they become extremely dangerous to be near. The ones to be particularly careful of are solitary bulls, or cows with young calves. They are estimated to kill around 500 people a year in Africa, giving it the reputation of the world’s deadliest large land mammal. Make sure you give these magnificent creatures enough space so that they don’t feel threatened by your presence and they won’t harm you at all. 

Hippos mate in water, due to their size I imagine this is easier on the females. They have a gestation period of 225-257 days, where they will then give birth to a single calf weighing 25-55kg (usually around 30kg). The cows give birth on land in dense cover where they will then remain separated from the pod for about 2 weeks. They aren’t known to have a breeding season as calves are seen to be produced at any time of year, however there does appear to be a large increase and a seasonal peak in October to March. 

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)

The Red Fox is the only member of the Canid (dog) family in the UK. A lot of the time, they are seen as pests by farmers and the public as they have a reputation for stealing chickens and going through our rubbish when scavenging for food. 

Red Foxes however do have quite a varied diet and will eat small mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and well as berries and fruit. Due to the multitude of habitats they can be found in, from forests to urban cities, they have become highly adaptable to thrive in these places, which is why they will scavenge for food anywhere, including our bins. 

Their range outside the UK extends all the way across Europe and all the way into Asia, and also into the Middle East. They have also been introduced in a number of places, including Australia and New Zealand. They are also found across the United States. They have a widespread across the UK, however they are absent for the Channel Islands, the Isles of Scilly, the Scottish islands and the Isle of Man. 

The Red Fox can be found in a variety of habitats, including grassland, heathland and moorland, farmland, woodland and towns and gardens. They tend to be out during crepuscular (dawn and dusk) hours and throughout the night as they are rather nocturnal. If you’re out early in the morning or late in the evening, you stand a good chance of seeing one.

Red Foxes have a global IUCN Red List Status of Least Concern with a stable population trend; however, the number of mature individuals is not recorded on the IUCN website. 

They are easily identifiable, being a medium-sized dog with an orangey-red fur on the back, sides and head, a white belly, black tips on the ears, dark brown feet and a white tip on the end of the bushy, orange tail (the tail is also known as the ‘brush’).

Red foxes are 62-72cm in length from the snout to the bass of the tail, the tail is 40cm long, on average they weigh 5-7kg and they have an average lifespan of 2-3 years. 

Foxes will typically mate during the winter. The female (vixen) will give birth to a litter containing 2-12 pups. The pups are born with a brown or grey coat rather than red as it helps to disguise them better while they are vulnerable and defenceless. The orange-red coat will start to grow in when they are around a month old. Both of the parents will look after the pups throughout the summer until they are big enough and ready to go out on their own in the autumn. 

Spotted Hyaena (Crocuta crocuta)

The Spotted Hyaena (Crocuta crocuta) is a fairly common animal to spot on safari in Africa, with them being found mostly in protected nature reserves. They have otherwise been eliminated throughout South Africa, southern Namibia, and central Zimbabwe. Other than these areas, they are found in most African countries, as far north as Guinea, Ghana and Nigeria, all the way across to Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania, and then covering pretty much the entirety of southern Africa. 

Hyaena clan spotted scavenging among other species in the Serengeti

The preferred habitat of spotted Hyaena is varied, however they exclude themselves from dense forest and desert. The only requirement of their habitat is a sufficient supply of medium-sized ungulates (antelopes), which includes wildebeest and some other antelope species. 

Hyaenas are rather dog like, although they don’t fit into the canid family. They have a relatively large build; their shoulders are taller than their rump, with a coat varying in colour from a fawn-yellow to a dirty grey containing numerous dark brown spots or splodges. They have a characteristic routine of calls including whooping, giggling and cackling calls, most often heard at night. 

Spotted Hyaenas have an average total length of 120-180cm, tail length is 25cm on average, an average shoulder height of 85cm and an average mass of 60-80kg. 

Spotted Hyaenas have an IUCN Red List Status of Least Concern, although their population does have a decreasing population trend. The number of individuals in the wild is currently unknown. 

The behaviour of Spotted Hyaenas is particularly interesting, they are the only known social hyaena species, with the clan (group) always being dominated by a female. There is a huge variety in size of clan, with some only having 3 or 4 individuals, to some clans having 15 or more individuals. Within these clans, it is usually related females, their young, and unrelated males that remain within the clan for varying lengths of time (up to several years for some). The highest-ranking female dominates all members, including the dominant male. 

They are territorial and the clan will defend their territory against other clans, using anal gland secretions to mark territory boundaries, as well as using urine and very distinctive bright white droppings. They are mainly nocturnal, but are frequently seen during the day also. As mentioned already, they are notorious for being vocal and have many types of calls including whoops, groans, grunts, whines, yells and giggles. 

Hyaena cub found in the Kruger National Park, along with two siblings and its mum.

Hyaenas use dens to sleep in and protect the cubs; the dens may just be holes in the ground or intricate warren systems which are associated with rocky outcrops and caves. 

Spotted Hyaenas gained a reputation for being cowardly scavengers, and although they do perform this behaviour, they are also avid hunters, having witnessed a hyaena clan take down two wildebeest in the Serengeti, I can confirm this is true. They generally go for zebra, wildebeest and sometimes even giraffe. They will also eat smaller critters such as insects, lizards and small mammals if they can find and catch them. They are also notorious raiders and will go through dustbins and rubbish dumps at campsites. 

This Hyaena clan took this wildebeest down literally seconds before we got there.

Hyaenas usually have 1 or 2 cubs per litter, there are rare occasions where there will be more cubs. Each cub will weigh around 1.5kg at birth. They don’t generally have a specific breeding season, although in some areas, seasonal peaks have been recorded. The gestation lasts for around 110 days. There may be two or more females that all have cubs at a similar time and keep them in a burrow together for several months, however each mother will only suckle her own cubs. At birth the cubs have a dark brown fur covering their whole body with a lighter fur on their heads and necks. 

Lifespan in Spotted Hyaenas has been recorded to be up to 16 years in the wild, with an average lifespan of 12-25 years in captivity. A record lifespan of a Spotted Hyaena in captivity was recorded at 41 years and 1 month. 

It’s Not All About the Big Animals

When people are planning a trip, maybe abroad, maybe only a few hours away from home, and that trip specifically features the topic of wildlife watching, you only ever hear people talk about going to see the big animals. For instance, people travelling to Africa will talk of hopes that they get to see all of the Big 5, or people going to India will talk about going to see a tiger, and by no means should they not be excited about that. However, if the big animals are all you’re excited for, you could come away from your holiday in a low mood, potentially because you didn’t find those big animals, and so when someone asks you what you saw, your response might be “we didn’t see anything”.

Impala and terrapins. Two animals no-one really thinks about when going on safari, but here actually made for an interesting image. You will literally see hundreds of thousands of impala on safari, they are that common, but sometimes when you get an interesting interaction, such as this, or just really nice lighting, they can be good subjects to photograph and look at.

As an example, on my self-drive Kruger holiday that I went on with my boyfriend in the summer of 2019, we had quite a few days where we could’ve said we saw “nothing”, because it’s true, we had maybe 3 or 4 days where we saw very few or no big animals at all. In this situation, having been to Africa multiple times before, and understanding that wildlife does its own thing, I understood that we also needed to be excited about the possibility of seeing smaller animals, such as birds, reptiles, maybe even some insects (although it was winter, so reptiles and insects were less likely). It was the interest of seeing all the wildlife that Kruger had to offer, be it big mammals, tiny little birds or a leopard tortoise that kept the days of “nothing” more exciting for us. 

I found this Tree Creeper out on a nature walk a few years ago in South Wales, a species I hadn’t seen before this, so it was exciting to find something new when the kingfishers weren’t showing.

I would describe myself as quite the “bird nerd” and so I do find seeing birds and checking off new species on my list maybe a bit more exciting than most, but if you’re travelling to the other side of the world, or even just a few hours down the motorway, being excited about the possibilities of finding an array of wildlife will ultimately make your trip better for you, at least in my opinion it would. 

It sometimes becomes more exciting if you turn finding new species into a game or a challenge, such as identifying new birds, or trying to have more birds on your list than the other person. These games often work better if there is a larger number of you in separate vehicles/walking groups. That is the other thing about viewing wildlife. In many areas of the world, you unfortunately do have to stay in your vehicle, be it for safety or not damaging the environment etc. When there is a chance to explore on foot however, I strongly recommend that you take that opportunity and run (preferably walk though) with it. In Africa, there are these amazing people, professionally trained and labelled Field Guides. These Field Guides are trained to the highest standards in training camps before being let out to guide the public, and if you are able, you should absolutely book yourself on a bush walk. The guides will take you out on foot, explaining how to identify which animals are in the area from their tracks (and poop), they will tell you about the different trees and plants and all about their different uses in traditional medicines, you may come across smaller critters, such as spiders (I know everyone isn’t too happy about them, I’m included in this, but they are interesting none the less), you may even find a chameleon and get some lovely up-close photos of one. It even gives you a different perspective on just how insignificant you are in the world when you’re on foot only 30 metres from an elephant. 

Sunbathing crocs from my uni trip to Botswana, on that trip we were expected to be interested in everything as it was a uni module for a Natural History degree. That degree taught me so much about wildlife and it really does make my appreciation of wildlife even more than what it was before I studied at uni.

In my personal opinion, the best way to never be disappointed when going on a holiday, or even just a day out at your local nature reserve, is to be excited about finding anything and everything. I’m excited for the spring to start bringing the butterflies, the birds and more life into the world again. Maybe it’s just a very British thing, but we all get overly excited when we find cows in fields, especially baby ones, and I think if we all applied that same excitement to all aspects of wildlife, no one would ever be disappointed just for having the opportunity to be outside and be in nature. 

Just a regular blue tit, but the more you photograph, the better you become, so always take an opportunity to get the camera out, not matter what the subject is. Also Blue tits are rather sweet so I don’t mind having hundreds of photos of them.

One last thing to mention is that there is never not an opportunity to learn when it comes to wildlife, there are thousands, maybe tens of thousands of books out there covering every topic, species and research question known to man. Or at least a big enough variety that it would probably take more than one lifetime to learn everything that’s already out there. So I would say, buy the books, learn as much as you can about every aspect of one area of wildlife, such as ornithology (study of birds) or mammalogy (study of mammals), and then look for examples of what you’ve learned and appreciate all of the different aspects of their biology, ecology and behaviour that you’ve read about. You could even implement your own little studies on your wildlife watching holidays to gain even more of an understanding, such as a behaviour study. The most important books to take with you on your wildlife excursions are definitely identification or field guides so that you are able to identify everything you see. You may also need some binoculars as animals, particularly small ones also like to remain at quite a distance from you. If you are a photographer, trying to photograph every bird, insect, reptile and mammal will also give you a much bigger portfolio to build up when you get back home, thus making your trip look even more impressive to your peers. 

CITES

What does CITES stand for? 

Black Rhino, protected under CITES Appendix I, other than populations in South Africa and eSwatini, which are then under Appendix II, meaning you still can’t trade specimens of this animal.

CITES stands for: the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

So what is CITES about exactly? 

CITES is an agreement between governments, which has aims to ensure that any trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not have an impact on that species survival. 

The background of CITES

CITES was first formed in the 1960s. It seems obvious now as to why something like this might be needed now with the plight of so many animals such as tigers, elephants, rhino and pangolin species all being threatened; however, back when it was set up, the discussions to regulate the trade of wildlife for conservation purposes was relatively new. 

The international wildlife trade (mostly illegal), is estimated to be worth billions of dollars on an annual basis, and it includes the trade of wild animal and plant specimens. The specimens can be found in a variety of different states to be sold in, ranging from live animals and plants, to many different products that have been derived from them. These products include food products, exotic leather goods, wooden musical instruments, timber, tourist curios and medicines. We can all surely think of animals that receive high levels of exploitation, along with high levels of habitat destruction, which is ultimately depleting their numbers hugely. There are many species that can be traded legally because they are not endangered, however, the agreement being in existence helps to ensure the sustainability of the trade in those species to safeguard them for the future. 

International cooperation to safeguard certain species is needed due to the trade in wild animals and plants crossing borders between countries, the cooperation of the countries helps to lower the risk of over-exploitation of certain species. CITES today offers varying degrees of protection to more than 37,000 species of animals and plants, no matter whether they are traded as live specimens, fur coats or dried herbs. 

CITES Appendices 

Giraffes are protected under CITES Appendix II

The CITES Appendices are lists of species that are assigned to one of the 3 appendices, depending on the level or types of protection that species needs from over-exploitation.

Appendix I species are the most endangered species among the CITES-listed animals and plants. These species are threatened with extinction and this CITES appendix prohibits the trade of any specimens of these species, except for where the purpose of trade is not commercial, such as for scientific research. The import and export of specimens in these exceptional cases can be authorized with the granting of both an import and export permit (or a re-export certificate). 

Appendix II listed species are not necessarily threated with extinction right now, but may become threatened with it if the trade is not closely controlled. This appendix also has “look-alike species” included, for example, species with specimens in trade that look remarkably like those species listed for conservation reasons. Although an import permit is not necessary for species listed under appendix II, they will need a granting of an export permit or re-export certificate to be granted for international trade of specimens. However, import permits maybe required in some countries that have tighter restrictions than CITES requires. Permits or certificates should only be granted if the authorities involved are satisfied that a number of conditions are met, and above all, the any trade of that specimen will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild. 

Appendix III, the last CITES list category, is a list of species formed at the request of a Party that already regulates trade in the species and that needs the cooperation of other countries to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploitation. International trade of Appendix III species is allowed, only on the presentation of appropriate permits or certificates.

A Pangolin, listed as a CITES Appendix I species.

CITES Parties (Parties of the Convention) 

CITES is an international agreement to which States and regional economic integration organizations adhere voluntarily. States which have agreed to be bound to the Convention (‘joined’ CITES) are known as Parties. CITES is legally binding on the Parties involved – meaning they have to implement the convention – however, it does not take the place of national laws. A framework is provided to be respected by each Party, which then has to adopt its own domestic legislation to ensure that CITES is implemented at the national level. 

CITES has one of the largest membership numbers among conservation agreements, with 183 Parties signed up. 

Photography for Conservation

Using photography as a tool to spark interest in saving species has been a method used for at least the last decade, if not, the last two. Images stick to the mind and paint a better picture than just words on a page as people are able to see the animals that need to be saved, which is even more helpful if they maybe wouldn’t know what the animals were without the images. However, I have some personal scepticism over the types of images used to convey the need for saving those animals and creating conservation action. 

A tac-sharp wildlife photo that is perfect for framing or putting in a coffee table book. These sorts of images are the ones people love to put on their walls and often earn big money to give back to conservation charities.

Pretty images, such as those taken by professional wildlife photographers, some that are displayed in world-wide competitions, such as the Natural History Museum’s annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition, or even beautiful coffee table books featuring stunning images of wildlife are often used for fund raising to give money back to charities and organisations that do the on-the-ground work. However, these images don’t necessarily portray why the animals need to be saved, only that they are stunning and should belong in the wild. 

Images that invoke a reaction because of their shock factor may work better in getting people to take personal action against what is happening to wildlife, but do the images really need to be as gruesome as some of them are? Surely seeing images of rhinos with half their faces hacked off, or sacks full of pangolins and their scales would provoke emotions in even the toughest human being, except that the public may not know how to react to these images, or what action to take to stop these things being done. 

As much as there is a need for people to know how bad the situation is, showing the general public who may not have much knowledge on the world of conservation, provoking images of wildlife that have been harmed could cause upset without the right actions afterwards.

These shocking images not only appear in photographs but are often shown in TV adverts to catch the attention of viewers to donate money towards the rescue of these animals. But should these images really be so public? Or should these images be saved for members of the charities to show them exactly what they’re fighting against, especially the worst images of cruelty, brutality and gruesomeness of some scenes. 

An argument that these upsetting images perhaps don’t cause the right kind of action amongst people is because we are still having to show those images however many decades later, and sure not everyone will have seen the WWF advert of the orangutan clinging to the last stick of a tree in its burnt down home, but enough of the public should have seen it to create a stir. Enough people should have seen it to take action in reducing their consumption of palm oil, so are the images really working? 

The images that are used to create a stir in the public may make them want to take action, but maybe the images should also educate the public on how to take action. Such as showing the palm oil plantations taking over the rainforests and showing the public where this palm oil is used, such as foods, hair care products, maybe even in skincare products, and make resources available on better products to buy to drive down the need for palm oil. 

Other uses of education could be showing how the environment would be if certain animals died out, the risks of further pandemics maybe, or worse, the destruction of the human population itself. Examples such as hyaenas and vultures cleaning up carcasses to prevent disease spreading through the environment, or something such as the over-abundance of insects because frogs, birds and other insect eating species have died out, or how the world would look if we wiped out the pollinators completely. 

Imagery in conservation needs to provoke thought and action amongst the public, but the way it is done needs to be carefully considered. Over gruesome, and over horrific imagery may just put people off and they’ll just turn the page, or switch channels on their TV. The public needs more education in this area, the world of professionally trained conservationists is considerably small in comparison to the world population, and therefore, it is important that everyone is onboard with taking action against all of these problems. 

There are problems however, where if the blame game is played for the destruction of wildlife areas, the decimation of species or any other such tragic event where it is blamed on the public, they do not like that, and will argue against the facts. In fact, there were many outraged people commenting on Facebook about the last episode of A Perfect Plant, the latest David Attenborough series, where they show what humans have done to the earth, however I think the anger was based on the fact it was made out to be the general public’s fault.  As much as over consumption is to blame for the state of the world and its wild places, the only reason it has become so atrocious is because of the constant drive from a particular group of people, be it the government putting the economy over everything else, or rich celebrities telling people that if they have this one thing then they will be happy, and this happens hundreds of thousands of times over from many, many people advertising “products you need to get” etc. I personally want to yell in these people’s faces when they show their hauls from Primark and other fast fashion brands of hundreds of items that they don’t need. You see rooms full of makeup that no one person could ever use in a lifetime and yet companies sponsor them and send them more. I think there is a large community on YouTube especially, maybe even Facebook and Instagram who need to get educated on the damage they are causing considering most of them would describe themselves as “animal lovers”, but what they are doing to the environment by encouraging others to over consume things they simply don’t need is in fact not showing the wild animals affected just how much they apparently love them. This is not to say that I think everyone should be a minimalist and only own 100 items or whatever, but I think people need to take a step back and have a good think as to whether they need more clothes, shoes, makeup, new phones etc. before they go out and buy them. If you already have 400 items of clothing that you barely wear, do you really need any more? 

So as conservationists, and people who are passionate about the natural world, our job is to slightly forcibly open people’s eyes to the goings on in the world, and to also educate them on what they can do to help, without playing any sort of blame game. We must also remember that we cannot force our views onto anyone, they must be able to believe it for themselves through being educated in the right way, and so when trying to entice people in to want to save wildlife, and wild places, we must do so with care. 

As much as it is fun for me personally to see hyaenas take down a wildebeest in the Serengeti, I would imagine that some would not want to see the innards of that animal spilled all over the place in some of the pictures I took. However, this type of image, in an appropriate setting, can be used to make audiences aware of the importance of having hyaenas in the wild. 

I tried to pick the least gruesome photo in the series I had. Hyenas cleaning up kills like this helps to stop spread disease, it also helps to keep the wildebeest herds strong by taking out the weak ones. Nature knows what it’s doing as it’s best we just let mother nature get on with it. You can also see there is a Golden Jackal in the background, who will hopefully grab some bits to eat when the hyenas are finished. Other animals such as vultures, and maybe lions will help in the cleaning up process of this carcass.

My personal preference is to share pretty pictures of animals, along with some facts about them, in the hopes that people find those animals fascinating and maybe do their own research into saving them and finding out ways that they can help from home. 

A rather fine-art style Greater Kudu photo.

Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments. 

Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill (Tockus leucomelas)

The Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill is found throughout southern Africa including south-west Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, southern Zambia, southern Malawi, western Mozambique and northern South Africa. 

It is a very common bird, and easy to recognise. They measure around 40cm from head to tail. They have a combination of pied white-spotted plumage (set with black). The most obvious giveaway of species is the long yellow bill. The males can weigh between 153-242g, and have a broad bill with a low casque that extends from ridge to tip. The female is smaller, weighing between 138-211g, and they have a smaller bill and shorter casque. The juvenile is very similar to the adults except they have a shorter, dull-yellow bill with brown spots. They are also known as “flying-bananas” due to their bills.

The Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill has an IUCN Red List Status of Least Concern, however, their numbers are decreasing, but their total population numbers are unknown. 

The preferred habitat of yellow-billed hornbills is savanna and open woodlands, which includes being along rivers and they also like grasslands with scattered trees. In the west, they are also known to live in arid semi-desert and thorn-bush country. 

Searching for food on the ground

They feed mostly on the ground, or in low bushes where they can be found walking or running to catch small prey. They are not known to do too much digging in the ground, but they will search the ground or among leaf litter, and they will search branches for small prey to pick off with their strong bills. They mostly prefer to eat small invertebrates, such as ant and termites, which is the most easily found prey in the dry season. However, when available, they will eat caterpillars, grasshoppers, beetles, centipedes and scorpions. They do take some vertebrate prey such as bird eggs and nestlings, and rodents when they can find them. They make also be found eating fruits and seeds when there is an abundance. 

Hornbill feeding on something

Southern yellow-billed hornbills are usually found in resident pairs or small family flocks, where they will stay in their home range all year. They are territorial and also return after feeding for the day. 

As with all but 2 species of hornbill, the yellow-billed hornbill does use a nest cavity for breeding. The breeding season for this species of hornbill usually starts after the first summer rains in September to March. The nest is a natural cavity found in trees, usually from 0.8-12.2 metres up. They do compete with other hole-nesting birds using cavities, however they do seem to tolerate other Tockus species such as the Red-billed or African Grey, who may co-exist and nest nearby, occasionally in the same tree. 

Yellow-billed hornbills are monogamous and the pair will start bonding about a month before they are ready to lay eggs. The courtship display includes calling, wing spreading, bowing heads and exchanging food. The nest is prepared with the entrance starting to be sealed and lining the internal nest floor with grass and leaves. The female enters the cavity after mating and finished sealing the entrance using mainly her own droppings, leaving it with a 5mm wide crack. The female will then take about 4-5 days to lay eggs, in which she could lay a clutch of between 2-6 eggs with intervals of 1-4 days. They incubation period for southern yellow-billed hornbill eggs is 24 days. 

The female will moult all of her flight feathers during confinement. The bond between the mating pair has to be incredibly strong as the female is relying on the male to bring food as she cannot leave the nest. The male will feed the female, and then later feed the chicks when they hatch, bringing single food items to the nest at a time. The male will visit the nest around 3 times an hour at the beginning, which sharply increases when the eggs start to hatch, and peaks at 11 visits per hour when the chicks are 10-20 days old. 

The eggs hatch in the order that they’re laid, which can last over a period of 9 days. The female will pass the food from the male to the chicks until they are about 10 days old, where they are then able to reach up and grab food directly from the male themselves. 

The female is responsible for the house-keeping of the nest until the chicks are about 10-15 days old where they are then big enough to turn around and eject their droppings directly out of the nest entrance. The female will clean out the nest by removing soiled leaves that are on the nest floor until the chicks are big enough. 

The female will emerge from the nest when the chicks are around 19-27 days old to help the male with the feeding. The chicks will re-seal the nest unaided from the inside. The chicks will then fledge the nest after 42-47 days, but they won’t all go at once, the younger chicks will stay in the nest and re-seal the entrance after the older ones have left. The whole nesting cycle lasts around 70-76 days. 

The juveniles are very weak fliers immediately after leaving the nest and so they will hang around the nesting tree, and still get fed by the parents until they are strong enough to fly out and feed themselves. They gradually learn how to forage for themselves, but still get food from the parents up to around 6 weeks after leaving the nest. 

Perching in a tree, although they are more commonly found on the ground

Things to Bring When Wildlife Watching

Today’s blog is going to go through some of the things I think are most important to have on you while out looking for wildlife. It may differ, depending on what your interests are, but this might be a helpful blog for beginners. 

The first and most important item in your wildlife watching bag should be a good pair of binoculars. Binoculars can help you see wildlife in much greater detail than just with your eyes, but to make sure they are affective, they need to be of good spec. There are binoculars that are very good that don’t cost an arm and a leg, but the basic thing to look for is the magnification. The magnification is the first number in something that looks like “10 x 42” on the description. The best magnifications are 8x or 10x, these will get you in close enough to the wildlife for you to be able to see good detail. The second number “42” refers to the size of the end lens, the bigger it is, the more light they let through, so therefore they can be used in more circumstances, such as being quite good for looking at the night sky on a clear night. The binoculars I use are the Vortex Diamondbacks “10 x 42”, which I purchased from The Safari Store over 6 years ago and they’re still going strong. 

The second most important item(s) is your wildlife ID book(s). It’s always good to bring an ID book with you so you know exactly what you’re looking at, even if you can identify many different birds/bugs/trees/flowers/reptiles etc. it’s always good in case you come across a species you maybe haven’t seen before. There are hundreds of thousands of ID books all over the internet for all different groups of animals from all sorts of locations from around the world. Always have a look for ID books for each location you travel to, a lot of books cover multiple locations, some even multiple topics which are useful for saving space and weight in your bag. The book I always take on a wildlife watching day out is my British Bird book, as birding is a particular favourite activity of mine. When I travel to Africa, I will usually take a bird book and at least one other book, maybe a mammals book, a book that covers multiple topics, or a track and signs book. 

A selection of my African Wildlife ID guides

So my every day carry is made up of a pair of binoculars and a bird book, but there are many other items I have if I am doing a longer day out, or perhaps going on a photography mission, or any other wildlife activity.

I have a very basic camera set-up, which is now in a new bag that I got for Christmas. It is much easier to photograph wildlife with a simpler set up as you’re not having to go through a ton of lenses to decide which would be the best one, or carry all that extra weight. My current set up consists of a Canon 7D Mark II, a Canon 100-400 L Mark II and a Canon 1.4x Mark II Extender. This set up serves me very well and I have taken some pretty awesome photos if I do say so myself. I have used a ton of different camera bodies and lenses over the last few years of my photography journey, but this set up suits me the best for now, the only thing I may add in the near future is a wider-angle lens, for when wildlife comes closer than my lens allows for. My set up has proven to be good out in the wilds and also in zoo settings. I now also use a Crumplr messenger style camera bag, rather than a camera backpack, although I still have to test my new bag in the field, so once this latest lockdown is over, I will be trying it out at the zoo. 

Another amazing bunch of items in my inventory are my FSC guides. These are laminated (or at least waterproofed to some extent) fold out card things that cover a range of topics from birds, to mammals, to tracks to plant species. These are especially useful if you’re only looking for specific species as you don’t have to rifle through a full ID book to find what you’re looking for. A lot of the species on these guides are also fairly easy to identify and these guides are amazing for teaching courses to young children, as well as university groups and adults. The guides can be bought singularly or in different packs which usually include 5 guides. You can purchase your guides directly from the FSC website. 

My insect and plant guides
My bird guides
My mammal guides

My favourite websites to look for wildlife items to have in my pack include: 

And a few others, but these four are the main ones. For more ideas of what to have in your wildlife pack, you can always check out my Christmas Gift idea blog, which features a ton of ideas and links for gifts specifically for outdoorsy wildlife lovers. These gift ideas could help you to build your own wildlife pack as well. 

When creating your wildlife watching pack, always think about where it is you’re going, how long you’re going to be there, and what you’ll be doing/looking for. Another item you may wish to add to your wildlife watching pack is a notebook and a pen to record all of your sightings (lots of wildlife watchers do this as they can then create spreadsheets etc. of all the different species they’ve seen). Always carry gear to protect you from any weather you might experience if out in the field for a long time, the most important things are to stay warm and dry, otherwise it gets very uncomfortable, or to make sure you don’t get sunburnt or dehydrated as that gets particularly nasty to sort out.