Rabies babies

By Keafon Jumbam
“Batties, batties! – we’ve just come across another dead batty.” For the past couple of months, this has been an almost daily radio call. In the beginning it was mostly unknown foxes on the growing obituary list, but our own have also joined the ranks… Ernie was the first to depart, followed by Bentley and then Bertha – the one and only project mom (gasp; there goes my existing link to maternal care studies!). To say we have been under immense stress would be an understatement. We live in constant fear of who will be next.

Initially, we couldn’t make sense of why batties were dropping dead like flies all over the reserve. An onsite vet dissected the carcasses but the cause of death remained unclear. Samples of the brain, lungs and heart were sent to laboratories for further investigation and the results came back positive for rabies. Then our panic really intensified because of the extremely high risk to ourselves. Rabies is often fatal in humans too, and I hadn’t taken any rabies shots yet, thanks to the public hospital policy in Phuthaditjhaba that wouldn’t administer vaccines unless the patient had been bitten and tested positive for rabies. I panicked even more as I reflected on a few instances in the past when I had been nipped in the leg by naughty batties demanding for more raisins. Was I already infected?

It turns out I wasn’t alone; some of my team-mates were also losing their minds over the outbreak and needed rabies shots and boosters. Orders for vaccines were hurriedly put through and although they arrived within a few days, it felt like months of waiting.

Newly collared and vaccinated foxes
Newly collared and vaccinated foxes

The vaccines weren’t our only concern; we needed to attend to the batties too. It is the start of breeding season and we need to keep track of them as they disperse in search of mates. Thanks to issues with our suppliers, most of our batties lacked radio collars. What is more, the mate-search and pairing up process comes with fierce scuffles and territorial fights that further increase the spread of rabies in our population. And batties are so cute you don’t realize they can be deadly. Baine for instance, had wandered off to a neighboring farm in search of a mate, but was sent packing with bloodshot eyes and half of his head mauled to a pulp. The vets couldn’t have come at a better time – they attended to their injuries, vaccinated them against rabies and then collared them.

Alas it was too late for Bentley who was found dead upon the vets’ arrival. His badly injured brother Baine was by his side on the night he was found dead. The deceased’s partner – Catelyn – was in no mood to play the grieving wife; she had already found solace in the paws of another fox.

His brother's keeper: Ben and Baine used to be inseparable
His brother’s keeper: Ben and Baine used to be inseparable

And so we took our cue from Cat, stopped moping, and ended the stressful weeks with a party themed Rabies Babies, in honour of the lives we’d lost. Dressed up as doctors and nurses in white lab coats and dissecting aprons, we danced our sorrows away. And you know the party wouldn’t be complete without some shots right? 🙂

A story from the past: “The Fallout of the Guano Fever”

By Davide Gaglio

Doing a PhD is not just an academic exercise — it can make you attuned to events, ideas, and knowledge that has real-world consequences for humans and the planet we inhabit.

It is well known that oceans play a vital role in the welfare of humans and are an important economic resource, which sustains a large portion of the global food industry, renewable energy, tourism and much more. And I often wonder why we are so indifferent to the future of the ocean which we use? Not far in time and in space from our southern African coastline, personal profits created human deprivation and exploitation of an ecosystem that has not recovered to this day. Did we forget about the tragedy that happened during the White Gold Rush in South Africa? For about one hundred years (1890-1990), the rush for guano caused slavery, death and significant disturbance at breeding sites of endemic South African seabirds for the profit of only a few. I spent a lot of time on offshore islands for my PhD, and using my photographic passion, I would like to tell you this story with a short film.

This film interprets the hypothetical journey of a guano scraper reliving the first moments; the discovery of a pristine island that soon would become a prison; the first encounter with the unsuspecting wildlife, harsh weather, struggle for survival; the horror.

I am glad to introduce you: The Fallout of the Guano Fever

guano fever

It’s a story from the past that brings us to the modern era where the same marine environment is still being over-exploited.

Maybe it’s not clear for all but over-fishing, and its associated environmental impacts, is our biggest global environmental challenge alongside those posed by climate change. Scientific research (which includes my ongoing PhD) highlights that if we continue fishing as we are now, we will most likely see dwindling supplies of seafood within the next few decades. Over-fishing in southern Africa is emptying the seas faster than nature can replenish it, threatening the food security of all of us.

And things are getting worse.over fishing

The main solution is that fishing needs to be sustainable in order to restore the regions highly degraded marine environment, without negatively impacting Africans’ food security.

In South Africa, the WWF is doing a great job with their SASSI program. The goal is to improve fishing practices that are destructive to our oceans. This includes issues like illegal fishing, over-fishing, by-catch (the catch of species not intentionally targeted by fishers but harmed in the fishing process) and habitat destruction. Their system includes an advice pamphlet for the consumer to make the right choice once in the supermarket. By using a “traffic light” system, the colour-coded SASSI list categorizes selected South African and imported seafood species according to their conservation status.

This is happening now and here…it’s your choice to avoid repeating mistakes from the past today!