Every two weeks, the Wisconsin Center for Wildlife will be highlighting student or faculty projects within the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point College of Natural Resources. Check back frequently for new spotlights and check out the projects we have already featured by clicking on past articles!

Pictures to Populations: A South African Experience 

by Brilyn Brecka​

     As sunlight spilled into the small pop-up tents, the sounds of unfamiliar bird calls and elephants trumpeting in the distance woke the researchers, signaling the start of a new day on the Okavango Delta. There was work to be done, so after a quick breakfast and coffee, the Land Rovers were loaded with gear, and the group made its way even further into the bush. As they continued to drive along the transect, an experienced, native Setswana tracker sat at the front of the vehicle to signal when he saw the tracks of an animal. They were specifically looking for elephants, a species not uncommon in that area of South Africa… 

     The beauty of Botswana's wildlife can shock many, including two undergraduate students from UW - Stevens Point: Nate Weisenbeck and Tommy Young. When offered the opportunity to go on the journey of a lifetime in 2019, the two wildlife ecology students were excited for the new adventure, and the experience they received was well worth the 16-hour flight to southern Africa. 

     Tommy’s adventure started in the classroom at UWSP, 8,500 miles away from Botswana. When a former South Africa Internship student presented about his experience at a Student Chapter of The Wildlife Society meeting, Tommy was intrigued. He reached out to Scott Hygnstrom, Director of the UWSP-CNR-Wisconsin Center for Wildlife and applied for the internship. The South Africa Internship program is designed to complement UWSP-CNR’s Summer Field Experience at Treehaven near Tomahawk, Wisconsin. One half of the summer is spent at Treehaven and the other half is spent as a student intern in Southern Africa. Interns gain a wide array of field skills and a greater understanding of human-wildlife conflicts in the southern region of Africa, and many of these skills and lessons translate to similar studies and issues in the US.

     A typical day living in the bush was extremely different from home in the Midwest. Nate described the bush as differing from Wisconsin in “every way possible.” From the cloudless skies to the lack of running water, he compared the experience to camping with pop-up tents and fire-cooked meals. After spending time with locals, Nate was shocked by the simplicity of life there: “they know that life is day to day… and when you do simplify life, it gets so much easier and you are happier.” After buying supplies and groceries from the market, they would go “fly camping” to conduct their research; they would travel until the sun set and camp wherever they ended up for the night. From sun-up to sun-down, the group would work to collect data for their research projects. 

     Tommy and Nate’s own summer project focused on evaluating the population dynamics of elephants in Botswana. Botswana is home to one of the only overabundant populations of elephants in the world, and the population has continued growing in recent years. The growth in the elephant population can create a wide variety of human-wildlife conflicts in Botswana and can have negative impacts on the land and economy. Residents are greatly concerned about destruction of habitat and crops caused by these massive creatures. Historically, hunting elephants was legal, provided jobs and food for locals, and was a way to manage elephant populations effectively. In recent years, elephant populations have increased due to hunting bans; the effects of which resulted in a strain on the habitat’s ability to support them. This increase in population has caused issues for both the land and the people who call Botswana home. 

     During transect surveys, Tommy and Nate used a technique called “photogrammetry” to determine the age of any elephant they saw. Photogrammetry is the science of making measurements from photographs. Tommy and Nate worked in tandem; one student took a photo of the elephant and the other determined the elephant’s exact distance from the camera with a range finder. With these data, they could determine the elephant’s height from foot to shoulder. This information was crucial because age can be directly interpreted from height measurements. The sex of the elephant also was recorded to get accurate estimates of population parameters. 

     Tommy and Nate discovered there were almost twice as many adult female elephants than adult males. In addition, juveniles (1-11 years) accounted for a large percentage of Botswana’s elephant population. These observations can provide important insights into how elephant populations can be managed in the future. Tommy believes, “more research needs to be done on the negative impacts that the elephants are having because we know what they can do, but there’s nobody out there who has looked at the environment of Botswana and proven the negative effects on the land.”

     The South Africa Internship program is made possible through the Douglas R. Stephens Endowment and a donation by Annette Braithwait, who provided funding for wildlife research, student engagement, professional travel, and faculty-mentored projects. Also integral to the success of this internship is a partnership with Christiaan Winterbaach and Tau Consultants, a private wildlife research organization located in Botswana.

Photo credits: ©Nate Weisenbeck ©Tommy Young