Conducting research with lions and leopards in South Africa

Clare Wilkie from Herne Bay, Kent is in the third year of our International Wildlife Biology degree. A mature student, Clare previously worked as a zoo keeper at the Rare Species Conservation Centre in Kent.

"As a zoo keeper, I would wonder about the species in their natural environment, imagining what they would be up to, how they would choose and hunt their prey, how a pair could possibly find each other in the wild, not to mention what was occurring that would make them so rare in the first place.

Finally, the curiosity got the better of me and I enrolled on the IWB course to help provide me with knowledge of the biology of wildlife at an academic level, and maybe even provide a gateway into working in the natural environment of some of those species in which I had become so passionate about.

I had high expectations of the course, and it has fulfilled exactly what I wanted from it. The lecturers are great, very supportive, and all have a different area of particular interest and knowledge, which gives the students a broad range of expert advice.

With the course being the only one of its kind in the UK, it tends to attract like-minded students, all with a huge passion for conservation and wildlife.

Field trips

In the first year, we travelled as a small group through three different biomes of South Africa. We conducted big game tracking, bird mist netting, species identification, wildlife population and vegetation survey techniques, camera trapping, and recording behaviour with ethograms. A lot to fit into a four-week expedition, yet this intensive field course allowed us to gain a number of practical skills and in various habitats, something not provided with many other biology courses. The highlight was seeing a female lion and her young laying in the shade just two days before we were due to leave for the UK – a perfect end to the trip.

In the second year, we completed marine and forest components of the tropical ecology field expedition. Everyone had their favourite site, but mine was the forest. Tracking and sighting tarsier in its natural environment, watching saltwater crocodiles (one of those favourites) bask as we travelled along the Kinabatangan River, and hearing the tropical noises of the forests through the night…a dream come true!

In addition, throughout the three years, informative and interactive field trips to protected areas (e.g. SSSIs, SACs, LNRs) in the local Welsh landscape have also been undertaken, helping us gain better understanding of local wildlife.

Conducting my own research

It was fantastic to finally have the opportunity to use my own ideas for research and devise a project from them, with the help of expert university supervisors. From working with captive felids, I wanted to try my hand at working with similar species in a more wild setting.

I conducted research in Selati Game Reserve of South Africa. With the increasingly important use of genetics in conservation biology, I aimed to collect and compare different sample types of African felids in order to identify a suitable method for collecting samples by non-invasive means.

My project compared lion tissue, faeces and hair for genetic quality, and with hair proving the best of my sample collections, I then related these findings to a new method I created in obtaining the leopard hair by non-invasive means.

Field methods consisted of using a baited tree system, with the use of carefully placed adhesive tape that would remove hairs as the leopard came for the bait. In the next days, I was able to collect these hairs from the bait system and store them, before bringing back to the USW labs for DNA testing.

The project finally allowed me the chance to put my knowledge and skills into practice in a natural setting. It provided me with the chance to gain a good feel for independent lab and field work, as well as helping me reach those goals! After I graduate, I hope to progress onto a Masters by Research programme, using genetics to support understanding of human-wildlife conflict management."

Favourite modules

  • Tropical Medicine: Learning about different tropical parasites and their mechanisms of transmitting various diseases. Not for the squeamish, but certainly an interesting topic!
  • Tropical Ecology: The second year field course consisting of marine and forest habitats of Borneo. A beautiful place, an amazing experience!
  • Molecular Ecology: Gaining valuable lab skills, and learning the ever-important incorporation of genetics into conservation biology. A key module for any budding wildlife biologist.