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Alumni blog: Thandiwe Mweetwa is working with lions

1 March 2013

Thandiwe came to Pestalozzi from Zambia in 2006, graduating in 2008. From there, she moved to Canada where she graduated from the University of British Columbia with a BSc in Applied Animal Biology in 2012. She now lives in Mfuwe, Zambia, and works for a non-profit organization called the Zambian Carnivore Programme. In this post, Thandiwe gives us an insight into her fascinating job.

Thandiwe in the field vehicleWhen I was growing up, one of my favourite programs on TV was a wildlife documentary series called ‘Untamed Africa’. The sights and sounds never failed to captivate me, no matter what species they were focusing on. Now I get to watch the live version of that show almost 7 days a week! It may not be the wide open plains of the Maasai Mara but the Luangwa Valley is one of the most wildlife-rich areas on the continent.

Thandiwe treating a snared lionessBecause I was so fascinated with wildlife and nature, I joined my school Conservation Club after moving to Mfuwe in 2001. I was exposed to the work of different conservationists like Jane Goodall and Joy Adamson and knew I wanted to work with animals. I thought of becoming a vet, but Anatomy classes at university made me discover that dissections were not as fun as they sounded. Summer volunteer placements introduced me wildlife research and that is how I ended up at ZCP. I volunteered as a field assistant from 2009 to 2011 and joined the ecology team after graduating from university.

As part of the ecology team, my main duties involve conducting field research on large carnivores and their habitat and prey. The main species are lions, wild dogs, leopards and hyenas. Most of the field time is spent tracking and observing them to study various aspects of their ecology with the aim of informing effective conservation strategies. I also assist with immobilization operations to treat snared animals. The region has substantial poaching issues, and it is fantastic to be able to help mitigate the mortality of poached animals.

Thandiwe explaining how radio collars are used to track animalsI also coordinate ZCP’s conservation education programme for secondary school students, along with another colleague. This programme aims to promote interest in conservation and research-based careers. So, I spend most days in the field but every Friday I go to the local school to teach. I enjoy being able to raise awareness about the importance of carnivore conservation and help protect endangered and vulnerable species that are of great economic and ecological value.

Meeting Jane GoodallThe job gives me opportunities to meet heroes in conservation from all over the world who I have only read about in the past. Perhaps one of the most amazing moments of my life to date was meeting Jane Goodall at the 2011 Wildlife Conservation Expo in San Francisco (see photo). I was so overwhelmed I cried the whole time!

In the next few months I will be conducting research that will focus on using fecal hormone analysis to study reproductive activity in lions in South Luangwa National Park and the surrounding Game Management Areas. I will also be studying cub survival and recruitment rates to various ages. All this is in preparation for the MSc degree I hope to pursue with the University of Arizona starting 2014.

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