Department of Geography and the Environment

Longhorns in the Kalahari

Wed, October 24, 2012
Longhorns in the Kalahari

Longhorns in the Kalahari

Dr. Kelley Crews, Thoralf Meyer and TA Thomas Christiansen took 12 students abroad to Botswana this summer for a camping-based immersion into vegetation and environmental monitoring fieldwork along with lectures, practical exercises, and excursions relating to human-wildlife conflicts, development-conservation conflicts, and long-term ecosystem monitoring and management. The courses emphasized the interaction between humans and the Kalahari ecosystem across multiple land management regimes. Students received hands-on skills in how to conduct environmental research and were provided insight into the processes and problems of sustainable resource management and the careful balance of the environment, cultural and social needs and economic progress in Botswana. Read more here {link to longer story}, visit the summer’s blog at

and check out details on information sessions for summer 2013 here

 Last summer semester twelve Longhorns packed their gear and headed for Botswana— a landlocked country in the heart of Southern Africa. Most of us did not know what to expect. From our information sessions and some background research we knew that Botswana is a peaceful, sparsely populated country located in the heart of the Kalahari Desert. We came here to study the Kalahari Ecosystem and the enviro – cultural interaction of the people and knew we would spend most of our time in remote areas actively participating in actual fieldwork.  Unlike most other study abroad students who were heading to Europe or South America, we were packing flashlights, working gloves, pocketknives and rugged clothing. After a 17-hour flight and a layover in South Africa we arrived in Maun, the tourism capital of Botswana. What a different world! Everything seemed chaotic at first: the mixture of new buildings and mud huts, the traffic on the wrong side of the road, honking taxis and mini busses, donkey carts next to brand new cars. Somewhat familiar was the sight of countless 4WDs but unlike in downtown Austin they all looked dirty, dented, and heavily used for real off-road work.

Team Botswana 2012 at the Rampant Aardvark of Thakadu Game Ranch– top row, L to R: Hank, Courtney, Dan, Kelsey, Aimee, Sam, Matt; bottom row, L to R: Mia, Lalini, Emily, Jaclyn, Tori



After a short adjustment period we meet with the UT faculty, Dr. K (Kelley Crews), Thoralf Meyer and our TA Thomas Christiansen. All of them already had fieldwork experience in very remote areas under their belt, and Dr. K and Thoralf actually lived in Botswana. We were meant to leave for our field camp in the morning and finally made it out of town after lunchtime. This was our first African lesson we heard over and over again from many locals, especially when we would wonder what time things were starting – Westerners have watches and Africans have time. It was time to accept we were in someone else’s backyard now, and time to learn from them.

The drive to our base camp took us through parts of the Kalahari that I have to say did look a little bit like Texas! On our way we noticed changes in the ecosystem with areas that looked somewhat like a dust bowl and areas with almost lush vegetation. We also noticed another change: areas where cattle, donkeys and goats were absent vs. areas where livestock were present. Later in the course we would learn that overgrazing, bush encroachment, desertification and cultural beliefs are connected in myriad, complex ways in Botswana and require sensitive management practices. 

Teamwork: Dan and Emily work on structural measurements








The transfer to camp was comfortable. Comic, our guide and driver, took us there in a fully climatized bus. We arrived just in time for sunset. Sunsets in Africa are a spectacular. Later during the course, while getting an introduction to remote sensing techniques, we would learn that the play of colors during sunset is associated with particles in the atmosphere that absorb certain wavelengths of the sunlight and also explain why the sky is blue.

Our camp consisted of a big mess tent, an ablution block with showers, basins and flush (!) toilets (we had all figured we would be digging holes in the bush, so we were pleasantly surprised). Our student tents were more than comfortable. Every evening by seven o’clock or so, Bonnie, the best bush cook in the world, had prepared a delicious dinner for us. After dinner, most of us would hang around the campfire listening to the guide’s bush stories and as the weeks went on, then sharing our own adventures from fieldwork that day. The most impressive thing about African nights is the combination of unknown sounds and the brilliant stars.   

From now on camp life would have a set schedule: a combination of fieldwork, lectures, practical exercises, meals and plenty of hydration breaks. We started right away with an introduction to our new surroundings and went on a walking tour on Thakadu Game Farm. We learned about the facilities on the farm, the different vegetation types and of course the animals around us. All of us were excited when we saw the first herd of Eland antelopes walking past our campsite. At the farm’s water hole we also saw kudu, wildebeest and ostriches.

Emily demonstrates the power of destructive sampling








Than it was time to get our hands dirty, and for the next 26 days we would set up plots, measure vegetation (which we learned to identify at the species level) and develop models to determine the standing biomass within different vegetation types.  We would assess soils, learn about how geology, climate and disturbances such as grazing and fire interact with the environment. We were introduced to how different culture groups use natural resources in different ways and how this in turn affects policy making and management strategies. We learned that decision-making is not always easy, especially when weighing a country’s development, the environment and cultural expectation. A visit to the San cultural center introduced us to the conflicts this particular culture group is facing in the 21st century and was an eye-opener for all of us.

During a visit to MODISA, an independently run project aiming to educate people on human – wildlife conflicts in the region, we heard about approaches to balance the coexistence of large predators and livestock. A highlight for most of us was a bush walk with the project’s icon, Sirga, a two-month old rescued lion cub. Here we also saw our first big Kalahari lions. All animals on the project’s property had been identified as ‘problem animals’ and were kept on the property for educational purposes and research – and to keep them away from farmers who illegally trap and kill them to protect their livestock. In many ways the conflicts between wildlife and ranching were similar to those we had always heard about back home.

Our days at Thakadu went by too fast and soon we found ourselves in the back of two safari (read: open air) vehicles heading for the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The next days we would spend looking for wildlife and learning about National Parks Management. We were surprised to hear that even considering that the size of the Reserve is twice the size of Massachusetts, challenges remain with regards to animal migration patterns, land use strategies, traditional claims, the economy of the country and international pressure.

Students walking into bush for fieldwork








From here our safari continued to Khwai, a community-operated wildlife area bordering the Moremi Game Reserve. Unlike the Kalahari, where water is the limiting ecological factor, water here is plentiful. The Khwai area is part of the Okavango Delta system, a fan-like mixture of river channels, lagoons, floodplains, islands, grasslands and woodland. The area supports all sort of African wildlife, such as elephants, buffalo, zebra, giraffe, a variety of different antelopes, lions and leopards as well as a high diversity of fish, reptiles, birds and insects.  We did learn about existing conflicts between photographic and hunting tourism in the area and issues with community based natural resource management. We also realized the lessons we were being taught from Day One about safety in the face of truly wild animals had been for good reason: our first hour in camp we had three elephant walk through shaking Acacia trees for a snack, and our last night a leopard was treed with its impala kill by hyena. We were happy to have had such good training from even before we left Austin, and knowing that Dr. K and Thoralf had worked in the bush for so long (Thoralf for over a decade in Botswana alone) and that we had excellent professional safari guides made it much easier for us to feel safe and relaxed, and to behave properly. We didn’t run into too many other tourists in the Khwai area, but we did notice a few groups from the US that didn’t act the way we wished they would. It made us realize how important it is especially abroad to act as a proud representative of your school, your state, and your country.

Finally we realized that our program is coming to an end. The last days we spent in Maun where we wrapped up and summarized the courses, proved our knowledge in the “Bush Olympics”, had a river cruise up the Thamalakane and Boro rivers, learned the traditional way of weaving baskets using local grasses and a had a proper July 4th barbecue, Botswana-style.

Creating science: Aimee meticulously records measurements as her nearby team measures through the thorns






 Arriving back was a bit of a shock, and something we had talked about in our last days: so many cars, so much traffic, so much electricity – and so much waste. We took ecological footprint quizzes at the start and end of our trip to compare our impact on the environment as we used to live in Austin and how we had lived – and lived very comfortably – in Botswana. Some of us were already very environmentally responsible, but I think we all came back and behaved a little bit better and maybe appreciated little things (marshmellows, chocolates, and the voices of far away friends and family) a bit more than we had before. Now, back in Austin, classes have started and I am thinking what a different life. Here there are too many choices, a constant flow of information and everybody is so busy talking to people who aren’t there that they’re ignoring what’s right here in front of us. It makes me wonder if people appreciate the simple things in life. Life was simple for us in Botswana.

Maybe I turn that smart phone off today, just for a little while….

Kealeboga [thank you], Botswana-


  Catching up on journals in the mess tent under the African sun


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