Student - January 28, 2016

Face to face with a leopard

Who? Nathalie Scholten, Master’s student of Biology
What? Master’s thesis on fear in bushbabies
Where? South Africa, Lajuma research station

‘Bushbabies are small primates which forage by night. When they are looking for food they need to be alert for predators. I studied the relation between their fear levels and the amount of shelter afforded by the leaf canopy. I hung up buckets of food in the trees after sunset, with the idea that the bushbabies would spend longer eating from the buckets in more sheltered positions. When I came back the next morning I could see how much food had been taken from the buckets. It was heavy work because I had to get all the buckets out of the trees again before sunrise.

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Wildlife in South Africa is very different to in the Netherlands. The research station where I was staying is on a mountain in the middle of the wilderness. We had to drive at least an hour to go shopping in the nearest town.

The moment I will never forget was when I suddenly found myself face to face with a leopard. After hanging up the buckets every evening I had to walk back to the research station in the dark. As I walked I could see eyes glittering in the light of my torch, but I thought it was a species of antelope that you see there a lot. Only when I got closer did I see that it was a leopard. The biologist in me only thought ‘how wonderful’, even though it could have been dangerous. Eventually the leopard just walked off, of its own accord. This unexpected encounter was enough to make my fellow students at the research station really jealous.

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There were local people working at the research station as well. Their working conditions made a big impression on me. They were paid, but it still felt as though they were the property of the employer. They had few rights and they were not allowed to make friends with the students, for example. They were extremely kind and helpful. It was strange that they did anything you asked, even tidying your room. It took a bit of trust when they had cleaned my room and I couldn’t immediately find something the next day. In the end I had a great time with them. They all wanted to have their pictures taken with me before I returned to the Netherlands.’