News - October 8, 2015

'I head-butted a hyena'

Who? Jip Vrooman, Master’s student Forest and Nature Conservation & Aquaculture and Marine Resource Management
What? Thesis research on the effect of elephants on vegetation
Where? Botswana

‘My research was about the effect of elephants on the height of vegetation, in relation to the distance to water. We expected that many elephants were sticking to the area near the park’s lakes and were therefore eating much of the vegetation there.


To do the fieldwork, we camped out repeatedly for a couple of weeks at various sites in the park. We drove into the bush with two Jeeps loaded up with food, drink, tents and research materials. After eating a breakfast cooked on a gas burner, I would leave for the field in the very early morning to measure trees and to establish the species. Another student did the same for grass species.

It was pretty isolated; during our first trip we came across absolutely no one. But we did see all sorts of animals passing by: hyenas, elephants, buffalo. Previously I thought: oh elephants, really great, cool. But actually they are pretty dangerous. One time an elephant stood just six metres away from us. It was fabulous, but also very nerve-wracking. ‘Don’t move, don’t move!’ said our supervisor. Because if they take fright, they can stampede. The night that I was woken in my tent by the howl of hyenas is also etched in my memory. I could hear that they were close, and suddenly I felt a hard thump against my tent – I had simply head-butted a hyena.


We spent the rest of the time in Maun, the city where the research institute was. There we entered data and made preparations for the next field trip. Sometimes we went out on the town with the locals. Then the other student and me would be the only white people in the whole bar. Everyone was very interested in us and would come over to shake us by the hand. I have to say that felt a little weird.

The Botswanans are very worldly and modern yet before a couple gets married the groom gives the bride’s family a number of cows. And many Botswanans are religious – as was my supervisor. That sometimes led to deep discussions when we sat around the camp fire late at night.’