On the road to a career in conservation

Cameron Cormac, PhD Candidate with the EWT’s Wildlife and Transport Programme, ctcormac@gmail.com

I am Cameron Cormac, a PhD candidate in my second year of study at the University of KwaZulu-Natal – on my way to a career in conservation. I work with the EWT’s Wildlife and Transport Programme and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, researching the effects of linear infrastructure on vertebrates in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park and northern Zululand.

A typical day for me depends on which of the two study sites I am stationed at when I’m not back in Pietermaritzburg doing data analysis, lab work, or writing up my thesis chapters. When in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, I focus on the R618, which bisects the park. My day begins an hour and a half before sunrise in the research camp near Hilltop resort, typically in pitch darkness surrounded by nothing but the sound of nocturnal insects and a light breeze blowing through the trees. A banana and a low-sugar or sugar-free energy drink help me wake up and give me some quick sustenance before I head out for an hour’s drive at 40 km/h through empty park roads. I pass through the gates of Nqumneni ranger camp before taking air and road surface temperature readings at one of three control points.

My morning survey starts after taking the temperatures at the control point on the Hlabisa side of the survey area. I spend two hours driving at 40 km/h looking for carcasses of animals killed along the 18 km survey area. A typical session sees me both trying to find carcasses for my data collection and not wanting to find too many dead animals. I usually find between three and seven carcasses. However, there are times when I don’t find any carcasses and others when there are more than 20. But every day, we are greeted by the fantastic sunrises of Zululand’s Lebombo mountains and often encounter elephants strolling down the road.

Morning sessions end with another hour’s drive back to base camp or a two-hour drive to Hluhluwe town while passing through South Africa’s oldest protected area. We’ll get several sightings of some of South Africa’s iconic animals if we’re lucky.

The rest of my days are spent doing data entry, reading linear infrastructure articles, handling project admin, preparing for nocturnal sessions, and preparing food. Meals usually consist of a light breakfast, yoghurt bowls or eggs and avocado on toast, some form of sandwich at midday and a hearty meal for dinner.

Juvenile Southern African python (Python natalensis) found crossing dirt road near Nqumeni ranger camp

My days end with a nocturnal session, typically after dinner, depending on the time of sunset, which is a rinse and repeat of the morning survey. The only difference is that nocturnal sessions provide exquisite visuals of the setting sun. Nocturnal surveys also usually give us a few very welcome, very much alive herpetofauna (amphibians and reptiles) trying to cross the road. I am a herpetologist, so this gives me great joy. These records fall into another of my data chapters aimed at identifying reptile species likely to cross my survey roads successfully. My favourite kind of bedtime story!

I sincerely thank my sponsor, the Ford Wildlife Foundation, who supplies the vehicle I use to conduct my surveys. Without their generous donation, this project would not be possible.