Volunteer blog

Check out what life is like in the WDCM research camp from our volunteer Kathryn Cockle

Kathryn Cockle

Kathryn Cockle - Week 1 - On my way to Malawi!

I feel I should start with a short introduction to set the scene for my trip. I am a recently graduated student of the Open University from Bristol. Whilst completing my undergraduate BSc in Natural Sciences I was volunteering in the Mammal Research Unit at Bristol University when I met Dr Emma Stone, the founder of WDCM, and from there I find myself here on my way to Africa!

Week One - 6th May 2014

The day of my flight out, Monday, I’m excited and nervous. I have never flown internationally before and I am travelling alone but I have put in the preparation and have all the documents and information I need and can’t wait to get out there. I fly from Heathrow and have one transfer in Addis Ababa which all goes smoothly and I even get some sleep on the plane. I arrive in Malawi at Lilongwe airport but my bag doesnt, it has been delayed and I am told it is due to arrive tomorrow so I collect the relevant paperwork and consider it all part of the experience! Emma meets me in arrivals and straight away we are chatting and planning the next 3 months and it sounds marvelous. It’s hot, beautiful and completely new – everything! Emma has arranged a welcome meal for me in Lilongwe (the capital city), which gives me a chance to get used to the currency (Kwacha)and affords me the opportunity to be introduced to other researchers who work for African Bat Conservation (Charlie) (www.africanbatconservation.org) and staff from project partners The Lilongwe Wildlife Centre (Johnny). Kwacha

After the meal I head off to bed – tomorrow is the start of one of the most exciting and extraordinary experiences of my life so far. My bag doesn’t arrive until Thursday so whilst I am waiting Emma, Charlie and I head off to a game reserve, Kuti, to do some work surveying the bat population there. It’s a beautiful place and the staff and other guests are lovely to chat to. Lots of people here are visiting from other countries so I am not just soaking up Malawian culture I am hearing a range of different languages and everyone has a story about how they got here, it’s so enriching.

bat traps

Seeing bat trapping techniques and carrying out assessments of the habitats and roads within the park from the car is all new to me and helps get the whole survey started, it’s an eye opening, informative experience and in terms of ecosystems and conservation it starts bringing all the theory I learnt during my studies to life in the most amazing way. With everything so very different from home there are new plants, animals and noises to take in raising lots of questions that Emma and Charlie are great at answering and explaining. The highlights were seeing Giraffe eating Acacia, Hornbills, Vervet Monkeys, Impala, Kudu and waking up to Zebra outside our accommodation one morning. After a few days just being able to spot the wildlife in the bush becomes a little easier. Being out just before dusk to set the traps near a wetland area and waiting for the bats gave me a really good taster of working with bats and what it is like to carry out research in the field – an experience I will never forget.


Emma and I get back from Kuti on Friday I grab my bag from the airport and after a safety briefing from Emma about bush living and camp rules there is no hanging around and I’m on an African bus trip heading for Kasungu to meet Rob Davis WDCM Research Assistant who I will be working with for the next month or so. The bus ride is an adventure, packed with people, suitcases, bags and even sacks of maize – the staple food here. I’m amazed when we actually get going that it can still move but we are off! It’s great to see so much of Malawi whizzing by seeing all the villages, shops and local street traders who try to sell you a myriad of goods through the windows at every bus stop, the hustle and bustle is exciting.truck

Even though I cannot understand the language many people do speak English and those that don’t, smile and gesture but I do wish I have learnt more Chichewa before I got here (the local dialect), I have picked up a few words already – muli bwanji (hello how are you?) and zikomo (thank you). After a couple of hours I arrive and meet Rob then it’s off shopping in the local market – all the fresh produce is in neat heaps on mats on the floor and Rob helps me with what I will need for bush living and camp stove cooking. It’s a very busy place and a far throw from any market or shop back home. As well as the market we go to the local shops which sell some familiar products including Cheerios, Dove shampoo, Heinz beans and Dairy Milk Chocolate amongst the other unfamiliar things which feels a little out of context but somewhat reassuring in these early days. As dusk nears we are off to the park – luckily I have a head torch, a must for the kit list, and as we travel I am amazed at the vastness of Africa and Kasungu National Park, the horizon seems to stretch out forever and there are so few buildings it feels like a real wilderness.


When we get to camp I meet some researchers from Lilongwe Wildlife Trust who are studying Vervet Monkeys and we eat, drink and talk about my journey here and everyone’s work in the park. I see where I will be sleeping and get orientated then head off to bed where I am assisted dozing off by the chorus of frogs and chirp of crickets at the edge of the dam. During the last couple of days of my first week we get straight into work collecting and setting camera traps around the park and looking for spoor, whilst all the while seeing countless new species of insect, bird and mammal including Fish Eagle, Pied Kingfisher, Monitor Lizard, Puku, Egret and Hippo. Around camp we do daily cleaning and maintenance tasks including washing our clothes by hand, cooking and cleaning and setting up our dongle (purchased in Lilongwe) so that communication with the outside world via email etc is possible. What a great week – welcome to Africa!!

Week Two - 12th May 2014

tracksMonday comes and we are tracking for a Spotted Hyena den within the park with a local scout who has worked there for years and has a lot of inside knowledge. We’ve found numerous tracks and spoors and, having never tracked Hyena before, I realise that finding a den takes time and expertise. It’s brilliant to see some of the park on foot but the safety briefing is ringing in my ears and I remember I must be vigilant. On our trek we find what we believe are tracks for leopard, hippo, civet and zebra, it is very hot and I’m glad I brought water in camel backpack. We locate two possible dens and set up some camera traps then head back, overall walking approximately 10km – it paid to invest in a good pair of walking boots as the terrain is uneven and varied.


Later in the week I get to meet some of the management team in the Park, some other volunteers and researchers that are working with Puku and Elephant. Over several days we carry out some early morning large mammal transects from the car following designated routes that cross the park where the roads are accessible and in the evenings we do spotlighting for carnivores and prey, both are fantastic introductions to field research techniques and gradually a catalogue of various animals that we come across is being compiled. With each new animal we log I feel a real sense of contributing to the project and being part of something that will be good for the Park, it’s wildlife and hopefully Malawi. We collect in the camera traps and the anticipation whilst driving back gives me goosebumps, you just don’t know what you will see – and it is not a disappointment, African Crowned Eagle, Leopard, Spotted Hyena, Hippo, Vervet Monkeys and Honey Badger, an amazing find!

One thing that becomes clear this week is that sourcing power for equipment is tough and the solar charger I brought with me is invaluable. Intermittently we charge our laptops by generator and it makes me realise how challenging life is out here for the local population and how good preparation for the trip is key, simple things can make a big difference here. Nearing the end of my second week I’m feeling much more settled and talking to family and friends back home via phone and email/internet to share the experience with them makes me much less homesick. Things are going great and I’m really excited about the project and the long term objectives, so glad to be part of it for the early stages. Sunday is a day off and a time for me to reflect about the trip so far, although my life back home is far from laid back the work I have been doing here shows me what my life could be like if I’m lucky enough to embark on a career in research - the challenges, rewards and opportunities that hardly seemed possible during my studies. I am certain the hard work I put into organizing the trip and getting here is well worth it for the inspiring weeks I have had so far and the skills I will ultimately be taking back with me – aside from the breathtaking backdrop!

Week Three

This has been a week of hard work, last minute plan changes, fantastic finds, cold nights and the most amazing view of Kasungu National Park that I will treasure forever. Monday sees a change of plan to our normal routine with an unplanned trip to Kasungu for shopping. The Malawian elections are to be held on Tuesday and there is uncertainty about when the shops will be open following polling so we decide to go before. The trips takes around 1 ½ hours and as I travel the reverse of the journey I took only 2 weeks ago I see it with fresh eyes. Initially the villages we pass are small but the further out we get from the park the more established the populations become introducing shops and stalls (video 750), by the time we reach the capital it is very different.

My mind races with questions about the lives of the locals and the culture which generates some great conversations between Rob and I and I hardly notice the time it takes to get there. As we go we exchange some friendly hand waves with local children and adults and my compassion for their struggle is overwhelming. On reaching Kasungu we go round the produce market and local shops again and this time it is not so unfamiliar to me, I have also gained more experience with the local currency and feel a much more competent shopper. It has been a busy day and on returning to the park I am happy to see my bed, the rest of the week that follows has a similar pattern and our daily routine of morning transects and evening spotlighting accessible is interspersed with camp tasks including sourcing wood for camp fires to heat shower water from trees that have been knocked over by elephants – its strenuous work but the satisfying hot shower at the end is all the reward you need. Other jobs include researching journal papers for an upcoming Serval release planned by the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre and here I feel I am more able to contribute. Having learnt so many new techniques since arriving it is great to be able to utilise some of the skills I brought with me from my studies. Working on this project has made me realise team work is a compilation of multi disciplinary skills with a common aim and we all bring something with us that can benefit the project.

elephant An experience on Wednesday morning will stay with me forever bringing my first encounter with a herd of Elephants as they meandered through a mist filled forest. It’s hard to put into words but seeing these majestic animals in their native habitat is a priceless moment for anyone who is passionate about animals. The following day we are back out tracking for Hyena dens with the scout and this time we are well rewarded – a large den comprised of several large burrows which appears to be active. This is great news for the project and we set cameras to find out if it is still in operation.


Things really take off this week with Elephant and Honey Badger being recorded on our morning transects and sightings of Leopard, Civet, Mongoose, Cobra and a large Bush Pig as well as Hippo and Puku. We get a bit more down time towards the end of the week so we check emails and give the car and accommodation a really good clean. One of the park managers is moving to another district so we join in a leaving party and catch up with the other volunteers and researchers. Sunday comes round and a day off complete with lie in! We build a fire and listen to some music and the atmosphere round camp is really chilled. At sundown we head to Black Rock, a high point in the park where you can get a 360 degree view and it makes me appreciate how big it is. The sunset is well worth the climb to the top – perfect view to share with a few beers.

Week 4 - lions, hyaena and ants!

I can hardly believe it’s my fourth week here but on reflection I have seen and learnt so much already. The transects remain positive with recordings of male Kudu and lots more tracks logged around the park. We also head back up to the den with a few more cameras after charging some batteries. When we review the pictures that have been collected since we found it we are delighted to see that there are two pups with the group!!! We discuss the possibility of habituating the Hyenas in order to collar one and it’s an extraordinary prospect. Emma visits from Lilongwe on Wednesday and takes us through carrying out walked transects, another new experience for me. Although it’s a little soggy underfoot it is another great opportunity to see more of the park and develop my map and compass reading skills.

ants We arrange to travel back to Lilongwe on Thursday to assist with the upcoming serval release but for now there are camp tasks to carry out including car maintenance/washing and packing. On spotlighting we are ecstatic to see a Spotted Hyena only 5m from the car! Both of us have to laugh when we get stuck behind a Porcupine who scuttles down the transect route in front of the car. Just up from camp we find a trial of Army Ants across the road – quite a sight to see, they are thoroughly organized and determined! Before we leave we collect in the camera traps from the hyena den to minimize the disturbance to the group whilst we are away and although there are no more pictures of the pups the photographs are promising for identification purposes.

truck Jasper, from the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre, is also visiting Kasungu to assess possible release sites for the Servals and a few of us go to have a look at a spot in the park that might be suitable. As we prepare to leave the following day we get word that a lion has been spotted outside the park and has reportedly killed a Cow and 2 Donkeys locally – this sobering news reminds all of us what happens when humans live in close proximity to apex predators and how important it is to consider the potential human-predator issues as part of the research. Discussions begin as to how best to approach the problem as we leave and begin our trip back to Lilongwe. It’s a long journey and we some staggering sights, and I don’t mean the scenery. The motorways are transversed by many tobacco lorries, heavily laden with cargo headed for the auctions. Tobacco is one the country’s largest exports. Approximately 3 hours later we reach Lilongwe and it’s a stark contrast to the park, buzzing with people and full of activity. We do some shopping and admin tasks and get some rest.


By the next morning the discussions regarding the lion have turned to a possible emergency capture and relocation mission and efforts are underway to collate a team and suitable trailer for the trip. With the generous assistance of local businesses and the Wildlife Centre within a few hours we are back on the road to Kasungu with a tracker, a vet and crate to house the lion should we successfully locate it. I’m running on adrenaline and feel privileged to be part of the team. Various reports come in from people situated with the local community and it becomes clear we need to get there as quickly as possible. When we arrive it is already dark and after a brief meeting with the village chief we go about setting up equipment and bait to draw the lion within darting range. We ensconce ourselves in the car and play various prey distress calls to entice the lion back. By 5:30am we reluctantly conclude we will not be successful, it’s a tough call to make but highlights the difficulties associated with these situations.

After a quick breakfast stop gap we are back on the road to Lilongwe and despite the outcome the mood in the car is upbeat and focused on what can be learnt from the expedition and I’m inspired by the optimism and professionalism of everyone involved. By the time we get back to the capital we are all pretty shattered but keen to hear any more news of the lion’s movements in case we can assist again. Sunday brings another day off and whilst revisiting the events of the week we relax with lunch out followed by a reggae concert with a few well deserved beverages!

Week 5 - Servals, trucks and new faces! city centre

So a week back in the city and it is so very different from the park and there is plenty to do with shopping, collection of a new truck and the arrival of our first Serval release volunteer!!! Emma has organized to have safari tents put up for more permanent volunteer accommodation and Rob and I set about sourcing all the furniture and bedding. We visit carpenters to get prices for having the beds made and go to local shops and markets to buy the sheets, pillows and pillow cases and mattresses – it’s great to see it all coming together and realizing what a great team there will be in the park as the project moves on, it’s been fantastic being here during the early stages to see it all happen.

city centre

My thoughts turn to home and what the process of arranging all the furniture would be like there and it hits me that you certainly would never meet the carpenter that made your bed let alone get to haggle over the price! Carpentry seems to be the profession of choice for many Malawians and some of their furniture is beautifully made. We eat out at a few local restaurants and talk about the last few weeks and the months to come and what is planned for the serval release. It is hoped that we can put tracking collars on the servals this week as work has begun on building their release enclosure at Kasungu.

In between shopping and sorting out kit we go in pursuit of the urban hyaenas that have been seen by Emma and other locals in and around the wildlife sanctuary part of the wildlife centre and although there are signs of how they might be getting into the sanctuary we don’t manage to find a den. Nearing the end of the week I think about what it will be like going back to the park and getting used to having no electricity, hot running water and having limited internet connection and I know that the second time round it will not be as strange as the first.

city centre

I visit the immigration office in Lilongwe to get my visa extended to cover me up until the end of my stay and the staff there are really friendly and helpful and say that they have heard from the local community that we are working hard and doing a good job in the park and Rob, Emma and I are really pleased to be making a positive impact with our work. One thing I notice about administration in Malawi is that there is lots of form filling, receipts and long processes that make a task that could be done on the internet back home take over an hour! Before we know it Friday has come round and it’s a very early start as the serval collaring takes place.

city centre

It’s breakfast on the go for Rob who tucks into a banana whilst we’re waiting . The female Xera is the first to be caught in the enclosure and luckily she is quite relaxed so it goes smoothly. The male Kovu is a bit harder to tempt into the box but eventually he is caught too and everyone gets to work. I’m in awe of the the vet and veterinary nurses and the whole procedure is a very special experience for me. Thorough health checks are carried out and the weight and measurements of each Serval are noted down. I take lots of pictures of key identification features to use when carrying out the behavioural observations and tracking following their release. Everyone is excited about the upcoming release and as the collars go on we know we are one step closer. Both Servals are safely returned to their enclosure and although a little bit wobbly seem to be coping very well.

city centre

No sooner are we back at the house then the packing begins and everyone pitches in getting the car loaded with the all the kit, shopping and even mattresses on the roof! The plan was to pick up one of the new bunk beds to take back to the park in preparation for setting up the tents but when we arrive at the carpenters it isn’t finished – making and rearranging plans seems to be unavoidable when dealing with a project of this size but undeterred we set off to the airport to pick up the first of the serval release volunteers – Paula.


She has flown in from Barcelona and it’s great to meet her and welcome her to the team. From the airport we drive straight to Kasungu and along the way we chat in the car about Paula’s trip, the serval release and the work Rob and I have been doing on the Wild Dog Project so far. When we arrive we have to set up a tent for Paula and working in the dark with only head torches and no instructions provides us with an opportunity for some humor during the construction - eventually we are all wrapped up snug and fast asleep.

The last few days of the weekend involving visiting the serval enclosure site to see how construction is going and catching up on news of the lion. We see tracks near the park and go to several local villages to get reports of possible sightings and descriptions of the sound of a lion roaring during the night – back home the most I hear is foxes and I really cannot imagine what it is like to wake up to the sound of a lion in the dark. Visiting the communities is really humbling and it is inspiring to see the joy on the faces of the kids when you wave and say hello. We are welcomed into their homes and assisted by young and old who want to help with our efforts. Sunday brings another day off and although there are a few camp tasks to do the three of us spend some time at a small party to see off two of the other volunteers who are heading back to their respective homes to visit family, what a great end to the week.


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