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SARCA Field Survey No. 2 - trip report

January 2006

Date: 13-22 November 2005
Locality: Northern Cape Province, Grootdrink district, on farms Eselsfontein, Eselsfontein Noord and Kleinbegin.

riverbed A dry riverbed was the site for one of the trap arrays.   trap array One of the trap arrays on stoney ground.

SARCA team 2:
Marius Burger: SARCA Project Herpetologist.
Peter Braat: a "retired" engineer from Holland who now spends much of his time exploring South Africa.
Asher Hill: a river-guide. Asher has been interested in snakes for several years, and he keeps a few species at home as pets.

Marius's comments:
SARCA's second fieldtrip was conducted in the most important quarter-degree grid cell as identified by the gap analysis (carried out by Barend Erasmus at Wits). SARCA field surveys are strictly based on the priorities that emerged from the gap analysis. This analysis will be repeated at intervals as more data is added to the SARCA database.
  snake Sundevall's Shovel-snout.
Trip 2 was a hot one - some days were nearly 40C in the shade - but it was also a productive survey that produced 38 reptile species: 24 lizards, 13 snakes and one tortoise. The most interesting of these records was a small snake known as Sundevall's Shovel-snout (Prosymna s. sundevallii). Two specimens were captured in our traps, and we found another two on the roads at night. This snake occurs widely in southern Africa, but it had never been recorded in the Grootdrink district. In fact, the nearest previously known localities for this species are more than 250 km away!
For me, the 'catch-of-the-trip' was two specimens of the striped morph of the Kalahari Ground Gecko (Colopus wahlbergii furcifer). This beautiful gecko was a "lifer" for me.

Marius Burger
Marius Burger, the well-known lunatic,
is also a capacity builder,
farmer & foreman
an educator (farmer Koos Kotze of Kleinbegin),
  taking photos
an accomplished photographer,
funnel trap
and he really loves reptiles.

Asher's comments:
I joined the SARCA Field trip in a quest for knowledge and adventure. I was pleased to find both in an abundant supply. From the word go we started looking for reptiles on the drive to Upington our first encounter was with an Angulate Tortoise which, after some dispute, was agreed to be male. The day continued in this fashion, and when we finally got to our camp, we had a chip packet full of snake pancakes (i.e., collected road kills).
  roadkill Asher with an unfortunate tortoise.
The next day was grueling; to start with it was sizzling hot. Then we had to put up 8 traps in all kinds of terrain. Trust me, it was hard work and I think we were all glad when the day finally ended. The rest of the trip was a lot of fun although it was still tiring as we checked traps, did active searches, drove at night searching on the roads, or did lab work.
It's difficult to decide what the highlight was for me. Was it swimming in a slimy cattle dam on a scorching day; or was it Marius climbing up a signboard in his birthday suite; or my diving demon-possessed after reptiles on the night excursions and making a complete fool of myself; the daring capture of a Cape Cobra as it shot down a hole? No, in the end it was definitely having the privilege of sharing all of these experiences with people like Marius and Pieter. Thanks guys, it was awesome!

Peter's comments:

The days followed a soon-to-be-familiar pattern: we got up at six, drove to Eselsfontein to check the traps, then did active searching during the day and either a night drive to look for reptiles on the road or some laboratory work in the evening. This meant that, on most days, we'd be on the road from before seven in the morning until after nine or ten in the evening or, on two occasions, until past midnight.

The first order of the day, checking the traps, always filled us with anticipation as to what we would find, and the first day got us off to a good start as we collected around 25 animals. Over our stay, some traps proved more productive then others, but fortunately all of them did catch something.

The traps did not only catch reptiles, but also a fair number of spiders, sunspiders, scorpions, and beetles and other insects, and even some small mammals. But of course the reptiles got the most attention, whether it was the umpteenth Bibron's Thick-toed Gecko or the first Cape Cobra that was caught. I learned the trick of removing them from the funnels without letting them escape (most of the time...). After showing them to Marius and recording their specifics, they were then either released of kept for voucher specimens.

After all the traps were checked we'd typically spend some time actively searching for reptiles. What this means is that Marius would select an area and we search there by turning rocks and trying to catch any reptile we spotted. This was often hard work and meant trying to chase the animal down, until it tired and slowed down or otherwise got itself in a tight corner. Especially the sand lizards proved to be very fast and required quite a chase before they could be taken. This always provided some excitement, but never as much as the time Asher spotted a Cape Cobra...

  Cape Cobra Cape Cobra being handled with care.

As we were driving on Eselsfontein at the time, I hit the brakes and as the bakkie came to a grinding halt, both Marius and Asher jumped out. As I got to the scene, I found Marius standing and Asher lying down with his hands outstretched. Apparently in the time it had taken to get the snake sticks from the back, the cobra had tried to escape into a hole and Asher had dived after it and managed to grab it by the tail just before it completely disappeared! I'm still not sure whether this was brave or foolish, but at least it prevented it from getting away. Marius then proceeded to careful dig it out and as it turned out to be a big (~1.70 m) and beautiful one, we decided to take it with us so we could take pictures before releasing it again. This catch had got our adrenalin levels up and we were in high spirits for the rest of the day.

The third and last activity on most days was 'night cruising'. We'd drive on different roads keeping an eye out for any reptiles that we could find. Sometimes this would prove very frustrating as we would see none for long periods of time. At other times, it seemed we couldn't drive five minutes without seeing something. The routine was that Marius would stop
  snake on road Egg-eater Snake on the road at night.
the vehicle, allowing Asher and me to jump out and try to catch our quarry before it disappeared into the darkness. Speed was of the essence. After a quick scan for traffic Asher and I would jump out as soon as (before?) the bakkie stopped and try to corner our target. We would return to the bakkie with our catch and find Marius laughing heartily at our antics.

While this daily routine was intense and long, I did feel privileged to experience this first-hand and get a better understanding of reptiles and research field work. Marius was always willing to explain things and answer questions and let Asher and me experience all aspects of the work firsthand.

Field research is nothing like the impression you would get from watching the National Geographic channel or Animal Planet where researchers typically are portrayed at successful moments, watching a lion or leopard kill, finding a snake, or in some exciting (often choreographed or scripted) close encounter. The classical documentary ending: "As the sun sets on the African plains, another day ends in glorious colour..." and so on, in reality is more like: "Long after the sun sets following another hot and dry day in the Kalahari, the researcher is writing his notes, preparing voucher specimens and preparing for another early start in the morning."

As the days progressed, the number of collected geckos, lizards and snakes waiting to be photographed and prepared grew steadily, and the last couple of evenings were spent taking care of this backlog. Looking back, this was the least pleasant part of the activities, though also one of the most interesting.

In preparing voucher specimens, the live animals were first put in a container with ether to euthanase them, before having a little part of their tail cut off for a DNA sample. Then we would inject formalin into their bodies to preserve them and attached a label to link the specimen with the information entered on computer. The taking of DNA samples and the use of voucher specimens is essential in accurately mapping the distribution of, and relationships between, different species and forms of species, and can thus help provide a basis for conservation programmes.

  injecting formalin Peter injects formalin into an agama.

The last evening of the trip we still had a batch of animals that needed to be prepared. Marius would take photographs of the live animals, then put them in a container with ether and, after taking the DNA sample, hand the animal over to Asher or me for formalin preparation and labelling. Having to handle the animals gives a great opportunity to look at them closely and appreciate their beauty and diversity. Some have smooth scales, others very rough ones, not to mention all the different colours and body shapes. Even without the spark of life, these were incredibly beautiful and interesting creatures and testimony to the beauty and complexity of nature.

  voucher specimens A box of carefully preserved and labelled voucher specimens.

I'm looking back now on a great and wonderful experience that I would not have missed for the world and I'll definitely volunteer for more trips in the future. (Marius will go on about 45 of these SARCA field trips over the next three years, spending close to 500 days in the field - a daunting prospect!)


We are most grateful to the farmers who permitted us to survey on their properties: Jaco Burger (Eselsfontein), Waldo Nel (Eselsfontein Noord) and Koos Kotze (Kleinbegin). The SARCA base-camp was at Kuthula Lodge ( where Beulah de Klerk proved that camping can be a five-star experience. Special thanks also to Michael and Mekeyla Nel for their hospitality.

Photos by Marius Burger and Peter Braat

Compiled by James Harrison
SARCA Project Coordinator



South African National Biodiversity Institute Herpetological Association of Africa Avian Demography Unit

SARCA is a joint project of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), the Herpetological Association of Africa (HAA), and the Avian Demography Unit (ADU), Department of Statistical Sciences, University of Cape Town.




[ Document posted on 27 Jan 2006 ]

    May 30, 2024, 2:24 am