Tsaobis Baboon Project
Information for Volunteers
The Tsaobis Baboon Project is a long-term study of a desert baboon population in Namibia. The Project is based at the Institute of Zoology, the research arm of the Zoological Society of London, with collaborators at a variety of academic institutions around the country. The field site is located at Tsaobis Leopard Park on the edge of the Namib Desert.
The aim of the project is to carry out fundamental research in behavioural ecology and population biology using desert baboons as a model system. Our work also has a conservation theme with its interest in the effects of complex social structure on population dynamics and extinction.
At present, our local baboon population consists of two core troops and four peripheral troops, ranging in size from about 20-80 animals. Each baboon is individually recognisable, of known age (estimated through patterns of tooth eruption and wear) and of known relatedness to other individuals in the population (established through microsatellite genotyping).
The 2013 field season will take place between early May and late October. Our research will focus on two areas: (1) Behavioural plasticity and the fitness effects of social information use, and (2) Sexual conflicts over reproduction in social groups. Fieldwork for these studies will involve data collection from two study troops. There will also be some vegetation and phenological monitoring activities, related to the baboons' food resources.
We are currently looking to fill six volunteer places. Two of these places are six-month positions for the entire field season (May to October inclusive), while the remaining four places are three-month positions, two in the first half of the field season (May to July inclusive) and two in the second half (August to October inclusive).
Volunteers are generally expected to be graduates with a good degree in the biological sciences. The Tsaobis Baboon Project is an excellent opportunity for graduate students to gain experience of field research before commencing a PhD. Applicants should be very physically fit, enthusiastic and hard working. Previous experience of fieldwork and a full driving licence are essential.
Payment & Conditions
Although we cannot afford to pay volunteers, we will cover all work-related travel and subsistence costs in Namibia (including food and accommodation at Tsaobis). The volunteer will be expected to cover the cost of their visa (about £100), but we will cover the costs of their insurance. In addition, we will contribute a minimum of £75 towards the cost of the air ticket following the successful completion of the field season. All data collected during the course of the fieldwork will be the property of the Tsaobis Baboon Project, although volunteers will be fully acknowledged in all relevant papers arising from the Project.
If you would like to apply for a volunteer position, you will need to submit a CV and covering letter.
- The CV should be up to date. It should list at least two referees including their e-mail contact details. Please state whether or not you have a driving licence (for manual gear shift), and if so for how long you have held it.
- The covering letter should explain why you would like to work on the Project. In the letter you must also specify: (1) which research area you would prefer to work in, i.e. Social Information Use or Sexual Conflict (if you do not have a preference, please state no preference), and (2) the volunteer period for which you are applying (6-month, early 3-month, or late 3-month), together with the earliest and latest dates (day and month) that you would be available to take-up these positions (this will assist us in finalising the exact start and end dates of the field season).
- Before submission, please check that your application covers all of these preceding points. Incomplete applications will be at a disadvantage.
- Both CV and covering letter should be submitted as a single Word document (with the covering letter on a separate page preceding the CV) and sent by e-mail.
- Your e-mail application should have the subject header "volunteer application:" followed by your name. The e-mail should be sent to the Project leader, Dr Guy Cowlishaw, at the following address: "firstname.lastname@example.org".
Applications must be received by 9am Monday 7th January 2013. We will notify successfully shortlisted candidates by the end of that day, and interviews will be held in London the following week, on Mon 14th and Tues 15th January 2013. Applicants should keep these dates free for interview, since no other dates will be available. Telephone/skype interviews will be possible for overseas applicants.
Additional details on the Tsaobis Baboon Project and the volunteer work are given below, under six headings: The Study Site, Working Conditions, Living Conditions, Personal Details, What To Bring, and Previous Baboon Research at Tsaobis. Additional information about Namibia can be found in the standard travel guides, such as "Footprint" and "Bradt".
The Study Site
Tsaobis is a desert environment. The climate can be extremely hot, and there is very little rainfall. However, our fieldwork takes place primarily over the austral winter months, so the nights are cold (the temperature can fall as low as 0oC) and the days are usually fresh, sunny and warm. Rain falls during the summer months (between November and April, primarily January-February), but is light and erratic.
Tsaobis is a beautiful desert wilderness. The main feature of our study area is the dry river bed and associated woodlands of the ephemeral Swakop River. It is in these woodlands that the baboons carry out most of their foraging over the winter months. Immediately to the south of the riverbed, alluvial and gravel plains encircle rocky foothills and mountains, in which the sleeping cliffs of the baboons are found. The woodland along the river bed is sustained by the watertable; beyond the river course there are only desert shrubs and small, sparse trees.
Tsaobis is home to a variety of wildlife including mountain zebra, kudu, springbok, klipspringer and, of course, baboons! Predators include jackals and, occasionally, leopards. Birds and reptiles also abound.
Tsaobis is centrally located in Namibia. It is only a 3.5 hour drive from Windhoek (the capital). The nearest town, Karibib, is a one-hour drive away and comprises a petrol station, bank, post office, and basic shops.
Data collection requires full-day follows of the study troops. This ensures that the location of the sleeping cliff used by the baboons each night is known, which in turn facilitates their pick-up by observers early the next morning. If the day begins late, or ends early, the baboons can be lost and may take several days to relocate. Full-day follows require that the field team have already had breakfast, prepared their pack lunches, and are ready to leave camp in good time before dawn; it also means that they will not get back before nightfall. The most distant baboon sleeping cliffs are about an hour away from camp (a half hour by car, and then another by foot), so a prompt start in the morning is essential (e.g. 5am). The baboons are then accompanied until they reach their sleeping cliff at dusk (e.g. 6pm, returning back to camp by 7pm). Although these are long days, the weekly schedule ensures that there are regular breaks for all the team (see below).
Working with baboons in the Tsaobis landscape
Observers spend the day on foot in the company of the baboons as they traverse the rocky, mountainous terrain around the Swakop riverbed. This landscape is beautiful but also physically demanding. Field team members travel (with backpacks) up to 10km a day, often ascending and descending steep hills and slippery scree slopes as they follow the baboons. Towards the end of the field season, in the early summer months, the days also become hotter (40oC plus) and longer (14 hours). The baboons are habituated to the presence of human observers, allowing data to be collected from close proximity without causing disturbance, but observers must always act carefully and responsibly when in the company of these wild animals. Data collection is conducted with checksheets and/or handheld computers. On-site supervision and detailed guidelines will be provided at Tsaobis, describing how to work with the baboons in this desert landscape.
Vegetation mapping and surveying
At the beginning of the field season, and then at monthly intervals, vegetation mapping and phenological monitoring will also be undertaken. This work is an important complement to the baboon behavioural data, since it will describe the spatial and temporal availability of food patches to the baboons.
Weekly work schedule
Since data collection from the baboons requires consecutive full-day follows, these "field days" usually take place over four-day stints with an intervening two-day break. These days are primarily "rest" days, but there will also be some office and general housekeeping duties (e.g. updating databases, cooking supper). Trips will be made to Windhoek about once a month for supplies, and volunteers will also be expected to assist occasionally with these trips. Although the field-office/rest day cycle of 4-2 days is the normal routine, this schedule necessarily retains flexibility throughout the field season.
Accomodation is based around a small two-roomed bungalow. The bungalow has a kitchen, bathroom and office. Members of the field team sleep in their own tents at outside the bungalow, but use the living area of the bungalow for rest and relaxation.
Telephone and e-mail
The Project has its own phone line, with the phone located in the bungalow. E-mail is available on this phone line through a dial-up connection, although the service can be a little erratic at times (and is too slow to visit most websites). Both phone and e-mail are available to volunteers, although the use of these facilities will be charged to volunteers at the local rates (which are quite reasonable).
Members of the field team may receive visitors at Tsaobis, but volunteers should consult the Project prior to making arrangements as permission from relevant landowners needs to be sought. Care must be taken that visitors do not disrupt the field routine and all plans and arrangements for visitors must be confirmed with the Project Director prior to the visit. Unfortunately, accommodation for visitors cannot be guaranteed at the field site and it will not be possible for visitors to accompany the volunteers when working with the baboons.
In addition to organising equipment (see below), there will be various tasks and pieces of paperwork that volunteers must complete before they can travel to Tsaobis. Work on two key tasks should be initiated as soon as the volunteer has been firmly accepted onto the Project. These tasks are:
- put a deposit down on a flight, and
- arrange vaccinations (see below).
We will organise the visa paperwork and travel insurance for the volunteer. In addition, where possible, we encourage volunteers to do a little background reading on baboons before coming to Tsaobis. Louise Barrett's "Baboons: Survivors of the African Continent" (BBC, 2000) is an excellent introduction to the world of baboons. Robert Sapolsky's "A Primate Memoir" (Vintage, 2002) is a wonderful account of fieldwork with baboons. Finally, Barbara Smuts' "Sex and Friendship in Baboons" (Harvard University Press, 1999) or Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth's "Baboon Metaphysics" (University of Chicago Press, 2008) are technical but readable accounts of a baboon field study.
Health and safety, general
All volunteers must be aware of their blood group and will need to ensure that they are up-to-date with their vaccinations. For the most recent information and treatment, volunteers are recommended to visit their local travel clinic or GP. This should be done as soon as the volunteer has been accepted onto the Project, since some vaccination courses can require several months between the first and last injection. Because the volunteers will be working with wild primates, vaccinations for hepatitis B and rabies must be obtained in addition to the standard vaccinations for Namibia. There is no malaria in this region of the country, but if volunteers plan to travel further north before or after the field season, e.g. to Etosha National Park, anti-malarials will be required.
Health and safety at Tsaobis
Because fieldwork at Tsaobis is conducted on foot and takes place from dawn to dusk, often over difficult terrain, volunteers should be physically fit. Due to the dry desert climate, Tsaobis is a healthy place to work, but volunteers will need to take appropriate steps to avoid dehydration, sunstroke and excessive sun exposure. This includes carrying plenty of water, wearing wide-brimmed hats with appropriate clothing and sunglasses, and the regular application of sunblock.
Health and safety outside Tsaobis
Although the tar and gravel roads in Namibia are generally excellent, all volunteers should drive carefully and at reasonable speed, and never drive at night. Although Namibia is generally a safe country to visit, when in Windhoek (and other urban areas) it is a sensible precaution to stay alert and avoid walking the streets at night, especially alone. For further details on health and safety in Namibia, please refer to an up-to-date travel guide.
What to Bring
Due to the cold nights and hot days, field team members should bring light summer clothes plus sweatshirts and jumpers for the cooler weather. A warm fleece is essential for cold winter mornings and evenings (and for possible trips to the coast). Field clothes should include long-sleeved shirts and long trousers, in addition to t-shirts and shorts. Avoid wearing dark colours if possible; lighter colours are much cooler. A wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses are essential. Previous team members have found it helpful to have a pair of gloves and a woolly hat for the coldest nights and mornings. A small lightweight windcheater can also be useful for windy winter mornings. In addition to field clothes, some smart clothes will also be useful (e.g. for visits to Windhoek). Footwear should include a robust pair of walking boots and a sturdy pair of sandals.
Personal equipment should include:
- A tent. Ideally your tent should be three person, since it will also double as your private retreat. A mattress will be available, but your tent will need to be large enough to accommodate it. The mattress dimensions are 190cm x 88cm x 15cm.
- A 3-season sleeping bag
- A comfortable backpack for daily use in the field. Ideally bring a backpack with a waist strap as well as shoulder straps, so that the weight of the bag can be carried on the hips rather than the back. Backpacks that are molded to allow air to pass between the bag and your back (e.g. the Berghaus "freeflow" design) are cool to wear. Backpacks should be a minimum of 25-30 litres volume.
- A comfortable pair of hiking boots. Ideally these should be lightweight but robust (with ankle support).
- A good set of binoculars, ideally 8x40 or 10x40. Avoid poor binoculars: they will make your work difficult and frustrating.
- A spare pair of spectacles (if used)
- A torch (ideally a head torch)
- Ankle-length gaiters
- A simple compass and whistle
- A sewing kit
- A water bottle can also be helpful, although most of the time we simply re-use the bottles that come with bottled water and soft drinks.
- If possible, we would also recommend that you bring a camera, an ipod, and books to read. Compact/travel games are always welcome, as are DVDs.
- Field guides can usually be purchased in Windhoek (mammals, birds, trees, herps, etc), and some are also available for reference at Tsaobis.
For personal expenses, volunteers can bring cash or traveller’s cheques, and should also be able to make withdrawals from ATMs using a standard debit card. Credit cards are widely accepted and are recommended for emergencies.