Conservation | Jul 2023


Puff adder on the sand by Marcus Westberg

Marcus Westberg spent a day in the company of Azraa Ebrahim, a PhD candidate from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) who is studying the thermal physiology of puff adders (Bitis arietans), research that falls under the umbrella Kalahari Endangered Ecosystem Project (KEEP). By gathering data on the snake’s thermoregulatory behaviour and assessing its spatial ecology and microhabitat use, Azraa hopes to reveal the potential impact of climate change on this ambush-foraging ectotherm.


It is not every day you see a venomous snake receive artificial breathing assistance, but that is exactly what is happening in front of me. A large, male puff adder – a viper of unfortunately aggressive disposition – lies on a counter at Dedeben, Tswalu’s research facility on the reserve.


Puff adder recieving artificial breathing assistance at Dedeben research centre, Tswalu Foundation


While wildlife veterinarian Gareth Hunter implants a tracking device into the sleek body, Azraa Ebrahim pumps a resuscitator bag to ensure the snake doesn’t stop breathing. I am fairly sure I saw a few hands shaking when they held the puff adder’s jaws open and inserted the tube down his trachea. I don’t blame them; the snake is anaesthetised, but not heavily so. Like I said, this is not something you see every day.


veterinarian Gareth Hunter implants a tracking device in a puff adder


It is also not every day you meet someone like Azraa. Born to parents of Indian descent in Lenasia, a suburb south of Soweto in the Johannesburg municipality, she is currently conducting her PhD research on puff adder thermal biology and space use – basically, how extreme temperatures in the Kalahari affect puff adder movement and behaviour. This was not exactly what she had in mind when she started this journey.


“I always knew that I wanted to work with wildlife, that I wanted to spend my time outside. But I didn’t know what my options were. I thought maybe I wanted to be a game ranger or a nature conservationist, without really knowing what that entailed.”


 During her Bachelor of Science studies, Azraa tended to gravitate towards zoology, wildlife and ecology. After her first research project – sable antelopes – mostly kept her at a desk, she decided to try something different for her master’s studies. She ended up studying dwarf chameleons, comparing their behaviour in urban and natural environments to understand how quickly they were adapting.

“And I just absolutely fell in love with working with reptiles. It felt like everything I wanted to do: I got to spend a lot of time outside, do cool science and write it up in a comprehensive way. Also, the herpetology community in South Africa is absolutely phenomenal. Everyone I have met so far is super bright, helpful and eager to collaborate and share knowledge. So, I decided that this was where I saw myself, at least for a time.”


Phd student picking up a puff adder to take back to the Dedeben 'lab'


As I watch her scoop up a one kilo puff adder (the equivalent of 2,2 pounds) from the red sand and put it into a large plastic box, using what looks a bit like oversized barbeque tongs – she needs to take measurements back at the Dedeben ‘lab’ – she makes it clear that no matter how often she does this, she doesn’t think she’ll ever be 100 percent comfortable with handling venomous snakes.

It wasn’t a prior obsession with puff adders that brought her here, then?

 “Not at all. I wanted to stay with reptiles, and I saw an advert for a PhD that included funding from Copenhagen Zoo, an opportunity to conduct lab work in Denmark and extensive field work in the Kalahari. At this point I had never handled a venomous snake in my life, but I thought: sure, why not?”


Puff adder being measured at Dedeben research centre, Tswalu Foundation


Azraa’s research, while focusing on puff adders, has implications for other reptiles, too, and has a strong climate change component.

 “Contrary to popular belief, reptiles don’t actually have cold blood, and hotter is not necessarily better after a certain point. They have an optimal temperature range they want to stay within. But since they can’t generate their own heat, they rely on their environment to get to that optimal range,” she explains.

 “By studying their behaviour in a hot environment like the Kalahari and comparing it to other, cooler places, as well as comparing their behaviour in summer and winter, we can hopefully predict how climate change is likely to impact them. I catch the snakes and implant a transmitter and data loggers before releasing them in the same place. The transmitter allows me to find the snake again, and the data loggers record the snake’s body temperature. I also make note of the microhabitat I find the snake in, how far it has moved since I last saw it and anything else I can observe. The idea is to see if I can connect certain behaviours with specific temperature patterns.”

 Although puff adders have grown on her – during the operation with Dr Hunter, Azraa seems to vacillate between admiring the snake’s beauty and having a healthy respect for its venom – it’s the wider implications of the research that really interest her.


Phd student tracking the puff adder using a telemetry set


“First of all, there’s a real lack of data about reptiles in general. As a scientist, that’s concerning, but also very exciting. It makes this research a potentially important contribution. Secondly, while puff adders aren’t threatened, the fact that they’re so abundant and exist over a wide range of habitats makes them such a good model for assessing adaptation to habitat changes. If we know how they are affected by increasing temperatures, we might be able to apply that to other species that are more difficult to study.”

 In addition to the research environment it provides her with, being based at Tswalu also brings Azraa into regular contact with guests. Not quite sure what to expect, she has been pleasantly surprised at the amount of interest in her work and study subjects.

“I think the mystery and superstition around venomous animals like snakes adds to people’s curiosity. Sometimes I get asked really surprising questions that I wouldn’t necessarily think of myself. I love interacting with guests, and their enthusiasm for what I do is really encouraging.”


Phd student collecting a puff adder specimen


Finally, we talk about another aspect of the path Azraa has chosen: diversity. Women of colour are not exactly overrepresented among herpatologists. That is changing, and Azraa herself has never felt anything but warmly welcomed into this community. But she recognizes the role she can play and relishes it.

 “When I grew up, I didn’t really think of this world as one that I could realistically be part of. I sometimes had people tell me that as a woman or because of my background, this or that wasn’t something I should study. So, it’s very important to me to reach out to other young kids and tell them: hey, this is what I do, and if you’re interested in it, there’s definitely an opportunity to pursue it. It’s important to have diversity in any space. If that’s something I can contribute to, that’s great.”


Phd student Azraa Ebrahim

All images by Marcus Westberg. Keep following @marcuswestbergphotography on instagram


About the Tswalu Foundation

The Tswalu Foundation supports ecological research and is considered a world leader in the environmental research field in the southern Kalahari. Research has the potential to inform conservation decisions, and also plays a vital role in revealing fascinating aspects of Tswalu Kalahari Reserve’s ecology and its remarkable biodiversity. The Dedeben Research Centre located on the reserve provides hands-on support throughout the year to research teams from across the globe. Donations to the Tswalu Foundation Trust directly impact the sustainability of research projects like the one described above. Find out more about making a donation.