IN CONVERSATION WITH RESEARCHER DANIEL ROSSOUW
In part one of a two-part series, Jane Broughton interviews Daniel Rossouw about a pangolin project, which will form part of his master’s dissertation through the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). Keep reading to find out about Daniel’s fascination with the shy, elusive Temminck’s pangolin, and what got him fired up about research-based conservation in the first place.
When details of a proposed pangolin research project at Tswalu Kalahari hit Daniel Rossouw’s desk, he didn’t hesitate to apply. While completing his Honours in Biological Sciences at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 2022, he had spent two weeks at Tswalu gathering data for his study of the impact of Pygmy Falcon presence on Sociable Weaver roosting behaviour. At Dedeben, the Tswalu Foundation’s headquarters on the reserve, Daniel met Dr Wendy Panaino, Tswalu’s resident pangolin expert. That was enough to spark his interest in pangolins, and he decided that he wanted to return to the southern Kalahari one way or another.
WHAT FUELLED YOUR INTEREST IN THE NATURAL WORLD?
My passion for nature grew as a result of numerous overland expeditions throughout southern Africa while I was growing up. I learnt about birds from my grandfather, animals from my father, and plants from my neighbour. My desire to understand more about the natural world led to an undergraduate degree in the Biology and Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at UCT, which I completed in 2021. Honours in the Biological Sciences followed. Before studying further, I planned to do a photography course, get my heavy vehicle driver’s licence, and volunteer as a field assistant. This was before I heard about the pangolin project!
WHAT DOES YOUR PANGOLIN PROJECT ENTAIL?
My project, titled ‘The ecological role of the Temminck’s pangolin in the Kalahari dryland ecosystem’, will form part of my MSc dissertation through the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). This was established with the help of Wendy Panaino, my supervisor, and Dylan Smith, who heads up Dedeben Research Centre. As you know, Wendy has been studying Temminck’s pangolins at Tswalu for almost eight years now. Her work has covered aspects of their thermal biology, diet, and behaviour, filling in significant portions of knowledge about what is still a largely understudied species. Through my study, we hope to learn more about the functional role that these pangolins play in the environment. Most people are aware that pangolins are a rare, hard to find, threatened species, and are the most trafficked mammal in the world. Often when talking about the threats that pangolins face, questions like “Why care?” and “What does it matter if we lose pangolins?” arise. Through this study we’d like to quantify the functional role that pangolins play in the ecosystem in the hope of answering these questions.
Rare species are often assumed to contribute little to ecosystem services, due to their small populations and limited ranges. My study focuses on the pangolin’s foraging behaviour to quantify the ecosystem services that they provide when it comes to soil turnover, nutrient cycling, and biodiversity accumulation in foraging dig sites. Ultimately, collecting empirical data on the pangolin’s ecosystem services may help in effectively classifying their conservation status and importance.
HOW DID YOU END UP STUDYING PANGOLINS IN THE KALAHARI?
After my brief stint at Tswalu for my honour’s fieldwork, I knew I needed to find a way back. This was not just because of how beautiful the reserve was, but because there were still many Kalahari species I wanted to see for the first time. Pangolins, of course, were at the top of my desperate-to-see list. Seeing one would not only be an incredible lifetime experience but would make my dad very jealous. I can happily say that when I told him I’d found my first pangolin, he uttered a few swear words! Jokes aside, the research question itself and its conservation implications were perfectly aligned with my aspirations of having a career tackling conservation efforts.
I’ll spend the first year of my masters doing fieldwork full time on Tswalu, and the second year writing up my dissertation off-site. A year of fieldwork and sampling will allow me to collect data from season to season, and account for variations in environmental factors such as weather and food resources.
WHAT ASPECTS OF PANGOLIN BEHAVIOUR ARE YOU MEASURING?
Specifically, I’ll be measuring aspects of the pangolin’s foraging behaviour.Currently there are four pangolins tagged with VHF tracking transmitters (two females and two males), but I am aiming for a sample size of six individuals.
I’ll begin with a spatial aspect, looking at the distribution and frequency of the pangolins foraging sites. Next, at several dig or foraging sites I’ll measure the soil turnover, by determining the volume of soil removed during a dig. I will also be taking soil samples at some of the dig sites to compare the nutrient concentration to a control sample nearby to the dig site. Soil turnover and nutrient cycling has been shown to be important ecosystem services. Lastly, any biodiversity (for example, insects or seeds) accumulating in the dig sites will be recorded.
DOES YOUR WORK FALL UNDER THE KALAHARI ENDANGERED ECOSYSTEM PROJECT?
The pangolin project does fall under the Kalahari Endangered Ecosystem Project (KEEP) umbrella. My project links climate, vegetation, insects and pangolins together in their own little ecosystem, and feeds into the greater ecosystem where many other organisms depend on the same biotic and abiotic factors as pangolins. One of the aims of KEEP is to identify how organisms in the Kalahari ecosystem are linked, and how the ecology of those organisms changes when their environment changes, and how that cascades through the ecosystem. That means that many of the other teams working under the KEEP umbrella could ultimately link their respective species’ responses to the responses of pangolins through changes to lower trophic levels such as vegetation and insects. Through my project, I will continue with the long-term monitoring of insects and vegetation, data that will be useful to many of the other teams working under KEEP, particularly to those who cannot be on site full-time.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE SO FAR?
The main challenge I’ve encountered so far has been shifting my sleep cycle to be more in line with that of my study animals. I believe that I’m slowly but surely becoming more pangolin like by the day! Working alone, out in the field, on foot, at night, takes some getting used to. At first it was quite unsettling to hear the jackals calling, but soon enough I became accustomed to the cries of the Kalahari. You stop jumping every time a bush rustles and it almost feels as if you become one with the wild. That being said, I still keep my spotlight trained and my legs stretched in the unlikely chance of running into a buffalo.
Don’t miss the second part of this interview with Daniel, and keep following Tswalu on social media to learn more about pangolin research and the many other projects that fall under the Tswalu Foundation.
Top image by Trevor Kleyn; all other images by Marcus Westberg.
GATHERING DATA ON TEMMINCK’S PANGOLIN
In Part two in our Q&A with Wits master’s student Daniel Rossouw, find out more about his methodology for gathering data, for example studying soil samples, to determine the pangolin’s role in the ecosystem.
HOW A CHANCE DISCOVERY TOOK TSWALU’S BUTTERFLY COUNT UP TO 83
The chance discovery of a Pale Ciliate Blue brings Tswalu’s species count to 83 butterflies, which is remarkable for a semi-arid area in the southern Kalahari according to lepidopterist Reinier Terblanche.