Research | Jul 2021

In conversation with Wendy Panaino

Q&A with Dr. Wendy Panaino, KEEP Project manager

Dr Wendy Panaino is Tswalu’s resident pangolin expert, who was awarded her doctorate for her extensive research into the responses of free-living Temminck’s ground pangolins to seasonal and annual fluctuations in climatic conditions and food resources in a semi-arid environment, the southern Kalahari. She is currently the project manager for the Tswalu Foundation’s Kalahari Endangered Ecosystem Project (KEEP), a programme which aims to understand the responses of multiple Kalahari organisms to climate change. Wendy says that from the moment she arrived at Tswalu to start working on her PhD, it was love at first sight.

What does running the KEEP programme entail?

As the project manager, I handle everything on the ground. I maintain equipment and sponsored vehicles, provide on-site assistance for students, and am a central communication point for team members. I also manage the long-term data collection of elements of the project where students are not available, such as vegetation surveys. Academically, I am working on writing scientific papers that maintains group cohesiveness and ensures academic output from the group.

What are the main advantages of KEEP? 

The sharing of resources and expertise is key to successfully and sustainably running long-term research projects. Having assistance and practical support on site is very useful. It’s helpful to be part of a community of like-minded researchers with which to brainstorm ideas and share challenges.

 Do you enjoy the Kalahari ecosystem as much as the specific animals you study?

While it is exciting to be able to focus on one or two species, I am a generalist at heart and enjoy trying to understand whole ecosystems and their processes. It makes no sense to me to understand only one element of an ecosystem when there are so many connected processes at play. Learning about the ecosystem as a whole paints a much better picture, and allows one to understand more fully how one or two species contribute to and exist in that ecosystem.

Would studying ground pangolins elsewhere in Africa be as interesting or important as studying them here?

It is essential to study organisms and ecosystems elsewhere. If we are attempting to understand a species, you can’t really do that just by studying a single population. There needs to be additional work elsewhere across the range (preferably simultaneously), so that we can understand how environmental variations explain certain ecology, behaviour, physiology and so forth. Any conclusions we draw from our work here at Tswalu are conclusions based on a single population and not the entire species. The Kalahari is ideal for now, because it allows us to understand how animals in one of the more extreme environments (in terms of heat and aridity) in South Africa cope with changes in their current environment. This effectively allows us to make better predictions about how animals elsewhere might respond to environmental change associated with climate change, particularly in environments that are predicted to get hotter and drier.

Do you think that climate change research in South Africa, and specifically the Kalahari, has received the recognition it deserves?

Climate change research has received attention with respect to how it affects humans, but very little attention has been given to its effect on organisms and ecosystems, including cascading effects through ecosystems. While most of the attention has been focused on the northern hemisphere, the southern hemisphere is still catching up.

What effect do you think the publication of the National Geographic feature on the research being done through the Tswalu Foundation will have on current perceptions? 

I don’t think many people, even avid naturalists, know much about the Kalahari and what it has to offer, so I think it will certainly go a long way in educating the public about this unique environment and some of its challenges. I hope that the piece will educate the world about the environment and the challenges it faces in light of climate change and other environmental issues, not just in the Kalahari but everywhere.

 Tell us about the life of a researcher. Is it more solitary than social?

Like anything, the experience is what you make of it. Being part of the Dedeben Research Centre, and a community of fellow students and scientists who share similar interests and passions, is amazing. There are always like-minded people around, willing to get involved, problem solve or discuss findings, so it’s never lonely. As a community of researchers, we are also fortunate in that we get to engage with Tswalu’s guests from all over the world.

If there are guests staying at Tswalu Kalahari who are particularly interested in the research youre doing, how can they get involved?

It depends on what we are busy with at the time of their stay, and is therefore never guaranteed. Ideally, it may involve joining us in the field, either tracking and monitoring a pangolin at night or following a pangolin’s track to its burrow, during the day when it’s asleep, to set up a camera trap. Joining researchers in the field is arranged for guests by their private guide as part of their safari plan.

The nature of your work demands long hours, often in extreme conditions – sub-zero temperatures on winter nights and scorching hot days in summer. Do you ever wish youd chosen something easieror less elusive to study?

Absolutely not. I think I would be bored if I wasn’t challenged – that’s what drives me. But maybe ask me again when I am sitting out in sub-zero temperatures at night waiting for a pangolin to emerge from its burrow!

What moments make it all worthwhile?

There are so many! Sometimes we spend weeks or months trying to track a pangolin with a missing or broken tag. We may have a strong sense that it is close by, but fail to find it time after time. In these moments, you tell yourself that maybe it is not worth all the effort. Then, one day, you are successful. That overwhelming sense of relief, happiness and excitement makes it all worthwhile.

It is observing the look in someone’s eyes the first time they see a pangolin – we get to be part of fulfilling that dream for someone who may have been searching for a glimpse of a pangolin their entire life. It’s a feeling I can’t describe adequately in words.

It’s knowing that in some small way, you have played a part in improving the understanding of a species – being able to share all that information with a guest or the research community, knowing that you have played a part in educating someone.

It’s having guests ask fascinating and often complex questions and watching their faces light up even when you are able to answer them.

What do you hope to have added to the study field of myrmecophagous mammals now that your thesis has been published and your PhD has been awarded?

Data is lacking in general for elusive or nocturnal species and so any novel pieces of information we put out there will be contributing to the collective understanding of the species. Ultimately, we hope to have provided insights into how they might cope with changing environments.

 Given the realities surrounding the impact of climate change, what gives you hope or gets you out of bed every morning?

I truly believe that every single individual has the ability to make a difference, no matter how small, and I believe that the work that we do is contributing to making changes for good. As a naturalist at heart, it is not difficult to get out of bed when you get to do the work that I do every day.

What would you like to be remembered for?

I would like to leave my mark on the conservation world, not specific to pangolin research. I would like to be remembered as someone who was not afraid to roll around in the dirt to collect the data required to answer environmental questions.

Images by Marcus Westberg

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