Taiwan vs. Etosha


I grew up in Taiwan, which is a small island in southeastern Asia. In terms of the size, Taiwan is only two-thirds of New York State, and half of it is covered by mountains. Thus, Taiwan overall is so steep that it is almost impossible to find somewhere flat; therefore, I’ve been eager to see flatness. On the other hand, even though the biodiversity is generally higher, there are not many large mammals in Taiwan due to the limited area. Mammals, moreover, tend to hide in woods when humans are approaching. Seeing a mammal during fieldwork is a huge surprise for researchers in Taiwan.

My two thirsts were fulfilled simultaneously by Etosha National Park, the size of which is two-thirds of Taiwan. There are remarkably flat plains with several seeable mammals on them. I sometimes went to the waterhole by Okaukuejo camp. It was amazing to see herbivores coming to the waterhole endlessly. Mammals supported by that one waterhole—I guess—are more than mammals supported by a river in Taiwan!

One of my jobs on this visit to Etosha was placing cameras to monitor animal reactions toward carcasses/carcass sites, in order to evaluate the possible risk being infected by anthrax. I personally summarized a few important points for you to keep in mind when putting up cameras at new carcass sites. First of all, before getting out of a car, it is required to check whether predators are around. This is in fact not only for fresh carcasses but also for every time getting out of a car in the field. Second, if there are predators around, you should estimate how far they are from the carcass site and how long it would take for them to reach the site. Once safety is confirmed, you can get out of the car and place the cameras. However, it is important to let at least one person keep watch on any predators and, moreover, to leave doors open in case quickly retreating is needed. Last but not least, when getting close to fresh carcasses, you should hold your breath if you are not familiar with working with carcasses. Otherwise, it will be like enjoying a famous food in Taiwan—stinky tofu.

After putting up a few cameras, I chatted with Wendy’s husband, Yeti.

Me: “If lions were attacking us during our fieldwork, can I say I saw lions hunting?”

Yeti: “But before that, first, you need to survive.”

Hello, world

This is the first post for our new lab blog. Our goal is to share our different perspectives and experiences as we conduct research.

I came to Etosha National Park, Namibia, for a research visit in the summer of 2017. The plan was to carry on some long-term research sampling, finish writing a grant proposal that spilled over into my research time (argh), get two Ph.D. students up and running in the field and lab, and as ever, collect that enticing, nay, transformative, “preliminary data” to snag me some grant funding. I’ll say we succeeded with the first two, and as for the latter two, that remains to be seen!

Here is my Ph.D. student, Yen-Hua, in my lab at UAlbany, marveling at the mountains of supplies for our trip to Namibia. I think it took him two days to open all the plastic cases holding these motion sensing cameras.

Yen-Hua with cameras

Yen-Hua unpacking cameras

Were we going to fit all of that in our luggage? I hoped so. Did we? Nope. I knew better, but still made the mistake of trusting a bunch of our cameras to international express shipping, where they’ve been wasting away for the last month, stuck in customs in Namibia. I just got an invoice to release them this week, requesting that I pay what amounts to 72% of the value of the shipment. I sent back a fiery email suggesting they recalculate their charges or they could turn around and ship them back to the US. Somehow I’m still waiting for a response…

Between proposal writing and the work-life “balance” (ha ha), my research productivity took a real hit this trip. My husband and I were blinded by our love of Namibia and some romantic notion of the idyllic time we’d spend here with our two kids, so the whole family came for five weeks. We anticipated watching wildlife with our clean, well-behaved, inquisitive children, faces aglow in the African sunset, begging for more facts about the animals we observed together. Immediately after we bought the tickets we had our doubts, but stubbornly stuck to the plan. Here I am at JFK with my girls, at the start of a long and sleepless journey, loaded with research supplies, kid supplies, and a few things for myself.

Luggage for family and work

There were some lovely moments, but also many times we both thought this trip was a huge mistake. I’ll just say I don’t think we’ll try to bring the whole family again for at least another 3-5 years. Here I am sitting on a dirt road poaching my neighbor’s wifi to upload the final files for my grant proposal and trying, unsuccessfully, to keep my daughter from chewing rocks. Because, of course, the one day you really need the internet in office is the day it’s not functioning.

Working on a dirt road for Internet access to submit a grant proposal