Megan Loftie-Eaton, 27, has become a regular face on Pridelands, her infectious laugh and endless enthusiasm for everything from the smallest insect to the rarest bird has had everyone excited to join her as she performs biodiversity mapping on this special property.
Where did your love of the bush come from?
I “blame” my parents! They are the most amazing and adventurous people I know. My earliest childhood memories are of camping trips to the bush. My parents encouraged my curiosity for the natural world and nurtured my love for the great outdoors.
What made you want to become an ecologist?
Nature and wildlife conservation is my big passion in life. I want to make a difference in the world and give back somehow. Studying ecology and conservation sciences have helped me on this path.
What are your qualifications?
I recently I completed my Ph.D. in Biological Sciences through the University of Cape Town. My research looked at the impacts of bush encroachment on bird distributions in the savannah biome of South Africa. I completed a BSc in Environmental and Conservation Sciences through the University of Alberta in Canada. I also have a FGASA (Field Guides Association of Southern Africa) Level One Nature Guide Qualification which I obtained through Ulovane Environmental Training in 2013.
What do you love most about the Greater Kruger area?
I love the sense of wild Africa that you get when you are in the bush in the Greater Kruger region. It’s a stunningly beautiful place, and I feel very privileged to live and work here.
What are some of the bigger projects you have worked on?
I coordinate a project called LepiMAP, which is the Atlas of African Lepidoptera, a joint project between the Animal Demography Unit and the Lepidopterists’ Society of Africa. We are mapping the distributions of all of Africa’s butterflies and moths to better understand their conservation priorities.
What does an average day in Hoedspruit look like for you?
I love waking up early. I’ve always been an early bird. I usually go for a run or cycle in the cool morning air, and the best part is seeing the sunrise. I mostly work from home, or I’m out and about in the bush. My “going to work traffic” consists of warthogs and impala and the occasional tree squirrel!
What is your number one essential in the bush?
My binoculars, camera, and my trusty water bottle.
What do you look for when you are out in the bush?
I have a special place in my heart for birds as well as moths and butterflies. But I am interested in everything, and I’m interested in the relationships between species and between species and their environment.
Describe the work you are doing Pridelands?
I am conducting a baseline biodiversity survey of Pridelands, everything from butterflies to birds and mammals.
What is the objective of this project?
We want to get an idea of what the state of biodiversity is on Pridelands at present, and which areas are of special conservation concern so that we can implement a best practice land management plan. We can monitor how things are going to change over time once the fences open into the Greater Kruger. Elephants have been absent from Pridelands for about 50 years, so their reintroduction to the system will change things.
How would you describe the state of biodiversity on Pridelands now?
Pridelands is unique. The landscape and habitats on Pridelands vary and this means that there is potential for high biodiversity. The variation across the landscape allows for lots of niche spaces for the various species (everything from mammals and birds to reptiles and butterflies) that occur in the Lowveld region of South Africa.
How do you expect it to change once the fences drop?
At present, the vegetation on Pridelands is very thick. Elephants will help to open up the bush by reducing the woody cover (trees and shrubs) through their browsing habits (i.e. pushing trees over and the fact that elephants eat a lot!). The increase in open habitats will allow for more species to call Pridelands home (e.g. Southern Ground Hornbills, Secretary birds, and Cheetahs)
How will you conduct most of these mapping studies?
I will be using a mix of methods on Pridelands. For mammals, we are using camera traps to give us a better idea of the abundance of species as well as their movements and habitat preferences. Bird data is being submitted to the Southern African Bird Atlas Project http://sabap2.adu.org.za/, in this way Pridelands is helping to contribute to bird conservation in Southern Africa. All other taxa are being mapped through the Animal Demography Unit’s Virtual Museum http://vmus.adu.org.za, which will help us to understand how species are spread across Pridelands and which areas are biodiversity hotspots. The Animal Demography Unit is a research unit at the University of Cape Town. The ADU is at the head of mapping Africa’s biodiversity, so it is great that Pridelands can be part of all this.
What do you enjoy most about this type of work?
I love being out in nature, marvelling at all the amazing creatures with which we share the planet. It is a privilege to be able to work outdoors and be close to nature.
What can you tell us about the bird species you have mapped?
Pridelands has high bird species diversity. At the moment there are a lot of woody-cover-loving birds present (e.g. Grey-headed Bush-Shrikes, Green-backed Camaropteras and White-crested Helmet-shrikes). This might change once the fences are dropped with Greater Kruger. We will carry on with our bird atlasing efforts to monitor the changes.
How long will you be mapping on Pridelands?
It will be an ongoing process.
How will the change in seasons affect biodiversity mapping?
As we head into Winter (the dry season here in the Lowveld) things will start to slow down regarding biodiversity. Most of the migrant bird species have left, to travel back north to their breeding grounds. By Winter time most insects have already emerged, bred and completed their life cycles. Reptiles and frogs hide away until the warmer and wetter weather returns. When the rains return in Spring, the Lowveld region is a hive of activity! The bush bursts into life and all the migrant birds return. It is amazing to see.