Raptorfest in the Kruger

Civilisations rise and fall, but the Hawks stay the same

~ Helen Macdonald~

Sometime early last year I sat in my Professor’s office catching up and suddenly he remembered he had something to tell me. He told me with great excitement that the annual Raptor Research Foundation conference would be in Africa for the first time, not only that but it would be at the Kruger National Park in South Africa. I gave him a half-interested look and said Oooookk? And?

The Raptor Research Foundation (RRF) is an international society of scientists and raptor enthusiasts based in the United States. It was established in 1966 and since then has been a leader in advancing raptor research, conservation and capacity building in this field.

Of course, I did not know all this then I had no idea how big a deal this conference was. With patience only he (Peter Mundy) has with me, he started to explain how important it was for me to do everything I could to attend this conference. In the short time I had left, I came up with an abstract for a poster and submitted it. To my surprise, my abstract was accepted and it all became real. I got in touch with BirdLife Zimbabwe who generously agreed to sponsor my registration and travel to South Africa and drove down to the park with my Prof and his friend Warren Goodwin in a tiny rental car (I was packed in the back with the luggage!). After a very long scenic drive, we finally arrived at Skukuza in Kruger National Park.

 

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The conference ran for almost a whole week and I could not have been in a better place than I was. One would think 5 days is long enough to talk about everything raptors, but NO! It is hardly enough time. The teams that co-planned and hosted this event, BirdLife South Africa, Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and the RRF tried to pack everything. The conference had a major focus on Vultures and in the program were 6 symposia, 3 plenary talks, 7 workshops and 2 poster presentation sessions, there was a lot of knowledge to be gained and shared. The week began on Monday the 12th where we had the workshops being run concurrently (it was a real struggle choosing). Talks began on Tuesday the 13th and ended on Thursday the 15th. Poster sessions were on the evenings of the 13th and the 14th and the final evening was a big banquet and award ceremony.

Over 270 people from over 36 countries attended. A great part of this number were early career raptor researchers like myself most of them sponsored by different organisations and presenting either a poster, a speed talk or full-on talk in one of the symposia about their work. This was my first scientific conference ever, I had been to Symposiums and talks before but none of this magnitude and importance. Travelling to South Africa I was anxious but mostly excited, I had the poster I was going to present rolled up and in my hands and I felt like my whole life depended on it. I had tried to imagine how things would be like, especially what kind of posters would be there (first poster design again by the way), what kind of people would be there and what they would talk about; if I would understand at all! It was not just a trip to one of Africa’s most iconic parks, it was for me like a coming of age event.

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The best parts

Apart from ticking off new bird species I had seen and the frequent sight of numerous species of magnificent raptors, I enjoyed most of the talks and meeting new people. Meeting people I knew was also quite electric, I was at a big sciencey conference and it was hard staying and character because I was so elated like a child in pre-school every time I saw a familiar face for the first time. It was also a thrilling experience to meet up with my Hawk Mountain Sanctuary family, Dr Keith Bildstein, Dr JF Therrien (and his family) and past trainees from different countries and years most of whom I already felt like I knew personally already. Everyone was friendly making new acquaintances was very easy.

My favourite talks were mostly the vulture ones (surprise! surprise!) but I was inspired by and really enjoyed the plenary talk by Prof William Bowerman from the University of Maryland. Although his talk was about his work with Bald Eagles, the global distribution of Haliaeetus eagles and how they are ecosystem health indicators, what he spoke about in the beginning resonated the most with me. He drew everyone’s attention to the plight of young scientists and shared his story of being a clueless graduate with a mentor that believed in him, good opportunities and funding. He urged all experts in the room to never take for granted the impact they can have on shaping future conservation leaders by being mentors and helping them access opportunities to realise their potential. From the way he described himself when he started out in his postgraduate studies, I can say I am more attuned to what I want to do and achieve in my career, more figured out if I can dare say. I felt very encouraged, that there is much I can achieve too.

I also particularly enjoyed the workshop on using drones to study raptors, I was almost tempted to attend it a second time after it was specially requested again. I was impressed by the numerous applications drone technology can actually be used for from simple footage capturing to attaching flaps to mitigate powerlines for vultures. My mind was blown open to possibilities and exciting innovation in solving conservation problems and making research easier and more accurate.

I have more stories I’ll be sharing about my trip to the Kruger, stay tuned!

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Thank you for reading!

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