The Big Cat Research Project

Raven Adventures – Big Cat Research Project

If you have ever dreamed of doing field research in Africa, the Raven Adventures Big Cat Research Project may be perfect for you. Open to only a few participants each summer, this unique program offers the opportunity to witness lions on a kill, leopards hunting in the bush, and cheetah gazing across the savannah.

Raven Adventures Big Cat Research Project lioness chasing prey photo by Colin Garland

A Big Thank You to All of Our 2017 BCRP Volunteers!

Raven Adventures’ Big Cat Research Project had an amazing EIGHTH season this summer! We thank all our volunteers who joined us in Kruger National Park this year. This year was a fantastic season for cub sightings, adding more to our database than ANY of our previous years. We also resighted more cats than ever before, allowing us to get familiar with and follow a number of individuals by the end of the season. Next year these cats will be a priority, and we hope to find them prowling those same territories in 2018.

For a full report on this season’s data and statistics, subscribe to our e-newsletter; Contact Sabrina at sabrina@ravenadventures.com to sign up!

Curious hyenas approach the Raven Adventures research vehicleRaven Adventures on a bush walk in Kruger National ParkBig Cat Research Project group admires elephant statueRaven Adventures volunteers looking over scenic view beside the research vehicle
    Raven Adventures volunteer taking notesRaven Adventures volunteer watches an elephant feed just outside her window

The Project

Big cats across Africa are in serious decline. Raven Adventures presents the Big Cat Research Project, an ongoing study creating a comprehensive, photo identification catalog and behavioral record of Kruger National Park’s big cats.

Volunteer Research

Participants will be collecting data, observing behavior, filming and photographing lion, leopard, and cheetah all while learning about the ecology and behavior and these incredible predators. Kruger National Park is one of the largest game reserves in Africa, offering a wide range of habitats to support its abundant wildlife. Though our research will focus on cats, the park provides an excellent opportunity for volunteers to find themselves up close and personal with elephant, rhino, giraffe, zebra, and a myriad of other species.

Primary tasks will include:

  • Gathering data from a research vehicle while on game drives and at designated sites, such as water holes and previous kill sites.
  • Photo identification of spotted cats using “mug shots” and comparing spot pattern, ear tears, and scarring.
  • Learning to take useful and detailed field notes.
  • Routine campsite chores such as dinner prep, setting up / dismantling of campsite, etc.

Track and sign workshops, wilderness skills, field navigation, map reading, and wildlife photography are all additional skills available to interested volunteers. Many have received college credit for this program in the past. Talk to your professors in advance! 

Trip Life

This program offers the chance for volunteers to experience fieldwork in a small group setting. Kruger Park is over 7,000 square miles and provides an enormous and diverse array of habitats, plant life, and wildlife. We will be tent camping in designated compounds protected by high voltage electric fences. Compounds are very comfortable and have a small grocery store, restaurant, hot showers, laundry facilities, cooking area, and a service station.

A typical day in the field begins before sunrise. At 6:00AM we depart the compound in search of cats. This may include driving through the park, quietly sitting at waterholes, or observing the area from designated hides. At midday we return to camp or a designated picnic site to prepare lunch before heading back into the bush until sunset. Each night at dinner we will share our highlights and discuss the data and photos collected that day. This will be your opportunity to use our cat catalog and learn how to identify individual cats! Near the fence you will find hyena prowling and hear the roaring of nearby lions. The park is a truly magical place alive with the sounds of the wild night and day.

Photo opportunities are phenomenal, so plan ahead with plenty of memory cards and a backup battery for your camera.  Charging batteries can be done back at camp, but a spare battery is strongly advised.  Binoculars are highly recommended.  Optional side trips include guided bush walks and night drives conducted by local game rangers.  An early morning bush walk is an excellent way to discover the typically unseen mysteries of the bush with knowledgeable native guides who share with the group ancient folklore, uses of medicinal plants, and how to read animal tracks and signs.  During a night drive, you will have the opportunity to see nocturnal animals hunting and foraging such as giant porcupine, hyena, lions, leopards and maybe even the rare pangolin or aardwolf! On the last day of your adventures in Africa, you will have the opportunity to visit a local artisan market to purchase gifts and souvenirs before you fly back home.

Then What?

One of our goals at Raven Adventures is to promote the professional growth of tomorrow’s conservationists. Upon completion of the program, volunteers will receive a Certificate of Completion. Raven Adventures is also happy to write letters of recommendation for motivated, enthusiastic volunteers. GPS data collected will be used to map home ranges and distribution of individuals. Behavioral data and photo IDs allow for analysis of hunting patterns, success rates, outbreaks of infectious disease, and more. The Big Cat Research Project’s database is also open to past participants for use in university courses or projects and graduate or independent research. Let us know if you are interested in accessing the database!

Dreaming of Africa? Here’s How to Apply

Though this program is ideal for the undergraduate student seeking field experience, it is by no means restricted to this group! You do not need any prior experience and it is not necessary that our volunteers be working towards a degree, scientific or otherwise. We welcome volunteers from a wide variety of backgrounds, interests, and professional pursuits. The Big Cat Research Project requires patience to work long hours in a research vehicle, comfort with camping accommodations, a positive attitude, and enthusiasm to learn. Enrollment space is limited and this program fills many months in advance. Applications are reviewed on a first-come, first-serve basis.

1) Send your CV or resume to Sabrina Salome at sabrina@ravenadventures.com. You will then be contacted about the status of your application.

2) You must complete and return the following forms, filled out in their entirety and signed, to Sabrina at sabrina@ravenadventures.com. If you do not have access to a scanner, a photo will suffice so long as the entire form is visible and the text legible.

Photo copy of passport
Questionnaire
Trip Registration & Waiver Form
Health Form

3) Please submit your $600 deposit online by credit card through PayPal or by check.  Full payment details can be found on our BCRP Application Page. Please follow the remainder of the payment schedule, as outlined on the application page.

4) Upon receipt of all your completed forms, your deposit and final payment, your trip placement is fully secured. Final payments must be made before the final due date or you may forfeit your space on the trip and lose your deposit. Please be sure to take note of any due dates for payments!

Cost

Raven Adventures strives to offer low-cost high-quality educational programs and opportunities.  Our trip price for 2017 is $3,995.  This includes round-trip airfare from JFK, meals prepared by Raven staff, tent camping, and in-country transportation. Additionally, all visitors to Kruger National Park must pay a daily conservation fee; As of August 2017, Kruger Park charges $25 USD per day for international visitors (this amount is subject to change). This amounts to $325 USD for our program. We ask that this amount be brought in US dollars only. Other, optional expenses include bush walks and night drives organized and conducted by Kruger rangers. Prices do vary, but average around $65/person for a bush walk and $55/person for a night drive. Don’t forget to bring a little extra for personal snacks, souvenirs, and maybe treating yourself to a night out at one of the restaurants in camp!

Dates

Please note: exact trip dates are dependent on airline and park availability.

  1. Trip 1: June 12th – June 26th, 2018
  2. Trip 2: June 27th – July 11th, 2018
  3. Trip 3: July 12th – July 26th, 2018

FAQs

Do I need any shots?
NO!   We used to guide in Kenya and Tanzania and a huge amount of effort was needed to keep everyone safe and free of illness from food and water born illnesses. South Africa is a trip leader’s paradise. Just a few hours after landing in South Africa, our students have already traveled on excellent highways, entered the game park and are enjoying the abundance of wild animals found there. The food and water in South Africa is 100% safe to consume.  Kruger park accommodations are excellent and the camp compounds throughout the park are clean and safe. Each compound is like a small village, complete with small grocery store, gift shop, restaurant and some even have a swimming pool and outdoor theater for viewing excellent and informative movies about the animals that live in the park.

What about Malaria?
One of the wonderful aspects of traveling within Kruger park during the dry season is the lack of biting insects. This means there is a minimal risk of malaria! We have been traveling extensively in Kruger during the dry season for many years and have never encountered a single case of malaria within our group or by others we have met. This of course does not suggest it is impossible but the risk is so low that none of our staff concern themselves with taking malarial prophylaxis. This is of course, a personal choice and we are happy to discuss this issue with you further. If you do choose to take a prophylaxis, please be sure to notify us upon your arrival.  Be sure to do your research and get the appropriate type for the areas in which you will be traveling. It does make a difference.

What if I’m a vegetarian / vegan?
All meals prepared and served by Raven Adventures offer a vegetarian / vegan option. Please tell us if you have any food allergies or special dietary needs so we can plan ahead. On our drive from Johannesburg to Kruger park, we stop at a very large supermarket to stock up on staple foods to bring with us into the park. The park does have small grocery stores located in each camp where we will be purchasing fruits, vegetable, sandwich meats and other food items to add to the menu. Our stop at the super market outside the park is an excellent opportunity for you to purchase personal snacks. We also provide a box of quick food (apples, oranges, snacks etc) inside the vehicle for anyone to consume.

What do I need to bring?
This is our basic equipment list we have created. This list does not cover everything you are likely to bring, but we strongly suggest you pack as light as possible. All luggage must be packed inside our van (plus all our food, camping gear etc) during our time in Kruger. We ask each person to limit their luggage to one medium cloth duffle bag and one small day pack or personal bag that you can keep with you at your seat while on safari. Please note: Large, hard case type luggage and luggage with heels and handles is impossible to pack efficiently inside the van. Please use soft duffles. Thank you.

What if there is a medical emergency?
At least one Raven staff member on every trip is certified in search and rescue and back country medicine. This is an advanced medical first aid training that goes far beyond the typical first aid training offered by the Red Cross and other entities. South Africa also has an excellent private and public medical system and there is even a medical clinic located at Skukuza camp in Kruger park. Please be sure to complete all health forms and list any medical issues, allergies, etc, so our staff are made aware of special concerns.

Will I be able to contact family and friends at home while I am traveling?
Though we will be traveling into the bush of Kruger park, all camps have phones in which you can use to make long distant calls provided you have a credit card or have purchased a pre-paid phone card.  A couple camps even have internet service, though we have found these to offer intermittent service at best.

Testimonials

Participating in the Big Cat Research Project was one of the greatest experiences I have had yet.  I expected to learn about field research and get a feel for whether that was the direction in which I wanted my life to go, and I gained so much more than that.  Colin and Kathy have a wealth of information to share on big cats and every other species we encountered and are invaluable contacts to have for making future connections.  Kruger Park was all I expected and more, with a surprisingly high density of so many different species.  I learned so much about research in the field, African wildlife, and myself in just two weeks.  The worst part of the trip was getting on the plane to go home.

– Megan, 2013 Participant

This trip was incredible! I had always wanted to go to Africa and see how the animals interact with each other, because all I’d ever seen before had been in the zoo. I also didn’t expect to see so many cats. The way that Colin was able to find them was amazing. The daily life on the trip exceeded my expectations because each day was full, there was never a wasted moment. From driving around to dinner conversations, I learned a lot about the wildlife and cats, as well as about myself and my direction for the future. I am sure I am going to return to Africa.

– Anna, 2013 Participant

My experience in South Africa with Raven Adventures was hands down the most amazing experience I’ve ever had. Being up close and personal with some of Africa’s most awe inspiring animals was mind blowing. To be out in the wild and to see these animals in their natural state was sometimes overwhelming because I couldn’t believe I had waited so long to fulfill this dream. Roaming around Kruger is like being in another world where fancy clothes, fine jewelry and all material goods no longer exist or even matter. You just become so captivated by the beauty of the cats, the other animals, and the landscape that you sometimes forget that the outside world exists. It was an incredibly strange feeling to leave the park and see large infrastructures, plantations and all of industrial society again and this was the moment I realized just how gorgeous Kruger really was. I would give anything to return to the park to see the big cats, sunsets and sunrises again. It was an escape from the “real” world that opened my eyes to the beauties that still exist on this planet and it was an experience I will never forget.

–Lauren, 2011 participant

The big cat research trip in Kruger National Park, South Africa was an informative, insightful and inspiring trip. Every day, Colin was teaching us information about lions, leopards and cheetahs, as well as the other animals we would come across on the road. We learned a lot about mating behaviors, courtship, hunting strategies, feeding techniques, tracking, and rivalries between the animals of Kruger. Unlike a typical class at a university, where you sit in a classroom for an hour at a time and go through a list of objectives, we learned on the road sporadically.

Nature inspired what we learned each day while we were out there. Not only was this trip very informative on the wildlife of South Africa, it was also an insightful experience. Being disconnected from the internet, cell phone, and facebook, I was able to think for myself without the influence of the media or others. Although in America, we may learn about the loss of the certain ecosystems, and endangerment of many species throughout the world, we never truly understand the detriment it will cause if we lose these ecosystems and species completely because we are not able to witness them with our own eyes. It is truly an “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon that can quickly turn into a tragic reality.This trip inspired me to learn more about conservation and the ecosystems and animals that are suffering.

Given that this adventure not only taught me a lot about wildlife and animal behavior, but it also inspired me to pursue my passions, I would definitely say this trip was a worthwhile experience. I would strongly recommend this trip to anyone who is interested in wildlife and traveling. I learned a lot about the big cats of South Africa, as well as numerous other animals, and I learned a lot about myself, which made this experience truly memorable. I hope to return to South Africa in the near future!

–Jen, 2011 participant

Cheetahs have always been my favorite animal. It took me a while to get enough money for a volunteer internship with the Cheetah Conservation Fund and when I finally decided the time was right, the deadline had passed. Then I heard about Colin’s trip to film and photograph lions, leopards, and cheetahs and I knew I couldn’t pass it up. I’ll admit I was losing hope when the first week passed and we still had yet to see a cheetah, although we had seen plenty of lions and leopards, even African wild dogs, not to mention every other bird and mammal imaginable!

Then one evening as we were heading back to camp for the night, I saw a glimpse of a cheetah in a small opening between thick bushes. Those 15 minutes with this gorgeous male cheetah and his beautiful mate who joined him later were the most incredible and moving minutes of the entire trip for me. It actually brought tears to my eyes and continues to do so every time I look back at my photos or the painting I did from a photo of the male cheetah. Although that was the last we saw of cheetahs on our trip, that was the spark I needed to know in my heart that cheetahs had to be a part of my life. It made the trip the greatest experience of my life and I will never forget the people who were there to experience it all with me.

–Deanna, 2010 participant

My trip with Colin was honestly a life-changing experience, which is something I never expected from a two-week trip. I knew, before I went, that it would be a good experience, and that I’d probably have a good time, but I had no clue to what extent it would affect me.

It was difficult for me to get the money together for the trip; it was a constant struggle almost until the day I left to have the funds to go, and to pay for what I needed to on the trip. But I never doubted that I would be able to go; it was something that I knew, deep in my bones, would happen. And the struggle was more than worth it. I learned so much from that trip, about Africa, about the world, and about myself. The trip re-kindled my love of traveling, and instilled in me a desire to see all of the wild places of the earth. It reminded me why I go to [SUNY] ESF in the first place; because I love this planet and I want to protect the beautiful things that it gives us. Sometimes it can be easy to forget that, when you’re bogged down with homework and tests and work. The trip invigorated me in a way that I’d never expected, and it’s helped me keep my passion alive.
Because of this trip, I’ve realized just how much I love field work, and actually getting out there and experiencing the world. It strengthened my conviction that nature is where I belong, and it’s given me the drive to do my best to see the rest of the world, no matter what it takes.

–Frederick, 2010 participant

Want to see more? View photos from our previous trips by visiting our photo page.

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