Back to Basics: Adapting to Life in the Bush

By Gabrielle Gagnon
Winston Cobb Memorial Fellow


In 2018, I was a recipient of Panthera’s Winston Cobb Fellowship, earning the life-changing experience of conducting field work in Africa with Panthera lion experts Xia Stevens and Dr. Kim Young-Overton. For almost three months, I spent my days in the field and my nights in a tent, deep in the wilderness of Zambia’s Kafue National Park. My colleagues and I shared our backyard with an incredible array of wildlife, from hyenas, hippos, and elephants, to leopards and lions.

Some life experiences remind you of your biogenetic identity of Homo sapien. Living in the wilderness with the constant fear of being eaten alive by a wild animal is one of them.

The first night I arrived in Africa, I was standing about 20 feet away from the Kafue river when a crocodile appeared among the dark, ominous waters. My hosts then proceeded to brief me on safety, which included warnings to stay a safe distance away from the river bank at all times, never to leave food around, and to always check the trees for leopards before using the bathroom.

I didn't sleep well my first few weeks.

I'm a New Yorker who can gracefully walk, talk, and hail a cab at the same time, but the wilderness restores you back to a mentality of the past, as your DNA recalls its evolutionary legacy of being a prey species. The familiar nighttime sounds of taxi cabs and police sirens had been replaced by hyena whoops and nearby lion roars, or the high-pitched sound calls of vervet monkeys and impalas, and barking baboons — all acoustic signals of predators close by. A guttural leopard roar would pierce the night, and I'd lay in my tent, utterly terrified.


Daylight didn't bring much relief, either. A lion wondering onto camp wasn’t my only worry. There was also the constant reminder that elephants (understood by locals as the most formidable and dangerous creature in Zambia) can unexpectedly wander onto the campsite at any time.

Despite knowing I was in safe hands with Panthera, I was drowning in anxiety every day, constantly on edge with paranoia on what may be lurking in the bush.
Then one night around a campfire, sick from lack of sleep, I met a local Zambian bushman who finally reminded me of what I needed to hear:

Fear sends the wrong message to the wild. Choose to remain cautious instead — always be aware of the sounds and sights around you. However, you must always walk with confidence, for, “...the wild is always watching you."

The man also knew that my favorite animals had unfortunately become my greatest fear in the wild — the cats. Luckily in our study area, lions and leopards don’t have a taste for humans. Also, given that cats are visual and not scent-driven predators, being tucked away inside a sealed tent at night provides sufficient protection. They may smell you, but they can’t see you. Without the ability to physically visualize what and how big we are, in this part of Africa they do not attempt to breach the tents.


I was finally able to throw myself into my work without trepidation and I felt I really began to thrive. My favorite activity was aiding with camera trapping. A camera trap is a motion-activated camera able to capture photos of wildlife when researchers are not present. In addition to aiding in the production of population estimates, these photos can be used to see if animals are injured by a snare or suffering from disease.

I was also incredibly lucky to meet and work with patrol teams of wildlife rangers, whom I considered heroes. These are the brave men and women that patrol for miles on foot in the wilderness, protecting the world’s beloved wildlife by apprehending suspects and confiscating illegal animal parts.

Gabrielle Gagnon

I was able to be involved with Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) Training, an initiative led by Xia Stevens that enables researchers to evaluate a patrol team’s efforts and manage future patrolling activities. Using SMART, information gathered and conclusions reached are more standardized than the traditional ‘pencil and paper’ method, resulting in a more complete and accurate picture of any geographical location that is of interest to researchers, and law enforcement.

My final task was to examine photos of individual lions and lion pride sightings. By comparing a photo to an existing collection of known lion prides, I could accurately identify who the lion was (through examination of its whisker patterns, nose coloration, and body scarring) and to what pride they belonged. Identifying these lions allows us to track individuals and discover their home ranges and movement trends.


I learned so much over the course of my fellowship, I found my peace in the unpredictable wilderness. Like the creatures I share this planet with, I too, am an animal connected to the earth and all living things. It’s easy to forget this when you live in a major city.

The bushman had taught me one more lesson: To enjoy the experience of living in the bush — time spent away from the hustle and bustle of city life and beneath the beautiful African sky, alongside some of the most beautiful creatures on earth.

I knew I had finally adapted to my surroundings when one night, I lay awake in my tent, listening to a lion calling his pride. I thought how beautiful a sound it was, and how lucky I was to experience it. I closed my eyes and slept peacefully.

Learn more about lions and leopards.