A Day in the Life in the South African Bush

By Lisa Thomas
Field Technician

Elephant 1

Have you ever wondered what it’s really like to work in the field in Africa?

The work can be a bit romanticized, especially when you share photographs of African sunrises and sunsets or recount stories of joining the staff of Game Reserves as they relocate a lion, perform dental surgery on an elephant, safely remove a leopard from a local village or operate on the foot of a Black rhino who stood on a sharp stick.

I admit, it’s pretty amazing to see the stars touch the horizon because of the complete lack of light pollution… or watch the rains turn the bush green overnight… but things aren’t always so glamorous behind the scenes.

Lisa Thomas

As a field technician in Panthera’s Leopard Program in South Africa, I set up and maintain camera trap surveys on selected game reserves across the country. This work allows me to explore a wide variety of different habitats, meet incredible conservation colleagues and see some pretty spectacular animals. I’ve been lucky enough to see an aardwolf wake up before his evening of termite hunting, a Cape fox move across the white desert sand under a full moon in the blue hazy morning light, and a leopard lounging in a tree in the middle of a coastal forest.

But I’ve also had my run-ins with less, er, captivating animals. I’ve had several roommates of the non-human persuasion, including a scorpion in my bathroom sink, a snake under the washing line and ground squirrels who sift through the remains of my dinner.

I’ve encountered some larger animals as well. Not in my room, fortunately—though at times still too close for comfort. I have checked camera traps quite close to a white rhino bull (who paid me very little notice) and was surprised by a young male lion emerging from the bush only 50 meters from where I stood. He watched me inquisitively as I backed slowly towards my car. If you should ever have a similar experience, I’d recommend not sharing with your mother—it doesn’t go over well.

Life in the field differs from life in cities or towns in many ways. Many of the research camps we stay in lack consistent electricity, so we make do without refrigerators. My meals usually consist of crackers, boiled eggs and coffee, but I’m making an effort to cook more. Coffee, however, is still the most important part of any meal.

With the advent of cell phone and internet technology, I can stay in touch with friends, family and colleagues around the world… although this usually requires finding—and staying in—the one spot where you can actually get a signal.

As far as personal upkeep goes, a cute hair style or long, well-kept nails won’t last! Your hair is usually tied up in a ponytail or stuffed under the brim of a hat, and you’ll need short nails to change a tire on a 4x4 or hammer steel poles into the ground to set up your camera traps. But no beauty regimen quite compares to knowing you can be totally independent in the middle of the African bush!


The long and the short of it is that while the work we do may not be easy, comfortable or pretty, we wouldn’t change it for the world.

Even after scooping a giant Baboon spider out of your shower, it’s hard not to go to bed feeling content knowing that you are helping to conserve the leopard, one of the world’s most amazing animals.

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” – Oscar Wilde