The Not-So Glamorous Side of Field Work

By Michael Ross
Data Technician, Arabian Leopard Initiatives

Arabian leopard infographic

Fieldwork in some sense sounds very romantic, and sometimes it is. Picture this: I was asked to fly to Saudi Arabia to help with a camera trapping survey for the critically endangered Arabian leopard. There are perhaps 200 of these leopards left in the wild scattered across Oman, Yemen and potentially Saudi Arabia. Panthera has been tasked with finding any leopards in Saudi Arabia so that these populations can be protected, as well as identifying sites of possible reintroduction. Our team would be setting up and maintaining camera trap grids across the country, in a diverse array of landscapes and habitats. It was an incredible opportunity peppered with some unfortunate calamities.  

There is one particular day that sticks in my mind for all the wrong reasons. The day started like any other of our fieldwork days. My team (consisting of our fearless leader Philip, myself and Abdullah) woke up long before the sun rose, ate breakfast and left our accommodation at 5:30am, ready for a long day in the field. We drove for an hour or so along the tar road and then headed into a series of wadis (essentially dry riverbeds) which we would follow as far as we could before walking the rest of the way to the camera trap station. We were making decent progress through the wadi until we came across an obstacle.    


The obstacle in question was a 100 –meter long boulder-strewn stretch. It was not impassable —the previous day we had watched an old skedonk (i.e., an old, battered car; some South African words are just better) rattle its way across. We were a bit more worried about our GMC Yukon so we parked the car and set about rebuilding the road. I was quite unaware as to how much road construction fieldwork would involve, but let me tell you, it was a lot. On this occasion, the three of us spent over an hour carefully placing rocks to make it as smooth and easy to traverse as possible. By the end, it was essentially a tar road. Unfortunately, there was no hope of us getting across without damaging the car. Crisis! 

Not being able to cross the obstacle necessitated a change of plan. We would have to visit all our sites on foot, meaning a long day of walking in the hot Saudi sun. Instead of doing the sites we had planned the day before, we would do sites closer to our car. This plan was slightly complicated by the fact that there were two Panthera teams in the field. We would work on a couple of our sites, and one of the other team’s sites, and they, having entered the wadi at the other end, could work on some of our sites. Problem solved.  

The next few hours passed by uneventfully. We walked a couple of kilometers to the next wadi and left our backpacks underneath a tree at the wadi mouth. We made our way to the proposed site, scouted around and set up two cameras. We then headed back down to the main wadi, collected our bags and trudged off to our next site. We got our second camera station set up with no hassles and we were making good progress, despite being on foot. It is a pity this isn’t the end of the story. 

The story continues when our team encountered the long wadi which the other team was tasked with setting up. There were multiple stations to be setup along that wadi, so we were confident that they would still be there when we went past. We constructed a blockade in the road and placed a note underneath the blockade informing them that we had abandoned our vehicle and we were proceeding on foot. We told them that we were heading off to do Station 8 and asked if they could please do one of the other stations we were supposed to do. We then continued our march deeper into the main wadi.  

The team
Philip, Abdullah and I merrily setting up a camera trap.

Sometime soon after this, perhaps somehow ominously foreshadowing what was to come, I was plagued by the runs. “The runs” are not something one wishes to encounter at the best of times, let alone when one is in the middle of a long trek. When the urge struck, I grabbed tissues and hand sanitizer and dashed off towards the nearest bush, which unfortunately was generally in short supply and very spiky! I did my best to dig a hole, relieve myself, cover it up and head off again so as not to waste too much time. This scene replayed itself at least six times throughout the afternoon. It was not fun.  

An hour of walking later, we reached a magical sight; our last wadi for the day was absolutely breath-taking, and a stark contrast to the others we’d encountered so far. Life-giving water was flowing through this wadi, and as a result, it was covered in greenery. This was the by far the most productive wadi we had encountered in Saudi Arabia and we were excited about the prospect of setting up a camera trap station. We headed deeper into the wadi, on our way to the mapped-out site. And then we were brought to a grinding halt. 

I was walking happily in front, when the last member of our team spotted something and called me back. Closer inspection revealed it was a camera, a Panthera camera, attached to a tree facing a small pool. We stopped, dumbstruck. We had walked for an hour in the baking sun only to find a camera already set up in our wadi. After contemplating our situation and consoling ourselves with food, we had no choice but to head back to the car.  We eventually made it back over the obstacle, having walked 20 kilometers under the fiery Arabian sun. Once again, it is a pity this isn’t the end of the story. 

As you will recall, our plan to work on Station 8 was thwarted because the other team had sneaked up the wadi before us. The benefit of this devious maneuver was that we arrived back at the car earlier than expected, as we had to set up one less camera station. We were looking forward to getting home earlier, having returned after dark the previous two nights. That said, we were in an unexplored country, so we decided not to return home via our route in, but rather to explore some of the other roads in the area.  

We looked on the map and spotted another way out, which skirted across the face of the enormous granite mountain dominating the landscape, Jabal Ibrahim. Up, up and up we went, though not before being almost run over by a truck coming racing down the hill. As the road headed up the mountain, it became narrower and tighter leaving us a little worried. By this time however, it had started to get dark, and we were in too deep. There was no possible way we could turn our small bus around.  


The only way out was up. It was slow going, with lots of jumping out to clear debris and scan the road ahead. At one point we reached a very sandy, loose uphill which dipped off to one side. I took out the spade and flattened the path ahead to avoid scraping the middle-mannetjie. Finally, after a three-hour long drive, we made it to the tar road. En route home we picked up an inexpensive but delicious dinner and finally dragged ourselves back to our accommodation, after a most memorable day. 

Our ordeal wasn’t quite over though. Upon arrival, we were teased by our teammates for getting through a meager two stations, while they had finished seven and had arrived home long before we had. Our B-team title once again seemed justified (though we are still holding on to the hope that it is about quality over quantity, and we fully expect to get all the cool pictures at our sites).  

Time in the field is without a doubt the best part of what I do. And while there are endless stories I could tell about all the wonderful bits, it is sometimes amusing to hear about minor calamities, crises and chaos which befalls a team out in the field. 

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