The Joy of Curious Minds

Natalie Miller

In the short period of time I have been in South Africa there have been so many thought provoking experiences. One experience that I found particularly fascinating is our ongoing camera trap project in collaboration with the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois. They established a program, the Urban Wildlife Institute, studying urban ecology and the wildlife in urban cities. As their project has taken success across the United States, they wanted to expand their data set to other countries to document wildlife gradients. This data will hopefully be used in urban planning of expanding cities so that human and wildlife needs will all be considered. We were asked to bring along 10 game cameras to act as a trial run in South Africa. I was incredibly excited for the opportunity to be a part of such a wonderful experience, but I could never have imagined the personal impact it would have on me.

I am a biomedical science major and currently have no idea what I want to do in the future. One of the potential job opportunities is research, generally in a lab setting. This type of lab job has never particularly been of interest to me, and I have always discarded research as a potential path for me to take. The game cams showed me a new side to research. We sought out locations around Caravilla at Wits Rural Facility and the nearby village looking for the perfect spot for cameras. We had to make sure each location had a balance of infrastructure and potential for wildlife sightings. It was no easy task hiking into various areas of the unforgiving bush, pruning trees and bushes that obstructed the view of the camera, while actively collecting data. This student driven- hands on experience provided a glimpse into a research processes that did not involve being locked in a lab all day. Setting up the cameras inside the fences of Wits Rural was a great learning experience but setting them up in the nearby village taught me so much more.

Although the actual process of setting the camera up remained very similar, the little curious faces changed the entire experience. These game cams provided us with our first interactions with the local villages. We drove to the village with our two loud, open game drive vehicles which immediately grabbed everyone’s attention. Many people were waving and smiling, and the children were coming out of their houses to see us. Their smiles were infectious, and it was impossible not to feel happy while setting up the cameras. The curiosity was overwhelming for a few kids that excitedly ran over to us. They loved trying to learn our names and wanted to figure out what we were doing in their village. We got a similar response when we came back the next day to check the cameras. When we looked at the photos, we had plenty of the chickens, cows, dogs, goats, and humans that we had expected were passing through the area. What I hadn’t expected to see was one of the children who had discovered the camera posing to get her photo taken. Pure joy was seeping out of the photo and straight into my heart. I had no control over the smile on my face, and somehow it has yet to leave.

I believe that happiness is one of the most important things in life. I personally find myself to be a happy person, but it makes me even happier to see other people that are happy. I think this is one of the reasons that our experience in the village and this photograph had such a vast impact on me. It never crossed my mind that a scientific research project about urban ecology could bring me to a place of such joy. This experience proved to me that research can be so much more than collecting and analyzing data. I think the key moving forward is to not disregard research as a potential path for me to take. I have learned about so many new things that I want to learn more about. For example, I think there is some fascinating research to be done to control the raging elephant populations in Kruger National Park such as elephant contraceptives. This journey has only just begun, yet a lifetime of joy and opportunities have already been created.

Natalie Miller