For more than 13 years, I practised law at a firm in Wilmington, Delaware, in the United States. I made a partner. My career was going well. I enjoyed what I did and the people I worked with. There were lots of intellectual challenges that my brain happily worked through.
But…and there’s always a “but.” I began noticing—because my friends kept telling me—that I would get really excited talking about volunteering at the zoo and helping people get over their fear of snakes. People told me that I “lit up” when talking about snakes or other wildlife. And, since 2008, I had been travelling to various places in Africa for safaris every chance I got.
It took a while—years, actually—before I realized that I would be happier getting into conservation full-time, and believed that I could actually do it. So, I did!
My last day at my law firm was March 31, 2016—the date, exactly one year before I passed my assessment drive in Karongwe and became a field guide. Although I miss my legal work, and some days I’d prefer not to be hot, sweaty and covered in dust…I made the right decision!
I chronicle my adventures in a monthly newsletter called Working With My Hippo. Anyone can sign up by emailing me at [email protected], and past newsletters are on my website: www.workingwithmyhippo.wordpress.com.
Why EcoTraining’s Field Guide Course?
I love safaris. For me, they are a time of reflection, and a chance to observe and interact with wildlife in a way I never thought I’d be able to. The word “wonder” sums it up; per Google, “wonder” is “a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.”
So, the minute I learned that foreigners could become field guides, I knew I wanted to be one. I saw it as a unique opportunity to learn, to understand, and to be immersed in all things wildlife. Choosing EcoTraining specifically happened in 2014, when I visited Londolozi. One of the best guides I’ve ever had said he trained with EcoTraining and they were number one.
Fast forward through a lot of great volunteering experiences last year—which included 3 months learning how to safely catch and care for venomous snakes at Bio-Ken Snake Farm in Kenya—and I finally took EcoTraining’s 55-day Level 1 course in February and March of this year. Thanks to EcoTraining, I can confirm that immersing oneself in the bush and learning as much as you can…only makes the wildlife more wondrous.
My Level 1 course was held at Selati and Karongwe reserves, in the greater Kruger area. I came prepared with my snake sticks (you can imagine the questions at the airport), and we had some great snake encounters! The tally includes an egg-eater, a reticulated centipede eater, a black-headed centipede eater, a boomslang, 2 juvenile southern African pythons, a marbled tree snake, and a Mozambique spitting cobra (the “mfezi”). The egg eater was the first snake I caught on the course, and one of my favourites.
Egg-eaters…eat eggs. (It’s so neat how they do it—I wrote about it in my October 2016 newsletter.) They are harmless and don’t even have teeth. For defence, egg-eaters primarily rely on their mimicry of two snakes: the black mamba and the night adder. The inside of an eggbeater’s mouth is black, like the mamba; their typical defence is to rub their scales together—which makes a rasping noise because their scales are textured (called “keeled”)—and strike repeatedly to show off their black mouths. In addition, they have a pattern and colouration that mimics a more venomous snake, called the night adder. The night adder has cytotoxic, tissue-destroying venom that—although not usually lethal—causes swelling and pain. There’s no anti-venom, you just have to power through and treat the symptoms.
All of this is highly relevant when you’re awakened in your tent at 10 pm at night by a shout of “snake!,” you stumble out with your snake sticks, and see a snake that could be the harmless egg-eater or the venomous night adder!
Because none of us was confident that we remembered the differences between the egg eater or night adder, I caught the snake with my snake tongs as if it were a venomous adder. We put it in a bucket to get a better look—and confirmed that it was a harmless egg-eater. You need to look at the snake’s patterns and body shape, carefully—if you have any doubt, treat the snake as venomous.
It was a great experience for folks to get up close and personal with the harmless snake. After a short time—so as not to stress the snake too much—we released it where we found it!