Nature Interests

Personal website: Vernon Swanepoel


What interests me in nature

Often when you hear people say "I'm interested in ....", they mean it as their research interest or something they're world experts in. I'm no scientist, and no expert in much at all, so when I say "I'm interested in x", it means just that - I find it interesting. It probably means that you could have a good conversation with me about it. That is how this page is intended.

Desert Ecology

When you think of the type of person who might become a tour guide in Africa, something I've done for decades, you think of someone who's passion is African megafauna - i.e. Lions, Elephants, Rhinos, and such. And, though those things do interest me (and you'll see some mention of them below), my big interest has been ecology, and specifically the ecology of dry lands for a long time.

Namibia is a dry country. A great deal of my time working here as a guide has been out in the Namib Desert.

The process of natural selection drives species to overcome problems they face in their environment. In deserts, aside from the normal problems animals face, there is the problem of dealing with aridity - i.e. how do you not die when the place is dry. This means that desert organisms have had to find adaptations both to greater water acquisition, and to reducing water loss. As an old desert, the Namib has had a long time for evolution to play this game, resulting in fascinating adaptations that are easy to discover when you're out and about in the desert. The work at Gobabeb and the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia means there's a lot of research shedding light on just how this adaptation has taken place for many species.

When I was in collage, I came across a book called The Living Deserts of Southern Africa by Barry Lovegrove. I had the chance to work with some scientists who helped him produce the book during one of my internships at collage, and it was this book that made me interested in coming to Namibia in the first place.

Geology and stuff

I'm not just a bugs and beasts kind of guy, and the fascinating challenge of trying to wrap your head around the changes that simple processes have had over deep time is deeply interesting. Working in a desert country has the advantage that much of this geology is exposed.

Beyond geology itself, I've also worked in an area where dunes are a big part of the landscape. I've been really interested in how dunes work. In recent months I've had the wonderful opportunity to see the dunes from a helicopter several times, which is one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

Aside from the dunes themselves, it's also really interesting to see how animals survive in dune sand.

The Sky

At AndBeyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge where I worked for many years (and still do, at the time of writing), astronomy was a major guest experience we have to offer. Generally we've had outside astronomers to come in and conduct the astronomy for the guests, but many times I've had to fill gaps when we didn't have an astronomer. This has lead to a fairly keen interest in the night sky and the universe beyond it.

I had to learn to use a telescope and tell a story of the night sky to visiting guests.

For many astronomers the outer universe is what fascinates them, but I think my own interest is especially in the planets within our solar system. I find them more accessible since we can get a nice view of them with a telescope, and, of course, they've been visited by spacecraft. I followed things like the Cassini mission around Saturn and the New Horizons mission (which is still making it's way out into the Kuiper Belt).

A small thing that I find some personal interest in is the dune worlds found in our solar system, such as on Mars and Titan.

Birds

Birds are just about the most accessible part of nature for many people. Birds are found in the middle of cities. I've long had an interest in birds and birding, partly just because there is such a community around birding.

Desert birding is challenging, and so just getting to the point where I can comfortably identify tough birds has been a lot of fun. I'm not a good birder by any means, but a happy enthusiast. I've helped for many years with bi-annual bird counts at Walvis Bay and elsewhere in Namibia when I've been able to have the time. I've also managed to go on birding tours lead by real experts, which has been really fun.

When I move to the UK in the near future this is something that excites me a lot - to get into a new bunch of birds and get to be a beginner again.

Rhinos

So, some proof that do have an interest in megafauna. 😁

I have deep concerns about the world we live in and the relentless onslaught of humanity on nature. In general I take a rather pragmatic view to conservation, and think the protection of systems is where we'll get the biggest bang for our buck, and if we let megafauna die, it means little in terms of actual 'save the planet' type of conservation.

But there is also an idealistic side to my thoughts on these things and, well, it would just be sad to live in a world where we let significant species slip away under our watch.

There are many animals facing threats, but I think rhinos have to some extent become an icon of the fight to save big species in Africa.

Rhinos were heavily threatened in the 80s and perhaps right into the early 90s before conservation efforts started to change things. For a period of time there was a recovery faze before a new price jack started in about 2011. This started a new wave of poaching and one that has become virtually a war in some places.

In my time in Ultimate Safaris, a tour company I worked with, we got to work with people on the ground involved in Black Rhino conservation, and so out of that an interest grew on the subject, and an interest in these weird animals as well.

Leopards

Even in the tour guide space I'd be considered a lightweight in terms of my leopard knowledge - I haven't worked in the high leopard density spots like the Sabi Sands in South Africa. But I've gotten to know a bit about these animals in the desert.

There are small, but perhaps stable (we really don't know) populations in the Namib desert of these animals. That doesn't sound so amazing until you think that these same animals are found in Savanna, forests, and, incredibly, right in the Congo forests. There's just no other animal, bar humans, that can live in such a wide distribution range. So, they're just amazing animals.

Ecological Systems

A big interest is how ecological systems work, and I'd like to see myself eventually working in some way studying ecological systems with Python programming, combining my two big interests. That's probably years down the line, but has long been a direction I like to move in.

And so much more …

I'm a big nature enthusiast, and I've been at this for a long time, and so there are way more areas of nature that interest me than I've put on this page.