Sunday 26 February 2017

'My next door neighbours are a bunch of animals'



LIVING in a primitive camp in the middle of the Zambian jungle with no running water or electricity may not be everyone's idea of the perfect career choice.

However, Kilworth woman Aileen Sweeney would argue that she has in fact found her own slice of heaven beneath the sweltering African sun.

The 23-year-old UCC zoology graduate has just taken up the job of managing the first baboon research centre of its kind ever built - and she is loving every minute of it.

After deciding to take a year out from college ahead of her post-graduate studies to get more field experience, Aileen landed a job managing the Baboon Research Project at the Kasanka National Park.

The centre is home to the first ever study of Kinda Baboons (Papio Cynocephalus Kindae). It was established in 2010 to prove that the Kinda, listed as a subspecies of the Yellow Baboon, are actually a distinct species.

While Aileen is revelling in her new role, she admitted that getting used to her new neighbours has been an interesting experience.

"The camp is unfenced so we get many visitors of the 2-legged, 4-legged, 6legged, 8-legged and, unfortunately, even the no-legged type. We get antelope and bush duikers and I even found a leopard paw print juts outside camp in my first week," she said.

"On one of my first nights I was woken by an elephant right outside my tent. They move silently so I couldn't hear it moving, but I could hear it breathing. I've never lain so still in my life," she smiled.

Aileen wakes up at 5am each day and spends the day following a 57-strong troop of baboons, accompanied at all times by an armed scout in case they encounter elephants, leopards or even poachers.

"The job is not for everyone as you have to move around in wellies and carrying a backpack, with the daytime temperature usually reaching 30 degrees Celsius. At night we use a torch which attracts every insect in the vicinity. I've already had malaria since I've been here, despite religiously taking medication," she said.

Life in camp is also tough going without all of the usual home comforts.

"Having a cold shower if it's raining and you can't start a fire, having no fridge to store cold water or perishable goods and enduring constant insect bites is tough going at times," said Aileen.

"But I absolutely love it and already feel that finishing in nine months is too soon," she added.

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