During the last seven years South Africa has been experiencing escalating incidents of rhino poaching. The increasing regularity of these incidents pose a serious threat to the survival of the...
“Many people told us that we would only find cattle and the odd duiker,” says Leah Andresen, one of two conservation ecologists that have initiated a research project on cheetah and lion in the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique. “The idea was to collect baseline information on these species’ status. We weren’t sure how much wildlife we would find since large sections of the park are settled by humans and their livestock, but there were certain indications that wildlife populations were starting to recover,” she says. She tackled the project with fellow conservation ecologist Kristoffer Everatt. They are a pair of PhD researchers at the Centre for African Conservation Ecology at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, and they have been conducting scientific research on large predators for the past eight years.
Contrary to expectations they documented an incredible diversity of wildlife species in the park, with the use of camera-traps. The 49 mammalian species above 3.0 kg snapped include bat-eared fox, aardwolf, African wild dog, serval, giraffe, zebra, roan, eland and sable.
The initiative is part of the Limpopo Transfrontier Predator Project; a research initiative aimed at providing the information necessary to improve the conservation management of transboundary populations of cheetahs, lions and African wild dogs in the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (GLTFCA) spanning across Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
“We were drawn to the GLTFCA because of its importance for the regional and global viability of large terrestrial predators including lion, cheetah and African wild dog and because there was a huge gap in knowledge on predator status and ecology for the Mozambican components.” While Kruger and Gonarezhou national parks host critically important protected populations; the Mozambican components offer large tracts of potential habitat. If occupied, the Mozambican components could increase the regional viability of predator species by increasing connectivity and providing for range and population expansion. Although much of the area is impacted by humans and livestock, years of political stability and the development of the transboundary conservation area provided the opportunity for recovery.
Using several different research techniques including call-ups, camera-traps and spoor surveys, the researchers determined that there are approximately 66 lions and 35 cheetahs in the Limpopo National Park. This is particularity encouraging as where there are predators there is prey and contrasts with the perception that there is little to no game within the Park. While the populations are small and are held below their ecological carrying capacity by human persecution, the fact that these predators were found was extremely positive, and demonstrated the importance of the region for wildlife conservation and the value of transboundary conservation areas.
The Limpopo Park is large and with resettlement and effective conservation management could make a considerable contribution to large predator and other wildlife species conservation. Due to its strategic location, it could very well be serving as a gateway to facilitate recolonization to other nearby protected areas including Banhine National Park, says Andresen.
On the other hand, results highlighted the need for a better understanding of transboundary population dynamics and corridor feasibility. “This led us to greatly expand our efforts, and take a landscape level approach to better understand large predator conservation biology.”
Looking local, thinking global
Large predators including lion, cheetah and African wild dog are species that can most benefit from transboundary conservation agreements because they require vast areas to maintain suitable population sizes. They are also important species to consider in conservation area management because they are of global conservation concern, are invaluable to ecosystem function and have high tourism value. “We therefore believe that lion, cheetah and African wild dog should be seen as key flagship species for the GLTFCA however, it’s impossible to make informed management decisions without reliable information.”
Large predator population dynamics generally function at scales that span protected areas and political boundaries. This means that conservation efforts need to be integrated and cooperative. The project goal is thus to provide the necessary information to improve the transboundary conservation management of key predator species.
“To achieve this aim we are conducting a landscape-level assessment to improve knowledge on large predator transboundary population dynamics, species distribution, connectivity, habitat availability and threats in the GLTFCA,” says Andresen. Some specific objectives include evaluating the feasibility of conservation corridors, quantifying source-sink dynamics, quantifying the extent of bushmeat poaching and evaluating locations for re-introductions and/or natural recolonization potential in the Mozambican components.
The general concept of the project is similar to what has been undertaken elsewhere to improve landscape level planning for grizzly bears (Yellowstone to Yukon initiative), jaguars and tigers. While protected areas such as Kruger and Gonarezhou form critical population strongholds, the viability of these populations is largely dependent on interactions with neighbouring areas in Mozambique. This is problematic because there is presently very little known about predator conservation biology in south-western Mozambique, or how these landscapes that are impacted by bushmeat poaching and pastoralism influence the regional population viability.
Although areas impacted by rural subsistence use in Mozambique may act as sinks (where death rates that exceeds their growth rates); these areas may nonetheless be important to predator conservation by maintaining genetic connectivity, contributing additional numbers, and maintaining ecological and evolutionary processes.
It is crucial, however, to distinguish sink habitats from landscapes acting as ecological traps; where predators are mistakenly drawn into poor quality habitat and suffer unsustainable mortalities. For example, wild dogs from Kruger may be drawn to areas of low lion densities in Mozambique, but then suffer high mortality in bushmeat snares. Early detection of ecological traps is important because they can result in population decline or extirpation of source populations, and population densities alone are not a reliable indicator. Solutions to such an ecological trap could include increasing lion density (thus decreasing attractiveness to wild dogs) and reducing snaring. The research has already worked hand in hand with field rangers to help identify and address areas where field work has identified high risk snare poaching areas.
In the past it took following individual animals over their lifetime to be able to accurately identify source sink dynamics and ecological traps, but recent genetic breakthroughs enable these processes to be measured far more quickly and accurately. In addition, the genetic data required for these analyses can be obtained non-invasively through the collection of scats collected across the landscape.
For the project purposes, they are using a whole suite of sampling techniques including spoor surveys, camera-traps, sniffer dogs and GPS tracking of lions. According to Andresen, they both really enjoy merging traditional skills with new techniques and technologies, and getting out on the land and being physical.
“I love that we can combine spoor surveys with advanced statistical frameworks and cutting edge genetics to arrive at relevant and reliable information about elusive species. Tools like GIS and conservation genetics are incredibly powerful, but I feel that it’s also really important to not lose touch with the landscape and where the data comes from. I’ve always loved tracking, and no matter where you go in the world it’s the same skill: to be able to notice subtleties in nature and read stories in the sand. Non-invasive sampling techniques have become so advanced that we no longer have to capture and handle animals to obtain reliable information on population size, connectivity or source-sink dynamics. At the same time, GPS collars can provide invaluable information on predator space use and prey selection.”
Andresen and Everatt are collecting genetic samples (scats) from lion, cheetah, wild dog, leopard and spotted hyena from within each of the five national parks in the GLTFCA. They’ve employed the use of a professional sniffer dog and handler team from Conservation Canines to help them locate scats. The dog’s training is similar to bomb detection dog training, and he has worked on various international conservation projects including with tigers, wolves and bears.
From the scats they will extract DNA and are teaming up top geneticists from the Global Felid Conservation Genetics Program at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Unique genetic markers will enable them to identify individuals, which they can then use to accurately assess population size and relatedness between subpopulations. Recent advances in molecular techniques will allow them to track recent gene movements and quantify source-sink dynamics and evaluate factors influencing dispersal between sub-populations in the GLTFCA.
They are walking spoor surveys across the entire GLTFCA in order to quantify predator distribution, prey availability and threats.
No mission for the feint hearted
The couple came to South Africa from Canada in 2011 to undertake Masters of Science (Wildlife Management) research at the University of Pretoria. Prior to this project Andresen and Everatt had worked on research projects investigating the population ecology of grizzly bear, wolf, lynx and jaguar.
Their most recent project has proven to be a massive undertaking with incredible logistical challenges. “We walk about 20 km per day, searching for signs of predators and their prey,” says Andresen. In the Mozambican areas there are few roads and very limited infrastructure and places to get basic supplies like fuel or drinking water. “We’ve been living completely mobile for over a year now, operating from our caravan trailer and 4×4 project vehicles. We move camp every three to five days in order to survey across the vast areas.”
The couple also has a 13 year old daughter, Eden, who lives with them and does home-schooling. Eden has grown up on predator research projects and is completely at home in the African bush. “Having her along definitely helps to keep it fun,” says Andresen. “We couldn’t afford to hire help and instead have relied on the assistance of international volunteers to help us conduct surveys. We chose highly motivated graduates interested in pursuing advanced degrees in predator conservation science and wanting relevant field experience.” Predator conservation science is a difficult field to get into and the experience is a unique training opportunity.
Their efforts are bearing fruit. “We’ve walked over 3000 km of spoor surveys and 650 km of detection dog surveys in the past year in Mozambique, searching for sign of the elusive predators and their prey. Needless to say we’ve each gone through several pairs of hiking boots!”
Due to their efforts, 11 prides of lion were identified, and it has been determined that there are six packs of African wild dogs and approximately 60 cheetahs in the surveyed areas of the Mozambican GLTFCA. “We also found that leopard and spotted hyena occur widely within the national parks and conservancies.”
The most exciting finds have been two prides of lions, a pack of wild dogs and cheetahs in the largely forgotten Banhine National Park. The grasslands of Banhine were once renowned for their teeming herds of wildebeest, zebra and eland, which were sadly depleted during civil war. “That we found lion, cheetah, wild dog, leopard and spotted hyena in addition to elephant, buffalo, and healthy herds of impala and large flocks of ostrich is really promising because it shows that Banhine could be restored, given the correct conservation investment and action,” she says.
Genetic information will allow the researchers to determine whether these predators are a result of recent immigration or are pre-war relics. This information will feed into population viability analysis and will be used to provide informed recommendations on the conservation management and land-use requirements to ensure the growth and persistence of predator populations in the Mozambican GLTFCA.
“While most of the areas outside of the parks are highly degraded and impacted by livestock, we have found some areas that still host herds of impala, buffalo and even eland,” says Andresen. These areas may be able to serve as conservation corridors between the parks given informed management. Research results will inform land-use strategies to maintain or promote predator connectivity between protected areas in the GLTFCA.
However, it has not all been good news. Bushmeat poaching is serious problem in the Mozambican GLTFCA including within the national parks. “Over the past year we have documented 525 poaching events, removed 135 wire snares and discovered 196 butchered carcasses.”
“We have uncovered large scale commercial bushmeat poaching operations, both inside and outside of the national parks. These commercial poachers typically use guns, gin traps and large snare lines and are moving the meat out by donkey or bicycle to markets along the major roads. We provide our information to the appropriate authorities to assist them to manage these impacts.”
Bushmeat poaching effects predator populations in different ways, including the direct persecution of individuals caught in snares and indirectly through depletion of prey populations. “We have found that the depletion of prey by unregulated and indiscriminate hunting has resulted in several areas being devoid of wildlife even though the habitat appears intact.” This effect is known as the ‘empty forest syndrome’, which is particularly disturbing because many land use decisions are based on remote sensing data, which cannot recognize empty habitat.
This is one of the many reasons why this initiative is so important. “We need to identify available habitat for predators and corridors now, before these areas are degraded and lost.”
While the research has recorded that there is considerably more protection and hence wildlife within the National Park boundaries it has also identified and assessed potential corridors linking Limpopo and Banhine national parks. Along with the recent re-alignment of Banhine National Park borders, Limpopo National Park has already initiated the demarcation and protection of these corridors to develop national park interconnectivity within the GLTP TFCA area.
“We have initiated GPS tracking of lion prides that are exposed to cattle in the Mozambican GLTFCA,” says Andresen. It shows a collared lioness crossing back and forth through the Mozambique-South Africa border fence, demonstrating the importance of improving our understanding of trans-boundary population dynamics.
Over the next year all the identified prides in the Limpopo National Park, as well as the prides in Banhine National Park will hopefully be collared. The information gained will inform conflict mitigation strategies.
Their next step is to survey Zinave National Park and adjacent community lands that may serve as conservation corridors to Gonarezhou and Banhine national parks. In August their detection dog handler team is joining them again and they will be working to collect samples from Kruger and Gonarezhou national parks.
“We’d like to see this project develop into a long-term monitoring program that would enable effective adaptive management at the landscape level.”
The initiative is supported by the National Administration of Conservation Areas in Mozambique, the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, SANParks and the Rangewide Program for Cheetah and Wild dog. Funding is provided by the National Geographic Society Big Cats Initiative, Panthera, Columbus Zoo and the Wilderness Foundation.
For more information, visit www.wildedens.org or follow the LTPP research initiative Facebook page.