The 2016/2017 Summer field season had a delayed start. After having several cameras destroyed by poachers/elephants/hyeanas in the 2016 winter season, we decided to have protective boxes made in order to prevent these losses. These boxes managed to deter elephants and hyeanas from destroying the cameras, but poachers were still able to destroy some of the cameras. We then modified the cameras so that there was no way of destroying the camera and stealing the memory cards. Let the camera trap survey begin! The camera survey ran for 60 days, with the intention to determine population demographics of leopards on Debshan Ranch. We immediately began capturing photos of leopards, the first one caught a mere hour and a half after deploying the cameras (see above), on Christmas day no less. Over the 60 days, we managed to capture several leopards, with some rather impressive specimens identified, as well as several other interesting species found on the ranch. The 2016/2017 summer season also consisted of tracking leopards that had been fitted with GPS collars, in order to determine habitat use and diet. We had previously collared one female and one male leopard. The female leopard remained rather elusive, her habitat including many rocky outcrops. The male leopard, however, seemed to enjoy the fame and cameras, regularly walking past our camera traps (see above). Towards middle of January, the relentless drought that had been affecting Zimbabwe finally ended. This was good news in the beginning, however, the rain simply did not stop. In less than a month we received more rain than the ranch had received the previous year. This large amount of rain affected field work as the majority of the roads on the Ranch became impassable. These roads remained impassable for the rest of the field season. All in all, this 2016/2017 Summer field season was a successful one, completing the camera trap survey and managing to collect valuable movement and diet data from the GPS collared leopards.
Out of the 12 reserves with elephants and that I hope to work in, Iíve done vegetation sampling on Asante Sana Private Game Reserve. Asante Sana is very different site in terms of vegetation to what I expect to find in the other reserves to be sampled in the next couple of months. From observations during field work, it looks like elephants are having an impact on the vegetation in Asante Sana with many of the lager trees having been pushed over and there being no signs of aloes.
Battle of the carnivores
After only two weeks of being in the arid bushveld of Selati Private Game Reserve, Limpopo Province, six different carnivore species (African wild cat, leopard, lion, spotted hyena, black-backed jackal and civet) have already been captured on my remote cameras. 31 Cuddeback Attack cameras were set up across the reserve on the 8th and 9th June and will run for a total of 60 nights. This will be repeated every winter and summer for the next two years to develop occupancy models of both prey and carnivore species. A number of carnivore scats, including leopard, civet, caracal, lion and jackal have also been collected throughout the reserve. Camera and diet data, along with data collected from collared large carnivores (collaring to be done towards the end of the year), will be used to establish a better understanding of the complex interactions of multi-carnivore communities in small, enclosed reserves.
Should I stay or should I go? Molerat dispersal in the Kalahari
It has been over two and a half years (and what feels like thousands of holes dug) since I have started trapping and monitoring Damaraland mole-rats in the Kalahari region of the Northern Cape in collaboration with the Kalahari Mole-rat Project near Van Zylsrus. We capture each colony in 6 month intervals to monitor for changes in reproductive status, individual growth, and colony composition (recruitment and dispersal). Currently we have over 150 colonies we are monitoring in three separate populations. One year ago we started monitoring the mole-rats at Tswalu Kalahari nature reserve and noticed immediately the colonies were in much higher density with a minimum distance being less than 10 meters apart. Is the higher density attributable to higher rainfall at Tswalu? Does grazing from sheep and cattle decrease mole-rat density? Or is it caused by soil conditions or vegetation differences? While disentangling the exact cause of the differences is challenging at best, observing how density affects sex ratios, individual size, recruitment, dispersal and other social dynamics is relatively straight forward. We have already noticed there are significantly more single females and fewer adult recruits (i.e. - dispersers) on farmland than at Tswalu. Additionally after catching a number of moles we discovered the Tswalu individuals were much smaller than those on the farms. At Tswalu the few single females we did locate all had a male with them upon recapture. Over the next few weeks I will start to analyze the dataset we have collected on these populations. I hope the results will shed some light on their subterranean life style.
Nationwide lion project takes off
Close to 20 private reserves nationwide have so far taken part in the initial lion surveys, coming to total number of 36 free-roaming lion prides. Working with SANPArks, this is to be supplemented by data from various national parks. With the number of participating reserves, data contributors are currently being assigned when available in the various reserves, to assist with observational data collection at lion sightings. The assistance of participants such as guides and resident researchers has greatly increased the reach of data collection in these areas. A pilot-survey was run in a participating reserve to test data collection methods for data contributors, resulting in some valuable modifications. Tourist feedback surveys have also been developed for administration at known ďBig 5Ē tourist hotspot areas, such as relevant airports.
Mountain Zebra's clean-up crew
Brown hyena sightings are rare and those who have seen one at the Mountain Zebra National Park (MZNP) can count themselves as being extremely lucky. Charlene Bissett, who is one of my project supervisors, and I are still waiting to add ourselves to the list of Ďluckyí people. After only two and a half months of camera trapping, five individual brown hyenas have already been identified. The original male, who was released in 2008 is still alive and wearing his collar from five years ago. He has been caught on camera multiple times across the northern section of the park and has been captured travelling in a westerly direction carrying carcasses. Other brown hyenas have also been caught carrying carcasses in the same direction, suggesting that there might be a den with cubs somewhere in the north-western region of the park. The fact that a lactating female, who has also been caught multiple times across the northern section of the park, supports this theory. The camera trapping will not only help determine how many individual brown hyenas are present within the park but will also help establish the home range for each individual. Scat analyses are being conducted at the same time as the camera trapping to determine the diet of brown hyenas within the park.
What's up with the spots at Debshan?
Itís been just over a year that I have been at Debshan ranch in Zimbabwe but so much has happened it feels like years and years. My MSc started in May 2013 with leopard spoor surveys, which showed that there was a clear concentration of leopards in the centre of the ranch. After my spoor surveys I moved onto questionnaire surveys of the communities surrounding the ranch. These areas, having previously been large commercial ranches, are now resettled into villages and small holder properties which have increased human and livestock densities around the ranch. Going out into the communities was exciting in different ways - from the talkative farmer wishing I could solve all of his problems, to the evasive, non-committal ones, the suspicious ones, to the ones who would offer us a meal. This year started with a bang, when we caught and GPS collared two leopards (male and female). I canít wait to check their movements on the website every morning and itís always fascinating when they are together, you just wonder whatís up?! Checking on their kills is always a heart stopper; after walking for several kilometres, you always feel re-energized when you find the remains of an impala or a zebra, but ooooh how you almost faint when you find nothing! These collared leopards provided me with the home range estimates needed to set up my camera trapping survey. Thus far, although two different leopards have been photographed, two cameras have been stolen by poachers and another one crushed by an elephant. Amazingly (and very excitingly) one of the leopards caught on camera is none other than our collared male! That leopard moves is all over the ranch! I will be wrapping up my fieldwork in August and heading to Grahamstown for my write-up but I canít wait to get into the field again to start my PhD adventure.
Say cheese...Camera trapping in the Fish-Kowie Corridor
Itís been almost two years since I started using camera traps to measure predator prevalence and mammalian diversity on game farms compared to livestock farms, in the Fish-Kowie corridor, Eastern Cape. In recent years camera traps have emerged as one of the most useful tools to monitor large terrestrial mammals. Reasons for the successful use of camera traps are varied. Most notably, minimal field work is often rewarded with very large and informative datasets. Currently, Iíve managed to collect about 60 000 photos. Large datasets are amazing, but itís not always sunshine and roses. An average day in the office is spent populating spreadsheets from roughly 1500 photos. Eighty percent of these photos will be of kudu, baboon, common duiker and lots and lots of domestic small stock. There are only so many photos of angora goats that are in any way entertaining. Nevertheless, there is nothing quite as rewarding as getting a photograph of a target species (caracal, jackal, leopard and brown hyaena) for the first time. The best part by far is getting photographs of relatively rare species, the dark lords of the camera trapping world. These shy and elusive beasts often manage to evade real life detection from even the staunchest of amateur naturalists (well, in this part of the world at least). Here Iím referring to the likes of leopard, white-tailed mongoose, African wild cat, cape fox and honey badger, to mention a few. Other memorable photographs include cape cobra and angulate tortoise. Both species are fairly common in the area, however, itís always nice to see which non-mammalian species get photographed with the cameras. Camera trapping will continue for the next four months, and I canít wait to see which rare species might be photographed.
Those pesky jackals
I have always been interested in issues of conflict involving wildlife and humans, especially since the human population growth is exponentially increasing. I tend to choose projects that challenge my views and while initially I found it easy to take a side, little did I know that doing this project it would open my eyes to a much bigger, multifaceted problem. My project includes talking to farmers about their perceptions of predators and linking this to what is happening on the ground. With questionnaire in hand, I go out to farmers and discuss their predator issues. I also have the less than fortunate task of looking through controlled animalsí stomach contents to look at what these predators have actually been eating.
Lions and cheetahs face off in the Karoo
Lions, cheetahs and Mountain Zebra NP, were the only words I heard after being presented with an opportunity to study these large carnivores in one of South Africaís national parks. I subsequently found out I would be determining their diet preferences and space use, once the lions were re-introduced at the beginning of the year (2013). After much anticipation, the lions arrived and were released at the end of April. Each lion, like the cheetahs already roaming the Park, is fitted with a satellite GPS collars. The cheetahs have been in the Park since 2008 and are well established. The fixes sent from the collars are to aid my quest of finding out just how these cats would utilize the Park. Preliminary results show the cheetahs are moving across the whole Park, while the lions are concentrating their movements along the main river of the Park. Prior to my monthly excursions out into the field, I analyse a monthís accumulation of fixes in an attempt to determine which sites would most likely be a kill. I use the GPS cluster method (an accumulation of multiple fixes in a single location) to find potential kill sites for the lions and cheetahs. This method is fantastic with for lion kills. I have already found 63 lion kills, for cheetahs not so much! Cheetah kills were initially few and far between and sometimes in the most bizarre locations. I will never forget standing on a rocky mountain slope wondering what on earth would a cheetah be doing here, only to find a kill a little while later. So much for National Geographicís portrayal of a cheetah tearing across the lush grassy plains of East Africa. Clearly these cheetahs never got the memo to hunt on flat ground that allows for easy running! With time, my ability of locating cheetah kills has improved and I have found 73 cheetah kills, with one record of kleptoparasitism but their choice of kill locations is still pretty amazing.
Tuli cheetah tracking
The ranging of cheetahs in and around The Northern Tuli Game Reserve including across borders into South Africa and Zimbabwe is unknown, and part of my MSc seeks to understand the ranging habits and identify the level of conflicts outside the reserve to develop effective conflict resolution and conservation strategy.
In September last year we successfully collared a female cheetah. Unfortunately, in March this year the GPS component of her collar failed but luckily she could still be tracked using telemetry equipment picking up the signal of the VHF transmitter. However after many fruitless days of climbing all the prominent hills and with no sign of her for over 2 months I became worried of her whereabouts. Guests of the reserve offered to help by flying over the entire area in the hope of picking up the radio signal. So off we went with my tracking equipment to fly over 72 000 hectares to find the missing cheetah! We removed the doors of the plane so that I could stick my aerial out. After covering almost the entire Northern Tuli Game Reserve, we finally picked up her signal just west of the Motloutse River.
The following day I tracked her from a vehicle. I met with the manager of the reserve and with the help of a tracker/guide we set off looking for the missing cheetah. This was about 12h30. We headed straight for Eagleís rock ridge, close to where we had picked up the strongest signal while flying over the area. We climbed the rocky ridge to try pick up her signal. I only heard what seemed like a very faint signal so, going with my intuition, we headed in that direction to climb another hill. Luckily it was not just my imagination, as the next hill there was a definite Ďbeepí. Unfortunately it was in the direction of the boundary of the reserve, and also in an area very thick with Mopane bushes. We drove on the boundary road along the fence, checking regularly on every small ridge as we progressed. We confirmed that she was definitely on the correct side and still within the reserve, but in an area very, very thickly vegetated, and with very little road network. We drove along the road to as close as we could to her location and then veered off into the thick bush. It was quite hard going, and we wanted to approach her in the vehicle as she is habituated to our Land Cruisers and not to people on foot. We finally found her resting under a bush at about 4pm! She got up as she saw us so we quickly turned off the engine as not to disturb her. Once she had relaxed in our presence, we slowly made our way around to try have a better view of her. After a short while she got up and went into the bush directly behind her and looked down into it as though sniffing for something. She then slowly walked off to lie a little further away in the shade. This is when we realised that something was moving in that very bush she was in and after a little while we heard soft chirps similar to that of a bird and a grey ball of hair moving around!!! Yes, CHEETAH CUBS!!!!!
We were so excited to witness such young cheetahs in the wild! Although we never got a good visual due to the thick bush we were able to confirm at least one cheetah cub. At one point he peered at us through the grass and we were able to confirm that his eyes were open. Cheetahs are born with eyes closed and only open after about a week to 10 days so we think that it was a couple of weeks old. A couple of weeks later she had moved den to a slightly more open bush and I was able to confirm that she had a total of four cubs. Average litter size is three to four cubs with a maximum of eight, and the cubs are moved every other day to a new den. During this denning period females have very restricted home ranges and hunt within a 10km≤ area. Unfortunately in the weeks to follow only three cubs were seen. Mortality in cheetah cubs is extremely high, with up to 95% mortality recorded; cubs are particularly vulnerable to predation during the early stages of their life. Unfortunately with the arrival of the new cubs I wonít be able to replace her collar, but it is days like these that remind me of the incredible privilege I have to be here.
On the lookout for rhinos
The very first time I went into the field at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP) we walked for over 4 hours without spotting a single black rhino and I wondered if I would ever see live black rhinos at all! Working and walking in a big five game reserve is exciting and scary at the same time. Seeing lions from a car is very different to seeing them on foot. The first few weeks in the field I got chased by a grumpy black rhino femaleÖon foot. I didnít see my life flash before my eyes but I realised how things could change in the blink of an eye. My guard (Bom) was the bravest and funniest man Iíve spent time with. He made sure I was safe at all times, he would help me up a tree before he went to locate the exact spot of a black rhino we might have seen from a distance. I became a pro at climbing treesÖeven though I fell out of one once. The actual field work involved scanning the hills and valleys for black rhino. Once spotted, we would walk to as close to it as possible. I would then take pictures of the rhino so I could identify the individual back at the office using the notches found on its ears. I would also take gps points of its location and notes of behaviour and any other animals around it. This information will be used in the second chapter of my thesis where I will be dealing with home ranges of black rhinos at HiP. My field work ended a few months ago and I am busy analysing the data and writing up my results. I miss being in the field and I miss Bom and his funny anecdotes.
Fun in the Fish-Kowie corridor
This month's featured project is Jon Taylor's MSc, which is investigating the role of apex predators in shaping the dynamics of lower-level predators in the Fish-Kowie corridor near Grahamstown. Jon, a Leeds University graduate, reflects on the highs and lows of camera trapping in Albany thicket.
The alarm goes off at 4am, itís dark outside and freezing cold, a long day of field work lies ahead. After a bumpy drive along farm roads, the sun blinding you as it peeps over the horizon, you arrive as close as possible to your first camera. Now youíre faced with a lengthy walk through dense, spiny thicket in search of the camera. Upon arrival, and after having your clothes and skin shredded by Acacias, you discover that a warthog took particular liking to your camera and used it as a scratching post, removing it from the tree in the process....
On occasion youíre left wondering Ďwhy am I doing this?í
Field work can be tough, but I wouldnít have it any other way. The excitement you feel when opening a camera to download pictures always reminds me of opening a present as a child, eager to see whatís inside. The satisfaction you feel when target species have been photographed, or the surprise of finding a rare species on your cameras makes all the hard work worthwhile. However, nothing beats those Ďspecialí days in the field!
I will always remember one particular day. We were half way through our day, and stopped briefly to check the map. Then it happened. While looking around to orientate ourselves, we spotted an extremely well camouflaged cat only meters from our vehicle. It was a beautiful female leopard, my first wildleopard sighting! Once she realised we had seen her, she casually stood up, wandered round a little then sat down again, staring off into the distance at a small herd of red hartebeest. We stayed with her for around 10 minutes, after which she once again stood up, wandered a little and then disappeared into the thicket. Such encounters are rare, but make you realise Ďthis is why Iím here, and this is why I do thisí.
My data collection will be drawing to a close in the next few months and it seems that apex predators may exhibit top down pressure and suppress black-backed jackal populations. There seems to be no difference in caracal abundance, though this may be due to a sparse data set for caracals. I intend to carry out spatial and temporal analyses to see if apex predators cause a behavioural response in jackals in addition to limiting overall abundance.
Brown hyaena nights @ Kwandwe
February was filled with sleepless nights whilst we eagerly awaited the capture of our brown hyaenas. Luckily we didnít have to wait too long before our first individual was caught and the next two a few days later. There is nothing quite like hearing a signal indicating that something has been caught and then travelling through the dark of the night, unsure of exactly what is waiting for you in the trap! I felt completely privileged to be so close to such amazing and fascinating animals. Since their capture, I have downloaded data from their GPS collars to track their movement and to get a better understanding of their use of space within the reserve. Initial findings show that individuals travel across large areas of the reserve, two individuals appear to be part of the same clan whilst the third individual roams in completely different areas and does not overlap the positions of the first two.
On the build up to my camera survey, I produced an extensive brown hyaena profile database collected from previous research conducted on the reserve; aimed to help me with the identification of individuals caught on camera.
The camera survey is now underway and has been designed based on spatial data collected from collars. The first download produced 13 photos of brown hyaenas, including two of my collared individuals. I am hopeful that my use of a scent lure will continue to draw brown hyaenas close to the cameras and subsequent downloads will be just as successful.
Graduation 2013 saw three WRMRG post-graduate students "cross the stage" and receive their degrees. Congratulations to John O'Brien (PhD), Wendy Collinson (MSc) and Siobhan Dyer (MSc)! Below are some photos from the famous garden party.
Western Boundary Project bears fruit
For the last two years, WRMRG MSc student, Jess Watermeyer has been working with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) in determining the factors affecting the dispersal of wild dogs and cheetahs outside of the Kruger National Park. Click here to access the final report for this project and keep a close eye out for Jess' final thesis
Caught in the act
While surveying the predators of the Blue Canyon Conservancy in Limpopo, WRMRG staffers Charlene Bissett and Armand Kok, along with Milena Wolmarans (Hons student) captured this interesting image of a male leopard attempting to captialise on a free meal.