Conservation and Environment in South Africa: Monthly Updates
Southern Africa Conservation Monthly Update September-October 2013
Further erosion control work has been carried out on the heavily eroded areas in the north of the property, which showed very little growth during the last year, indicating poor soil conditions. The hope is that by limiting further erosion and creating banks of fertile soil behind vegetation barriers that the seeds of grasses and other plants will be left in the area after rain. These will then be to germinate in situ rather than being washed out into the rivers.
We have revisited a few of the sites along the river, which have been damaged by foraging baboons to ensure the previous month’s work will hold up come the first rains. We have also been involved in the construction of gabions on a heavily eroded section of river bank along the Limpopo. Gabions are large metal cages which are tied together and filled with stones. These provide support for the eroding bank whilst allowing water to flow through as well. The volunteers worked exceptionally hard and helped to move at least 10m3 of rock across the river and placed them in the gabions.
For the last 2 months our camera traps have been set at a local cattle kraal situated within the fenced wilderness area. This kraal has been experiencing losses through African Lions (Panthera leo) and we placed the cameras around the kraal to try to gain evidence of the lions gaining access to the kraal and taking cattle. On one occasion we captured images of a young male lion carrying a calf away from the kraal.
Just for the record, camera traps on our reserve are a ‘disposable item’! We have a number of animals very interested in them, to the point where they rip or bite them off trees, play with them, stomp on them, crush them and deposit them around the bush! The main culprits are elephant and hyena!
Continued observations at the 4 mammal census sites around the property have shown 13 mammal species in the vicinity of the water points. 5 species were recorded drinking from the water sources at the census sites. The most prolific species was impala (Aepyceros melampus) recorded on 14 separate occasions with a total of 97 animals observed over the 2 months. Vervet monkeys (Cercopithecus pygerythrus), Plains zebra (Equus quagga), African elephants (Loxodonta africana), were each observed 6, 7 and 8 times during censuses with 37, 43 and 104 individuals noted respectively. There were also several sightings of klipspringer (Oreotragus oreotragusi), and Savannah baboons (Papio cynocephalus ursinus) at the water points.
We have several different types of bird research running at any given time. The bird census on the reserve carried out along the Limpopo River and at the mammal census sites continues to give us information about the general abundance of certain species and indicates the progress of various avian migrations. In the last two months we have seen the arrival of several summer visitors back to Wild at Tuli, including common species such as the barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) and European bee-eater (Merops apiaster) as well as more irregular visitors like the Eurasian hobby (Falco subbuteo). We also maintain a monthly record of the species observed on the reserve at any point, this includes driving around the reserve to and from activities and species sited on the activities.
During September and October we recorded 141 species with 1 new addition, the pied crow (Corvus albus), bringing the total species count to 245. We are also continuing our work at the Thune Dam recording the water bird species which occur there. We are monitoring the colonisation of the dam and the progress of any breeding attempts by species now using it. We have recorded 3 new species using the dam-osprey (Pandion haliaetus), whiskered tern (Chlidonias hybridus), and white-fronted plover (Charadrius marginatus), bringing the total number of water bird species recorded to 61.
As we approach summer the migrants are starting to appear and as this is the first summer that the dam has been in existence it is proving to be very interesting seeing which species are utilising the artificial reservoir. Regular migrants that have visited include little stints (Calidris minuta) and Kittlitz’s plovers (Charadrius pecuarius) which are breeding on the shoreline. We have even had sightings of two ospreys hunting at the dam. The data continues to show a general increase in the diversity of species present at the dam as well as an increase in the population of most of those species.
In September and October we focused on collecting data for the Baobabs located on the North Side of the property closer to Motswiri. We have located 13 Baobabs and recorded various measurements and observations regarding their size, health and which mammal and bird species utilise the trees. On these 13 trees we have found evidence of 5 bird species, 2 mammal species and 3 reptile species living in or on the trees.
We have also started a rapid utilisation assessment of all 91 trees on the south side of the property to ascertain, which trees if any have been heavily used in the last year since the last complete census and therefore are in need of repair or protective measures. We have started repair on the worst-affected by wrapping some trees with wire and, in other cases, building up a 5 metre stretch of rocks all around the trunk bases because elephants will not walk on rocks and we hope to limit their access to those affected trees.
Kraal Fence Repair
The volunteers have spent several days attaching proper fencing to an existing cattle kraal on a neighbouring farms cattle post. The kraal was originally poorly constructed and was allowing predators, specifically lions, into the kraal where they were killing the cattle. To prevent the owner of the cattle attempting to kill the lions we have stepped in to reinforce their existing fencing to prevent the lions from getting in. We have used fence bought by the project and also some donated by the construction company building the Thune dam wall, and have put up a total of 90m of fencing with barbed wire along the top. The fencing was also buried to a depth of approximately 15-20cm and securely tied to existing fence posts. So far there has been no news of subsequent lion kills at the cattle post.
All the volunteers who have been with us over the last 2 months have had the opportunity to visit a community-run basket weaving group in the local village of Motlhabeneng. During the visit the volunteers have all been taught how to make various items from lala palm leaves (Phoenix reclinata); including bracelets, rings, head bands, and for the more adventurous, small bowls.
Elephant ID Project
Several elephant identification sessions took place over the last two months. Several hundred photographs of individuals and herds were taken from vehicles and at the hides. The long process of collating this information, selecting usable photographs and compiling an identification key is still in progress. As new individuals to the project are still being sighted it is proving to be a very difficult task to accurately place individuals in the correct herds and multiple sightings of all individuals are required before a herd structure and composition can be confirmed.
Spoor ID and Predator Database
Seven species of predator were recorded as being present at Wild at Tuli during the last two months, these included the lion (Panthera leo), leopard, African civet (Civettictis civetta) and brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea). Sightings of black-backed Jackal (Canis mesomelas) and spotted hyena were relatively common, as were leopards. The Spotted Hyena with a snare around its neck, caught on camera traps in August was observed during October and still appears to be in no discomfort despite the wire around its neck.
Good news is that wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) were seen on the reserve on a number of occasions in October 2013, after an absence of more than 5 months. They were reported as having crossed the border from Botswana into South Africa so we were delighted to get the news that they are back. One sighting reported 7 dogs in the pack.
Other good news is that in the Central Tuli Block region there are confirmed reports of a pride of 4 adult lions (Panthera leo), and 3 cubs. This is a huge step forward for lions in the area as it seems that they are managing to raise their young.
We continue to regularly patrol areas which are high risk targets for poachers; these include the islands in the Limpopo River, which sees South Africans illegally crossing into Botswana to hunt game meat and net fish. We patrol along the public gravel and tarred roads and the veterinary fence along the boundary with local community land which are easily accessible.
Upon visits to the veterinary fence section at the back of the reserve we found an area with a high density of snares. A number of these snares were of double stranded wire to give extra strength for catching large mammals such as eland (Tragelaphus oryx) or Greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros). At this site we also found what appeared to be a drying rack strung amongst the trees, which the poachers would use to dry their catch before taking out of the area. This indicates that the men very comfortable and unthreatened by interference in the area until now. Hopefully continued patrolling and monitoring of this area over the summer will prevent the poachers from returning.
We also regularly find old snares which in some cases have had trees grow around them which further reiterate that even after years in the bush the snares can still be a major threat to the safety of the wildlife. A total of fifteen snares were removed in September and October.
Veterinary Fence Repair
There is a veterinary fence, which splits community grazing land and wilderness areas. This fence is designed to keep wildlife out of the grazing areas and people and livestock out of the wilderness area. This barrier is effective only when properly maintained and it has been found to be in varying states of repair along its length on our property and neighbouring properties. Some sections have completely fallen down either through trees falling on it or elephants pushing it down.
In other places, poachers have cut neat holes in the fence to allow them access to the wilderness area where they illegally set traps to catch the wildlife. One of our activities now is to patrol this fence and, when necessary, repair the sections of the fence which have been cut to prevent the poachers using the holes. Our presence performing maintenance will hopefully act as a deterrent also. To date we have repaired three large man-made holes!
As always, the elephants like to leave small reminders of their presence in the form of half chewed branches and pushed over trees in the roads around the property. This obviously requires constant monitoring to ensure that all parts of the property are easily accessible for us to do the work that is required. Along with the elephants, general growth needs to be pruned back and ruts in the dusty, rocky roads need to be filled in to ensure a safe and relatively comfortable journey for the volunteers when they are traversing the property. We have also reopened an existing loop road which runs out to the east side of the northern part of the property. Opening this road gives us better access to that area of the reserve making research in that area quicker and more effective. We have also repaired a section of the public dirt road which had been badly eroded in last year’s rains. This repair consisted of filling in a large water run-off which cut across the road and was hazardous to driving, especially at night.
Limpopo River Lodge
The volunteers have spent 6 days in total working from a neighboring property, Limpopo River Lodge. They were based here to allow longer working hours and enabled us to remove more of the problem fence. We are unsure as to how much material we removed as the coils of wire remain to be collected but we achieved a lot during our visit. Whilst staying at Limpopo River Lodge the volunteers also assisted in replacing a broken water pipe that was connecting a windmill driven water pump to a waterhole.
The pipe was dug up and broken by elephants and so water from the broken pipe was flowing over the surface of the land and eroding channels into the ground rather than pooling in the waterhole where it is accessible to the animals to drink. The volunteers dug a trench approximately 30m in length and 30-50cm deep to bury the new pipe in. They also repaired the dam wall, which had also been damaged by elephants, by filling the gaps with stone and cementing them in place.
All the volunteers over the last two months have had the opportunity to spend the day at a wilderness reserve situated about 50km from Wild at Tuli where they have a resident population of seven white Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum). The volunteers were able to track the rhino on foot and on all occasions found them with relative ease and were able to approach them to within 20m.
Part of the experience is aimed at raising awareness of the fact that rhinos throughout Southern Africa are in a very precarious position as poaching for their horn is at epidemic proportions. These visits sadly may be the last time any of these volunteers will ever see a rhino in the wild. It should be noted that as at end October 2013 over 800 rhino have been poached in South Africa alone!
As part of our social program we also took some of the volunteers in October to Solomon’s Wall. This is a natural feature consisting of a broken basalt dyke which cut across the Motloutse River. The Dyke broke millennia ago leaving an impressive free-standing wall jutting into the usually dry river bed. At the moment though there is a medium sized pool at the base of the wall, a remnant of the flooding early in the year, in which we, surprisingly, encountered two hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius).
That is all our news for now and I shall bring you more news as we head into 2014!