About 10% of the Okavango Delta burns each year, due either to lightning (usually at the start of the rainy season) or to people (who cause most of the fires in the dry season). But no one really knows how these fires impact wildlife in the area. One of the groups most directly affected by fire is small mammals (such as mice, gerbils, etc.); these animals eat mainly seeds and insects and are, in turn, important prey items for over 100 species of mammalian carnivores, birds and reptiles in the Delta.
Mila Plavsic of Cambridge University is currently studying the impacts of fire on small mammal populations in the Delta, with the support of Okavango Wilderness Safaris. As one of the study sites for this project is located near Chitabe Camp, the research team is hosted by Chitabe, which live-traps small mammals in the area once a month. Each captured animal is marked with a microchip and then released so that populations can be monitored over time, as the area experiences fire and the subsequent period of recovery.
The study has uncovered vital information about the Delta's small mammal fauna, which has never before been studied in depth. It seems that immediately after fires, populations crash and remain at low levels for some months after. This and other findings – such as how species recolonise areas as the vegetation improves – will be included in the official "Okavango Delta Management Plan" that is currently in the planning stages.
The small research team consists primarily of volunteer students a Motswana research assistant, who is receiving useful fieldwork training during this study.