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Makuleke Large Mammal Reintroduction Project

Gayle Pedersen

  • The far north-eastern corner of South Africa, a remote triangle of lush land situated between the Limpopo and Luvuvhu rivers, was added onto the Kruger National Park in 1969, but was never developed as a tourist destination by the Kruger authorities. While its biological and historical diversity and importance were of course recognised by all, the area has never been viewed as a priority for game population; in fact a black rhino that wandered into the area in the mid-1980s was removed to a more secure location.

    As a result, any wildlife in the area recolonised it naturally, coming down from Zimbabwe and over the Luvuvhu River, and included all naturally occurring mammals - with two notable exceptions: the black and white rhino. White rhino had been hunted out of the entire lowveld by the late nineteenth century, while the last record of black rhino in the area was in the south of the Kruger in the 1930s.

    Meanwhile, from the human point of view, the 1969 addition of the land to Kruger had been accomplished by the forced removal of the Makuleke people from its ancestral land. In 1998, the Makuleke were awarded their land back, and a landmark agreement between the Makuleke and the South Africa National Parks was reached, where the Kruger would continue to manage the area and to receive gate fees at the Pafuri Gate, but the Makuleke would have the rights to enter into partnership with the private sector to develop an ecotourism product for the area from which they could benefit in terms of skill provision, job creation, lease payments and equity shares. Since then two private lodges have been opened in the area - The Outpost, and Wilderness Safaris? Pafuri Camp.

    In recent years the amount of poaching in the concession had been enormous, thus reducing numbers of key medium-sized ungulates such as impala, nyala and bushbuck, as well as impacting on populations of species such as Burchell's zebra. Blue wildebeest and giraffe for an unknown reason are not found on the concession, although they are assumed to have occurred historically.

    With few to no members of such species in the area, the ecology has been compromised; for example the vegetation composition and structure, as well as fewer prey numbers for predators. As large herbivores, white rhino modify the landscape which they inhabit, in turn helping other species such as warthog and blue wildebeest. Giraffe have a similar influence on the growth of key tree species and may even play a role in the pollination of trees such as Acacia nigrescens.

    The lack of species and numbers of animals has an additional affect on the marketability of the area for the lodges. Unfortunately, spectacular scenery, exceptional biological diversity and a modern high-end lodge cannot compete with the more accessible central district of Kruger and its neighbouring private reserves, where big game occurs at a high density and is easily viewed after many years of habituation. Tourists to the Kruger look forward to the species known as the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) as well as giraffe and numbers of plains game. Of these, rhino and giraffe amongst others have been missing from the equation at Makuleke.

    The Large Mammal Project can therefore assist in a number of ways. Firstly, the intrinsic overall biological value of the Makuleke area needs to be carefully and responsibly managed. Secondly, it needs to deliver results with regard to the local community?s expectations around employment, skills transfer and income generation - in a sustainable fashion.

    Following on from this, the partnership between the parastatal Kruger National Park, the Makuleke Community and private enterprise Wilderness Safaris will be seen as a model for community-based conservation and ecotourism in South Africa (and further afield), and everything possible to make this succeed ? for the benefit of conservation in the country ? needs to be implemented.

  • Objectives
    The overall aim of the project is to establish a breeding nucleus of white rhino and other species in the Makuleke region of the Kruger National Park. The achievement of this will result in improved marketability of the ecotourism projects in the area and also in the improvement of the ecological integrity and diversity of the area.

    In the second phase, the objective is to understand the local ecology of the white rhino in an area from which it has been absent for more than 120 years, and in so doing to provide this information to the broader conservation community. Phase three would ideally see the establishment of further species in the area.

    Methodology
    The initial stage of the project (in 2005) involved the capture and relocation of six white rhino, five giraffe, eight blue wildebeest, 21 Burchell's zebra and 54 impala from the central district of the Kruger National Park and their relocation to the Makuleke Concession. All species except the rhino were released immediately. The six white rhino were held in a specially constructed boma for eight weeks, following which the fence was removed and the animals allowed to move out into the concession.

    Phase Two of the project sees the engagement of a MSc. student from a South African university who has been tasked with the daily monitoring and study of the white rhino population for a year-long period. This study will result in a MSc. degree and a number of peer-reviewed papers, popular articles and reports.

    Ultimately it is desirable that species such as tsessebe are re-established in the concession, but a proper ecological survey of the area will need to be conducted before reintroduction of this species is contemplated. Species such as roan and black rhino also require serious consideration before reintroduction is attempted and such reintroductions - as well as that of tsessebe - would need to be conducted in partnership with KNP and conform to their objectives for each species within the National Park.

    So far, the reintroduction of the animals has gone some way to achieving the objectives below:

    i) Bolstering the ecotourism potential of the area and thus the viability and sustainability of job creation and ultimately this seminal contractual park.

    ii) Establishing a breeding nucleus of white rhino, giraffe and blue wildebeest in the far north of Kruger that will further accelerate recolonisation of neighbouring areas, both to the south in the Park and to the north in the Sengwe corridor between KNP and Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe.

    iii) Restoring the ecological integrity of the area through the introduction of significant species that has been absent, for more than 120 years in the case of the white rhino and an unknown period in the case of the blue wildebeest and giraffe.

     

  • February 2007
    Gayle Pedersen, Researcher

    Ranging area:
    The last rains fell on January 20th and the steady increase of the temperatures after that meant the temporary waterholes were drying up by the start of February. The grasses also appeared to be struggling with the lack of rain and high temperatures and the rhinos movements during the first two weeks of this month seemed to reflect these changes. C3 and B6 went wandering again across Pafuri Main and looked as if they visited Ndakaezane Spring and the spring near Manqeba, judging by the amount of time they spent in that block and where they exited. However, both of these springs are fairly low on water at present and they were back at Mashisiti within a few days.

    C2, C1 and c7 also ranged much further than in the previous months, possibly also due to recent grazing constraints in the area they have occupied primarily since the rains started. They crossed Pafuri Main just west of Caracal Link after spending some time west of Palm Spring, but they appeared to cross back again within minutes. The last sighting of this group was east of Luvuvhu West at the junction of Lanner Drive, after following their tracks from the pan at Caracal through some highly unlikely rhino terrain of narrow rocky steep paths. Bull 5 appears to have met up with the group from the other direction after leaving C3 and B6. 

    Bull 5 still appears to be focussed on the C3/B6 pair but has returned to marking along Pafuri Main whenever he crosses it and still checks in on the other group occasionally. He has covered a vast area this month, particularly considering we are only two weeks in, so it will be interesting to see what he does as the rains hopefully increase.

    Use of wallows, mineral licks, rubbing posts and shelter
    The lack of rain during January left most wallows and temporary waterholes dry as February commenced. C3, B6 and B5 utilised the southern run off from Mashisiti Spring for wallowing but there was no evidence of the other group of rhino using Palm Spring so we assume they are visiting the Luvuvhu. Unfortunately their tracks never led us to their water supply when we were following them, only to resting and feeding sites, so we were not able to confirm this.

    January 2007
    Wallowing
    The temporary wallows started drying up and C3 and B6 moved back into the Sentinel Hill/Mashisiti block with a lot of time being spent at Mangala. Not quite the vast ranging area that they were covering back in May/June 2006, but a larger range than the last month or two. The other group remained in the area south of Caracal Link and Lanner Drive, but still covered a fair amount of distance just travelling east and west on the south side of Lanner Drive and possibly as far south as visiting the river to drink.

    Wallowing was more evident this month as we located them not long after doing so on a few occasions, judging by wet mud on trees and wet rubbing posts. Shelter is abundant now due to canopy cover, and deep, sandy drainage lines are still the preferred resting spots in the Mashisiti/Sentinel block.

    Feeding
    7 transects were carried out towards the end of the month as obvious rhino feeding sites were located on a few occasions and the inflorescences made it possible to identify the primary species. However, there was very little variation between sites and the grasses being eaten were as we would have predicted from what is already known of white rhino feeding preferences. The primary species eaten were Digitaria erienthra, Schmidtia pappophoroides, Urochloa mosambicensis and Panicum maximum. Most feeding sites were predominantly 2 grass species and both were grazed almost completely, very little being left uneaten.

    Ranges
    This was quite a significant month regarding Bull 5 and his movements. The month started with the group splitting and Bull 5 spending his time moving between the two groups. However, it appeared after a few sightings of each group that he was spending most of his time with C3 and B6. His new lack of interest in the other two cows possibly suggests they have fulfilled their role in his life for the moment, so we may be fortunate enough to have two new calves running around the concession in 14 or 15 months