A familiar challenge to all field-based wildlife researchers is that linked to securing study sites as well as logistical support in the form of accommodation, food, communications, access to fuel and mechanical and logistical services. Wilderness Safaris has sought to open its approximately 500 000 hectares of concession areas to researchers in order to address the first of these challenges and has often found solutions to the second set as well. Accommodation and transport within the areas has often remained a challenge however.
The aims of this project therefore are to accommodate and facilitate wildlife researchers within private concession areas in northern Botswana and thus to increase research capacity in hosting and funding researchers and research that addresses questions of national and international importance in the field of ecology and endangered species protection.
Researcher: Kai Collins
Organization: Wilderness Safaris
Over the years, the Wilderness Wildlife Trust and Wilderness Safaris Botswana have been offering researchers facilities such as accommodation, vehicles, back-of house food, communications and access to fuel and mechanical and logistical services. The project has funded both accommodation and transport so far.
The first step of the project had the Trust securing funding from The Leading Travel Companies’ Conservation Foundation in order to develop three research camps located in key areas of northern Botswana.
Three research tents were constructed in 2009, consisting of a simple canvas, shade-cloth and gum pole tent on a cement base, with a built-in bathroom, two beds and a desk, as well as a similar facility for visiting academics such as supervisors or co-workers. The units are powered by a solar panel, inverter and battery system (for laptop and a fan) and water is heated by a solar water heater geyser that requires no power at all, thus minimising the environmental footprint.
The first vehicles used by researchers – all second-hand Land Rovers – had run their course in the very rugged and demanding terrain of the Okavango and Linyanti systems and were in need of replacement. In 2013, Nissan South Africa via the Wilderness Wildlife Trust donated four Nissan Hardbody double-cab 4x4s – three of which went to the research units and one which went to the Children in the Wilderness and its attendant community outreach programmes. These vehicles have already been used by a host of research projects and are standing up nicely to the demanding terrain.
Two research projects utilised the Trust Research Tents during the past year.
1. Seronga Lion Conflict Study
Centre for Wildlife Management (University of Pretoria); Pride in our Prides Project
This project documents pride compositions using direct observations and tourist photographs from which to determine individual IDs. This allows the researchers to follow life histories in subsequent years. Guides and guests of lodges in the area have been asked to supply lion photographs, in this way aiming to enhance the knowledge about lions in the area by a detailed population assessment, using a replicable approach that includes citizen science information.
2. Spoor surveys of Large Carnivores on Mombo Concession
Part of the Looking 4 Lions Conservation Project
Robynne Kotze spent a month at the Mombo Research Tent collecting data for her MSc through the University of Witwatersrand. She is using spoor surveys as an indirect method to determine the abundance of large carnivores in the area. Mombo Concession served as an ideal site to test the relationship between spoor frequency, required sampling intensity and actual density of lions in the Okavango Delta.
Spoor surveys were conducted along established roads in the concession. Only fresh spoor, that is, spoor from the past 24 hours, was recorded for all large carnivores, namely lion, leopard, spotted hyaena, cheetah and wild dog. Transects driven each day were separated by at least 5km from the previous day’s transect, to prevent double counting individuals. Other information recorded for each spoor encounter included GPS position, time and date of recording, as well as information (where possible) on group size and sex of individual spoor. This information will be used to calculate spoor frequency, which is the number of kilometres between spoor encounters, which can be related directly to actual density of lions in the area. This data will be analysed in conjunction with other extended data sets of spoor surveys in the western Okavango Delta.
Spotted hyaena had the highest spoor frequency, followed by lion, leopard and then wild dog and cheetah. This gives a preliminary indication of the relative densities of large carnivores on the Mombo Concession.
In 2013, Nissan South Africa via the Wilderness Wildlife Trust donated four Nissan Hardbody double-cab 4x4s – three of which went to the research units and one which went to the Children in the Wilderness and its attendant community outreach programmes.
Linyanti Research Vehicle – Used for a recent project assessing carbon stocks in vegetation types across the Linyanti as well as elephant impacts by Tony Knowles. It will also be used soon for ongoing herbivore surveys and transects as part of an Okavango-wide project looking at reasons for apparent herbivore declines.
Mombo Research Vehicle – Still in Maun, floodwaters have been too high to get it onto Chief’s Island but should be low enough in the next month, although it looks like we will be able to use a crane truck to take it across the deep water crossings in the next couple of weeks. Also will be used for ongoing herbivore surveys and transects as part of an Okavango-wide project looking at reasons for apparent herbivore declines.
Vumbura Research Vehicle – (Based out of Maun until a specific project comes up) Has done a few trips into the Kalahari with Environmental Department assessing the lions in the enclosure (part of a DWNP project where problem lions were captured and then released into CKGR). The vehicle has also done several trips into the Delta to Banoka, Khwai Discoverer Camp and Moremi Tented Camp working on the Wildlife Monitoring Programme where key predators, raptor nests and other important sightings are entered into an online database and shared with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. It will be used shortly for ongoing herbivore surveys and transects as part of an Okavango-wide project looking at reasons for apparent herbivore declines. The transect drive routes will be finalised in the next week.
Up until now, the Trust and Wilderness Safaris Botswana has been able to offer researchers facilities such as accommodation, vehicles, back-of house food, communications and access to fuel and mechanical and logistical services. However, many of the researchers, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are not able to obtain digital cameras or specific equipment enabling them to carry out their fieldwork.
The Trust has thus provided some equipment in the form of digital cameras and telemetry tracking equipment that will be issued to individual researchers as and when needed. This will enable us to increase our capacity to host researchers from leading academic institutions in the subregion and internationally and in so doing to add to the conservation of Botswana’s unique wildlife.
In 2009, the research units in Mombo, Kings Pool and Vumbura Plains camps were set up and the last of the three research vehicles obtained and kitted out for rugged fieldwork and driving in extremely harsh conditions.
A number of research projects are currently benefiting from the research units and facilities associated with them. One of the major benefits is the logistical support provided by the Wilderness Safaris camps including food, access to vehicle workshop and mechanics, and logistical support, allowing researchers to operate in such remote areas.
Currently the new research tents and research vehicles are being very well utilised. During the course of 2009 these facilities have hosted researchers focusing on sable antelope ecology, wild dog range and energetics, amphibian diversity, bateleur eagle density, arachnid diversity, bat diversity and disease, and the interaction between elephants and vegetation dynamics including the possible role of climate change.
Sable research begins at Vumbura Plains
Date: 15 August 2009
Observer: Glynis Humphrey, Brian Rode, Onkabetse Mothupi & Michael Hensman
The sable antelope, Hippotragus niger, has shown some dramatic declines in parts of its range in southern Africa. Despite fairly intensive study in the Kruger National Park and other areas, the reasons for these declines are imperfectly understood.
It is for this reason that an investigation into the home range and habitat use of the species has been initiated in the Vumbura area in the Okavango Delta. Here a relative stronghold of sable exists, allowing an investigation into what factors allow the species to thrive here. Michael Hensman, an MSc student from the University of Witwatersrand and HOORC (being jointly supervised by Prof Norman Owen-Smith and Dr Casper Bonyongo), has just begun his research project using the relatively new technology of Geographical Positioning Systems (GPS) collars to produce fine scale movement data from three different herds.
We have so far managed to fit two collars onto two sable cows and are indebted to the assistance of veterinarian Dr Dane Hawk and gyrocopter pilot Mark Muller without whom the exercise would not have been possible. Dr Casper Bonyongo also lent valuable field experience during the operation.
The first cow darted was part of a herd of 22 animals that use the area in the north-west of the Vumbura Concession around the airstrip. This herd is well known and is comfortable with vehicles, allowing a close enough approach for darting from a vehicle. After some initial challenges this cow was successfully darted, immobilised and collared by Dr. Hawk. All relevant measurements and samples were taken from the cow before she was ‘reversed’ and allowed to rejoin the rest of the herd. Further observations on that day, the following morning and subsequently, suggest she has recovered completely and has continued to hold her position as the dominant female within the herd.
The second cow darted was located from the air by Mark Muller who guided us into an area to the north-east of Vumbura Plains Camp. We eventually located the 15-strong herd in an area of open grassland within mopane woodland. We were again able to successfully dart a selected cow from the vehicle and following all checks and processing of the animal, Dr Hawk successfully revived her, allowing her to rejoin the herd without incident. She was again located the following day and found to be behaving normally.
The third herd intended for inclusion in the study had in the meantime moved into a temporarily inundated area we were unable to access. We will attempt a second operation later in September and are excited to see the results from this study and what role these might play in the conservation of this iconic species.