Operation Wallacea and our partners, Wildlife and Ecological Investments (WEI), coordinate large-scale research programmes to provide an empirical backbone for key conservation projects in South Africa. From evaluating the impact of elephant range expansion back into their historical range, to assessing the roles of protected areas as sanctuaries for persecuted freeranging leopard populations, the South African research programme is designed to assist conservation managers with pressing large-scale issues that they do not necessarily have the resources to address themselves.
Many of our current projects centre around the impact of expanding elephant populations on the vegetation and associated diversity of key taxa. The South Africa research programme covers a series of reserves across the country, each using slightly different management strategies to preserve diversity in their reserves. Big game areas in South Africa are fenced in order to avoid the spread of disease and conflicts between communities and dangerous animals. However, this restricts movement of species such as elephants, which can lead to excessive habitat damage within reserves where elephant feeding pressure is too high. The Walker scale of elephant browsing pressure is being used by the Opwall teams to assess the levels of damage to trees and shrubs in different reserves at differing levels of elephant feeding pressure. Data are being gathered at a range of elephant grazing pressures so that estimates of levels of damage for a reserve with differing levels of elephant populations can be predicted. This will allow reserve managers to better understand how to manage their elephant populations to maintain a healthy and diverse ecosystem.
For many years, Opwall has been working with a project called Space for Elephants Foundation in KwaZulu-Natal to provide research supporting responsible elephant population management. Together we have monitored the behavioural changes of a large herd of elephants in the Pongola Reserve following the vasectomies of the adult bulls. Parts of this reserve were subjected to huge grazing pressure, leading the elephants to take the matter into their own hands by traversing around the fences at the local dam and into a neighbouring reserve – Royal Jozini Big 6 in Swaziland. Behavioural data is currently being collected on the elephants in this new home, giving our researchers the unique opportunity to compare behavioural data from the same herd in two very different reserves. We are also monitoring changes in vegetation and herbivore distribution following this sudden change in grazing pressure in both Pongola and Royal Jozini Big 6.
Other South African projects involve assisting with the monitoring of other endangered “Big 5” species – leopard and black rhino. In the KwaZulu-Natal region, Opwall students have the chance to collect data on the behaviour and ranging patterns of the small population of rhino to assist WWF with their Rhino Range Expansion Project. So far this project has successfully established 10 new black rhino populations across South Africa. Elsewhere, our researchers are assisting the Panthera conservation organisation with their Limpopo Leopard Project (LLP). This involves extensive camera trapping in reserves in the Limpopo and Gauteng regions, allowing estimations of regional population densities of this poorly understood species. Opwall students are assisting with this monitoring in Dinokeng Game Reserve, a relatively new reserve built around combining multiple smallholdings and homesteads into one large Big 5 reserve. Thus, instead of having large areas with animals fenced in, it is those living in the area of the reserve that are fenced out! Alongside the leopard monitoring, we are also assessing elephant impact and herbivore habitat utilisation to assess the successfulness of this unique reserve.
We are also monitoring the development of the first Big 5 reserve created within the world-renowned fynbos region. Gondwana Reserve is situated within the most florally diverse region in the world. While both fynbos and renosterveld are valuable vegetation types, they hold little browsing or grazing value for many of the game species commonly found in tourist reserves. The problem is particularly noticeable for elephants, who even in high-value vegetation require a huge amount of sustenance a day to support their body size. Since elephants are an important component of any tourism-driven reserve, the management have asked us to look at how they can use fire management techniques to maximise the diversity of the vegetation, whilst still providing enough browse for the large, enigmatic game species.