Sixth form/ High School
South Africa – School Expeditions
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 browsing pressure on forage availability for other herbivores, to assessing the roles of protected areas as sanctuaries for persecuted free-ranging 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. In the Dinokeng and Balule reserves we are assessing the impact of elephant populations on the vegetation and associated diversity of key taxa. 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 and WEI teams to assess the levels of vegetation damage differing elephant feeding pressures and assess the impact on the carrying capacity of the reserve for other large herbivores. This will allow reserve managers to better understand how to manage their elephant populations to maintain a healthy and diverse ecosystem. In Dinokeng reserve we are also assisting the Panthera conservation organisation with their Leopard Project, which supports the South African Department of Environmental Affairs with data for decision-making regarding leopard conservation. This involves extensive camera trapping in reserves in the Limpopo and Gauteng regions, allowing estimations of regional population densities of this poorly understood species.
In the Gondwana Reserve in the Western Cape we are monitoring the development of the first Big-5 reserve created within the world-renowned Fynbos region. While both Fynbos and Renosterveld are some of the most species-rich and threatened vegetation types in the world, 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 maximize forage for the large, enigmatic game species, whilst at the same time maintaining floristic diversity.
Structure of the expedition
You can select one expeditoin from the following 4 options:
Dinokeng Reserve & Sodwana Bay
One week in Dinokeng Reserve, a high veld Big 5 reserve followed by a week dive training, or diving if already qualified, at Sodwana Bay.
Balule Reserve & Sodwana Bay
One week in Balule Reserve, a low veld Big 5 reserve followed by a week dive training, or diving if already qualified, at Sodwana Bay.
Dinokeng Reserve & Gondwana Reserve
One week in the high veld Dinokeng Reserve and one week in the fynbos reserve of Gondwana.
Gondwana Reserve, Western Cape
Students spend half days in the field working on the effects of a burning regime on wildlife and floristic diversity and will be immersed in the issues affecting wildlife management in this reserve.
Dinokeng and Balule Reserves
- The students will complete two part days of bush skills training and four part days helping with biodiversity research in the reserve. The other part of each day will be in camp completing the African Wildlife Management course. The research activities in both reserves include helping with the following:
- Elephant impact on vegetation: This is assessed using the Walker scale of damage within ha plots selected randomly from within 3 bands of distance from water sources.
- Quantifying the carrying capacity of the reserve for other large mammals: This is done by measuring the quantity of forage available within the reserve in a height of up to 2m and measuring the weight and calorific value of that forage.
- Estimating large mammal populations: Completing distance based large mammal surveys from vehicles to estimate abundance of the target species.
- Leopard, caracal and hyena surveys: Helping to check and analyse data from a network of 80 camera traps.
- Bird and herpetofauna surveys: Completing foot based point counts and transects to determine bird and herpetofauna diversity.
Students spend full days in the field working on the effects of a burning regime on wildlife and floristic diversity and will be immersed in the issues affecting wildlife management in this reserve. In addition the students will be completing an African wildlife management course. The research activities include:
- Bird, invertebrate, flora and small mammal surveys: These are the standard surveys that are completed on a series of plots in areas with different burn histories. A bird point count will be performed at the south-west corner of the study followed by sweep netting to capture and identify flying invertebrates at the site. Data will be collected on the floristic diversity of the plot using line transect sampling in the fynbos/renosterveld habitats. For the grassland areas quadrat sampling will be used. When these surveys are completed small mammal traps will be set and emptied the following morning.
- Grazing activity of large mammals: Fynbos habitat is meant to have no forage value for large mammals, but a number of species have been seen feeding in this habitat. These surveys are designed to calculate the relative proportion of time that game is spending in fynbos compared to other habitats using vehicle based game transects and distance sampling.
- Focal sampling of feeding activity: When game animals are observed grazing in fynbos, specific individuals of interest will be selected and their feeding behaviour recorded.
The students will spend their second week in Sodwana Bay in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa and will complete one of three options:
- PADI Open Water dive training course: This course involves a combination of theory lessons, confined water dives and open water dives to gain an official scuba diving qualification.
- Indian Ocean reef ecology course: This consists of lectures and inwater practicals either by diving (if a qualified diver) or snorkelling. The lectures in Sodwana Bay cover an introduction to coral reef ecosystem (characteristics of a reef, distribution of reefs in east Africa), coral and algal species (growth forms and common species), megafauna (whales, sharks, manta rays), mangrove and seagrass ecology (importance of connective systems, threats to mangroves), economically important invertebrates (lobster fishery, aquarium trade), identification of coral reef fish (main reef fish families), reef survey techniques (quadrats, transects, stereo video), threats to and conservation of reefs (protected marine areas in South Africa and Mozambique).
- PADI Open Water referral course: For this option students need to arrive having already completed their theory and pool training components. This course takes three days to complete, after which, students will join the Indian Ocean coral reef ecology course.
Students will be staying in a large main camp. There is a communal area where lectures and meals are taken, a small tuck shop, pool and a lookout tower. Students here will be staying in single-sex 6-bed dormitories, with shared bathroom facilities.
Students will be staying at a small fenced camped within the reserve. There is a communal area used for lectures and dining. Accommodation is in shared dormitory style bedrooms with shared bathroom facilities.
The camp students stay at is within a fenced compound. Lectures and meals are taken in the same shared communal area. Accommodation is in shared rooms with showers and shared toilet facilities.
Accommodation is in tents situated in a shaded bush camp. Meals are served in a separate dining area which also serves as a lecture hall. There is a shared toilet and shower block.