February 01, 2010

 

 Researchers work to preserve Botswani predators

 

Loss of lions, leopards, and wild dogs jeopardizes ecosystem

 

posted January 18, 2010

 

Poaching, big game hunting, and farmers are devastating Botswana's male lion population.

 

Human-wildlife conflicts almost always end with animals on the losing side. Nowhere are these confrontations more realized, perhaps, than in Africa, where the continent's diverse menagerie is threatened by poaching, hunting, and habitat loss.

But in the easternmost corner of Botswana, a small team of researchers is working toward a different ending, one in which both animals and local populations prosper.

Nestled between Zimbabwe and South Africa lies the Northern Tuli Game Reserve, a 72,000-acre patchwork of privately owned game reserves where elephants, baboons, and cormorants populate a picturesque landscape of sandstone ridges, forests, and grasslands.

Like many African nations, Botswana is benefiting from an influx of eco-tourists willing to pay top dollar to spend a week in the bush snapping photos of exotic animals. And yet the lion, one of the country's plum wildlife attractions, is in crisis.

Although lion hunting is illegal in Botswana, the big cat is a target of game hunters across the border in South Africa, where farmers are just as likely to kill a lion that's threatening livestock.

"It's a constant problem throughout Africa, this human-wildlife conflict, and it is a serious threat to wildlife conservation," explained Fred van der Neut, part-owner of approximately 3,200 acres in the Northern Tuli Game Reserve.

Lions that roam from Botswana into Zimbabwe are at risk from trophy seekers and snares set by locals hunting for bush meat.

"We are doing all we can with the resources we have to mitigate the loss of predators, including working with the farmers and conducting antipoaching patrols," van der Neut said. "On the hunting front, I believe big game hunters can play a vital and pivotal role in supporting wildlife conservation by adopting age-based and ethical hunting practices."

The Tuli preserve is large enough to support at least 60 lions, but those numbers have dwindled to a meager 13 with just one male, according to van der Neut. "The concern is, if that male is shot, you could potentially wipe out an entire population of lions," he said.

Moved by the lions' plight, van der Neut got involved with the Northern Tuli Predator Project, which is in its second year. Along with the Mashatu Game Reserve and other landowners, he's made his land available to researchers who are tracking Botswani lions, leopards, and wild dogs to find solutions that will preserve the endangered animals.

An ecosystem is a highly sensitive environment where subtle changes have major consequences, according to project researcher Andrei Snyman. The absence of adult male lions in the Tuli reserve, for example, results in the lionesses having to hunt twice as often and expend twice as much energy to raise their cubs.

That's because the spotted hyenas of the Tuli reserve make life more difficult for lionesses than adult male lions. Typically, it takes four spotted hyenas to drive away one female lion from a kill, Snyman said. The ratio is 12:1 with an adult male lion.

"You have this cascading effect where a large carnivore's been removed, and it disrupts the whole system underneath it."

—ANDREI SNYMAN, RESEARCHER, NORTHERN TULI PREDATOR PROJECT

Snyman, who is working on a doctorate in zoology at Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria, South Africa, said lions are in jeopardy as soon as they leave the protection of Botswana. By monitoring the big cats' movements with the aid of GPS collars, project researchers have identified hostile areas across the border, allowing opportunities to reduce those dangers.
 

"There are a lot of wildlife husbandry practices people can implement with their livestock—a guard dog, for instance, or someone to watch the herds overnight," Snyman said. "The next phase of this project is to go to these locals to see whether they're implementing these sorts of husbandry practices."

It's next to impossible to control a lion's movement, so the project team is considering creating a safe zone by securing funds that will be used to buy up farms and relocate the tenants, according to Snyman.

Lions aren't the only focus of the Tuli project. Leopards are tracked as are the movements of wild dogs, which had been wiped out in Tuli as vermin until a pack was recently reintroduced. The group has grown and split into two packs, according to van der Neut, and their roaming is kept in check by a "bio fence" made of urine and feces from wild dogs in South Africa.

Veterinary students have an opportunity to assist Snyman this summer as part of the 2010 Africa Summer Research Program. The seven-day program will be held in Northern Tuli Game Reserve, where students will be going into the bush tracking lions, leopards, and wild dogs. They will also learn about the technology used to monitor animal movement.

"It's one thing to learn about these things in the classroom, but it's another to see it firsthand," Snyman said. "This program is not an eco-tourism type adventure; it's actual African wildlife research. They're going to do what I do."

To learn more about the 2010 Africa Summer Research Program, contact Fred van der Neut at (713) 494-0043 or fredv@mysafarilink.com.