South Africa Diaries: Day 9

We left camp at about 6:30 this morning and headed to the onsite scientific services centre, where Chenay gave us a talk about GIS and remote sensing in Kruger National Park. The system uses spatial data, which is data that has a location and can be pinpointed on a map. Since Kruger is 2 million hectares, about the size of Wales, this takes a lot of work.

The researchers here use Cybertracker, which is free software that automatically records the coordinates along with any data entered. Chenay explained to us how scientific services act as a bridge between conservation practitioners (park rangers and managers) and academia (universities). Abiotic factors can be mapped into things such as elevation maps, vegetation maps, geology maps and soil maps. Fire scar mapping has taken place in Kruger since 1941, the second oldest in the world, and allows things like burn quotas and fire return periods to be worked out. The control of surface water distribution is also important in Kruger National Park.

Too much water will cause populations of some animals to drop but also causes some populations, such as the elephant, to soar. They have now closed almost half of the watering holes in Kruger to try and solve this problem. Elephant populations are currently at about 20,000 in Kruger, which is way too many. The huge increase in population was mainly due to the ban on culling in 1993. Even though a lot of their watering holes were closed, elephant numbers still continue to rise. Their studies have also shown that there are large areas of land, with a lower quality of vegetation, where only males roam in bachelor groups. The Scientific Services also carry out Enhanced Vegetation Indexes (EVI) to look at vegetation greenness and biomass. This shows how much food is available in the reserve, and therefore how many animals it can hold.

After that, we were then able to ask Chenay about rhino poaching in Kruger. There are currently about 8,000 white rhino and 2,000 black rhino in Kruger which, for an area the size of Wales, really isn’t very many. We were shocked to hear that, on average, three rhinos are found dead every night! At the current rate, rhinos will be extinct in Kruger National Park in just five years. Racial profiling is also still a pretty big problem in the poaching business, with 99.9% of poachers being black African. There are plans to triple sniffer dog numbers at the gates of the park to detect weapons and horn. They do currently have some already in place, and they also have dogs to track the spoor of poachers. Bloodhounds are used to sniff out older spoor, and Belgian Malinois are used to sniff out newer spoor. The army have also joined the anti-poaching effort, but apparently haven’t been much help so far.

Last year 3,100 poachers entered the park, killing 800 rhino. This year, the same numbers of poachers have already entered the reserve but luckily haven’t killed as many rhino. White rhino are more abundant and are easier to find, so they therefore make up the bulk of rhino deaths. On average, there are 3-5 poachers in each group that comes in, and there is even a group that will only take the front horn of the rhino (Simms, 2015). After the talk, we left Skukuza camp and headed on the long journey back to Thaba Tholo, stopping off on the way to get snacks and souvenirs. We got back to Thaba Tholo at about 4pm, and then got into groups to organise the project that we will be carrying out over the next few days.

I would have much rather stay in Kruger for a few extra days enjoying the wildlife than coming back to Thaba Tholo to spend out last few days doing an assignment, but I guess this is a university fieldtrip so we probably should actually do some work at some point! My group decided to investigate the question “Does animal diversity, taken from spoor and scat samples, vary between game trails and roads?”

We planned to record the spoor and scat on 50m on three different roads with their parallel game trails, near a water source. Our hypothesis is that there will be a difference in the use of game trails and roads by animals. We think that animals will favour game trails over roads because there is less human disturbance so animal diversity on them will be higher. If the results turn out to be parametric, we will use a non-paired T test, and if they turn out to be non-parametric, we will use a Mann’s Whitney U test. Our backup plan, in case the spoor is ruined by overnight rain, is to carry out a similar study but using data from camera traps on roads of different disturbance levels instead.

As we were sat in the main camp area, we spotted a young red-lipped snake coming towards us on the floor. Red-lipped snakes are rear-fanged venomous snakes, but their venom poses little risk to humans. It was safely caught using a snake hook and released away from camp.

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Species Of The Day: Hippopotamus

The hippopotamus, Hippopotamus amphibious, is a large herbivorous species that inhabits patchy regions throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa. They can spend up to sixteen hours of their day wallowing in water to keep cool from the sun, and are specially adapted to this lifestyle by having eyes and nostrils located high on their heads so that they can see and breathe whilst still almost totally submerged.

They can however also back outside of water, and secrete a red oily substance from their skin to act as sunblock. They graze at night, when they come out of the water and can travel up to six miles and consume 35kg of grass. Hippos, along with crocodiles, lions and elephants, are responsible for most animal attacks on humans in Kruger National Park. This shows the conflict that is created from unrestricted movement of wildlife between protected areas across public land. When threatened on land, they often run towards water, which is how most human deaths occur.

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