The population of lions in the Limpopo-Shashe TFCA is coming under pressure from an unsustainable level of “disappearances” on the fringes. Snaring along the Shashe River is a problem, along with the ever present threat from livestock farmers on the western and southern boundaries. We need to know exactly what is happening to these lions in order to be able to effectively protect them and safeguard their future. We have a radio-collar on one male lion, and we know he is still within the safety of Mapungubwe National Park, but we desperately need to fit GPS collars onto him, and other lions, so that we can prove exactly where they go and what happens if and when they move out. Unless we can take unequivocal proof to the powers that be, we struggle make our voices heard. This is Kipling’s world of “the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees,” where lions used to roam in safety. If we don’t do something now, in a very short time, there will be no lions left.
As part of the work to assess the movement of carnivores across the borders of the Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area, we were able to fit a readio-collar onto a young male Lion in Mapungubwe National Park. We thought at first he had come over from Botswana, but closer inspection of his whisker pattern showed that he is unknown to the Lion researcher there.
We have been trying to find an opportunity to fit a radio-collar to a Lion in this area for some time, but struggling to find a suitable animal. While doing spoor counts in the National Park, we were lucky enough to stumble across a beautiful young male who seemed very relaxed. As luck would have it, a vet from South African National Parks was on his way to us, so we sat tight with the lion. When the vet arrived, he was amazed at how relaxed the lion was, and how easy it was to dart him. Once he was immobilized, we were able to have a good look at him, and found the Lion to be in absolutely fantastic condition, verging on fat, and without a scar on his face.
The unexplained disappearance of young male lions has been a concern in the area for some time and so we are hopeful that the information gained from this collared lion may go some way towards solving the mystery.
The population of Wild Dogs on the South African side of the TFCA swelled enormously recently with a visit from a pack from the Tuli Block in Botswana. The visiting pack, numbering in the 20’s, came across the dry Limpopo River and spent a few days on farmland, some time on Mapungubwe National Park, and a short spell on De Beers Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve. They were within a few kilometres of the remaining members of the Venetia Pack, but as far as we can tell, they did not meet up.
The Tuli pack went back across the border to their normal range, but this visit shows how important the expansion of the protected areas is. Same sex groups of Wild Dogs break away from the packs of their birth when they become sexually mature and disperse in search of other dispersing groups looking to form packs. By having the space to do so, much less management intervention will be needed in order for the population to firstly stabilise and also to grow. While the population on the South African side is currently low, we are very optimistic about the future of Wild Dogs in the region as a whole.
We are experiencing very cold weather at the moment so sitting on the front of the vehicle in the tracking seat is proving to be quite a test of endurance. The spoor counts on Mapungubwe National Park are proving to be very interesting and showing marked differences in predator densities compared with on Venetia, which is just across the road. With the fences due to come down in early 2009, it will be interesting to repeat our surveys over the next few years and see what changes occur.
Towards the end of July we will be repeating the call-ups on Mapungubwe National Park in conjunction with Northern Tuli Predator Project, our neighbours from just over the border in Botswana. It seems that there is some movement of lions between our study areas and we are hoping to track down what is going on. Our lions on the South African side are fairly stable, but they are in decline on the northern side of the Limpopo, in large part as a result of snaring along the Shashe River, which forms the border with Zimbabwe. There is also hunting of lions in Zimbabwe and due to the current political situation there is currently little control over the wildlife and hunting sector, potentially opening doors for abuse of the system. By fitting some radio-collars, we hope to be able to gather the information and proof that we need to address the issues and protect the lion population.
The meeting in Zimbabwe to discuss the predator management plan for the new transfrontier conservation area, covering the corners of Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa where they meet, was highly productive. It seems that March next year is the date that we will see the fences beginning to come down, which is a huge triumph for the conservation of this region. Without the fences animals can move more freely and so the populations need less management, and the freedom of movement of herbivores can reduce the unnaturally high pressure on some habitats that is forced by fences. Looking at the predators in particular, it will be of most notable effect with the Lions and Wild Dogs who will be able to form contiguous populations with the residents on the other side of the borders. The cheetahs, as we have seen, seem to be moving quite freely anyway, and trees along fences form easy paths in and out of reserves for the leopards.
One of the single biggest issues in conservation in Africa is the pressure on land and the contraction of habitats, so by expanding conservation areas, we are taking huge steps in the right direction. This process is something I am extremely proud to play a part in.
The following map shows the area that will be incorporated into the Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area