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.
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
The call-ups on Mapungubwe National Park went well, though with a few unexpected responses. Like on Venetia, there was no response at all at the first site of the night, but the second site saw three inquisitive Spotted Hyaenas coming in to see what was going on. Further along, we heard Spotted Hyaenas whooping enthusiastically from across the Limpopo in Zimbabwe, but the river is flowing at the moment so they were unable to cross into South Africa. That part of Zimbabwe is communal land and it is heartening that these large and often unwelcome carnivores are hanging in there, despite the pressure. The next response was from an outraged Wildebeest bull, who came charging through the scene, snorting angrily. Perhaps we were interrupting his evening, or maybe he was responding to the plaintive wails of a distressed calf in the call-up recording.
On the far western side of the park we had two very quiet sites and one very active one, that we almost had to abandon. Almost as soon as we began playing the call, two very excited Spotted Hyaenas arrived on the scene, cackling wildly in the bushes around us. They were very skittish and would not tolerate the spotlight at all, so we were unable to take photographs of them. Behind us we heard a rather more concerning sound of the approach of some angry elephants who clearly did not appreciate what we were up to. As is often the case with vehicles that do a lot of work in rough conditions, our Land Cruiser needed some jiggling under the bonnet every time we wanted it to start, so there was no option of a quick getaway. We switched everything off and waited, and thankfully the elephants were content to break a few branches in show and continue on their way. We were able to complete the site, but the Hyaenas refused to reward us with any clear visuals.
Our last site of the night was near a pan where a pair of young lions have been seen recently. No-one is sure where these lions have come from, and we were very keen to get some identification photographs so that we could try to track them down, from records of other researchers in neighbouring areas. Disappointingly, the lions were nowhere to be seen or heard, and so their identity remains a mystery (for now!).