Vandalism on the increase

Our scent stations are taking a serious knock as we carry on with the work in Mapungubwe National Park. Swept areas of sand with scent pads in the middle to lure predators in for a sniff, and so leave evidence of their presence have been highly successful in counting carnivores in some areas, but we are struggling. High densities of gamebirds, elephants and now baboons are ruining our experiments by either trampling the scent stations and so obliterating the tracks before we get there, or by providing entertainment to passing groups of elephants and troops of baboons.

Squares of carpet fashioned into hair-snares are set out, and are now having to be retreieved regularly from the bush surrounding the scent stations, where they have been played with and left.

A little known fact…it seems elephants are particularly partial to catnip!

Doggy bootcamp

We are lucky enough this week to have Louise Wilson, a specialist sniffer dog trainer from Wagtail UK Ltd, out to help with our sniffer dog programme. Having made good progress with Snoopy, I was struggling to get Barclay’s concentration and Louise has stepped in to help.

By assessing both the dogs and my training techniques, she has been able to help enormously already in just a couple of days. Snoopy is working better than before with more enthusiasm for the job and I feel more confident in what I am doing.

Scent-training with Snoopy in an enclosed area:

training.jpg

When Louise takes in dogs for training, she typically assesses them quite quickly, and her expertise allows her to tell quite quickly if a dog will be suitable. A very particular character is required for a sniffer dog. Very often they are dogs that are so hyperactive and obsessive that they do not make good pets, and are often animals that pet owners could no longer cope with. Both Snoopy and Barclay fall into this category, but unfortunately Barclay’s obsession is with the many game birds in the area. He is a hunting dog from hunting lines, and it seems that this may be too strong an instinct in him to allow him to concentrate on the scat sniffing. Dogs mature at different rates, and even at a year old, he is still very immature, so there is a chance he may gain focus with age. We will continue with his assessment for a few more days, and try to build his motivation for the scat sniffing work before making any decisions. If Louise feels that he is not a candidate for the sniffer work, he will simply be found another job to do here on the farm. Our dogs have jobs, but are also much loved members of the family.

The surprise of the week so far has been than Louise has spotted huge potential in one of our other dogs. Minki is an 8 month old Miniature Dachshund who I had never even considered trying due to her tiny size, but she shows all the character traits required for the job. Louise has suggested that I train her up for two reasons. Firstly, it will give me more experience in this specialised form of dog training, and secondly we can use her to double check on Snoopy. Leopard and Cheetah scats can look very similar, so if we train Minki onto leopard scats, we can test every sample Snoopy finds before we send it off for expensive analysis. If he says it is cheetah and she shows no interest, we can be sure that it is. If however, we see a scat that we think is cheetah and he doesnt indicate on it, we can get Minki to check it out. To fully test him, we need to train with samples from cheetahs on mixed diets, and from males and females of ranging dominance, and from females that are in all stages of their reproductive cycle. Obviously this can be hard to get all the samples to cover all bases, so by double checking with Minki, we can make our system more efficient, and pick up a need for more continuation training with Snoopy as early as possible.

Minki, our new superstar team member:

minki1.jpg 

The scat sniffing is a relatively new field, but using a Miniature Dachshund as a sniffer dog I think is a worldwide first!

Minki enjoying a walk:

minki.jpg

Baby Boom

Here it is! The first photo of this year’s litter of Wild Dog puppies. There are only six in the photo but there are in fact seven puppies. It is extremely exciting as not only are they remarkably cute, but they are the future of the Venetia Pack.

pups.jpg

There were other babies seen yesterday as well, this time a group of three cheetah cubs. In a spot very close to where we saw the cheetah and cubs crossing our fenceline a few months ago, we were lucky enough to see another group, also split across the the fence. The mother was calling from the Venetia side to three small cubs on our side of the fence. It is definitely a different group as these cubs were only about three months old at most. This is very encouraging that they are doing so well. It must be another female as even if the first one we saw had lost her cubs, she would not have had time to have cubs of this size, so we are confident that they are two families using the area. This family were happily reunited when we watched the cubs slip through the wire strands of the fence onto Venetia.

Leopards everywhere

Our call-ups on Mapungubwe National Park took place over two very cold nights and, while we were chilled to the bone, they were a great success. We had good responses from Spotted Hyaenas at all sites, and on the second night we were lucky enough to see Brown Hyaena, Porcupine, 3 Bat-Eared foxes and a number of Black-backed Jackals. The big excitement for the evening, however, was seeing first one, then two leopards coming out of the bush and carry out an elaborate courtship ritual in front of us in the moonlight. The male was large and the female was a small one, perhaps breeding for the first time. As if this were not enough, we were treated to another female leopard appearing later on in the night as well, this time a  much larger one than the first.

Overall it seems the Hyaena population may be picking up, possibly from migration from over the river in Botswana where the density is very high indeed. When this area was all farmland on the South African side, Spotted Hyaenas were visciously persectued as stock thieves, but they are making a slow but steady comeback.

Puppies!

We have seen them at last! I am extremely pleased to report that there are seven new members of our Wild Dog pack. They are doing extremely well to raise so many with only three adults and yearling. Wild Dogs can be very resiliant and bounce back quite quickly in suitable areas. If most of these survive and there is another successful litter next year, this pack will have pulled back from the brink of extinction and re-established themselves as a force to be reckoned with here in the Limpopo Valley. Now that they are old enough to have left their first den site, we are hopeful that most, if not all, of these puppies will make it. This pack has had a rough ride of late, but things are definitely looking brighter. Watch this space for photos!

Where are the pups?

We are still waiting to see this year’s litter of Wild Dog pups, due to the fact that they have chosen a den site in a very rocky area that is almost impossible to access.  While last year they denned in an old advark hole in the far south of the reserve, this year they have opted for a hilly area to the north. They are still in the same area and come down to hunt before returning immediately to the presumed den site, so we are confident that there are indeed still pups there. It may be that this year we will have to be patient and wait until they are old enough to leave the den before we are lucky enough to see them.

Lions under pressure

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.

Unusual find

It is very unusual that we come across a predator that we struggle to firmly identify, but just that happened this week. A guide brought in a dead cat to the research centre that he had found on the road, claiming it was a highly secretive Black-Footed Cat. Our interest was immediately sparked as this area is supposedly out of their range. Their normal range is in the Western dry section of Southern Africa, and as none of us come from there nor have seen these cats alive, we were a little unsure. Was it a Black-Footed Cat or an African Wildcat kitten?

We took extensive photographs and they were sent off to an expert at a museum within the heart of the range of the Black-Footed Cat, who confirms that it is indeed a member of this species.

This photo shows where the cat was put in a tree to prevent scavengers taking it overnight when it was brought in by a guide.

bfc.jpg

On suspecting we had something unusual, we froze the specimen, and will now send it down to the museum for analysis and to be a record of the cats that exist in this far reach of their range.

This photo shows just how small the cat is.

bfc2.jpg

Counting cats

Our work on Mapungubwe National Park is well underway and we are already seeing great differences in predator densities when compared with Venetia. Mapungubwe has a lot of leopards! We expected this from camera-trapping work we carried out a few years ago, but the difference between the two reserves is startling. Mapungubwe is wonderful leopard habitat, as it stretches along the Limpopo River which provides dense cover, and has many rocky outcrops in the area behind.

We have also picked up a number of lions in the area; up to 10 individuals on a section of the park that is only 10000ha. At least one group is thought to have crossed the river from Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana and been caught on this side when the rains caused the normally dry Limpopo to flow. As we head into the dry winter, and the sand resurfaces in the Limpopo, it is possible these lions will head back across the border. The fantastic thing is that with the fences coming down, these beautiful animals now have the freedom to move like this in a way that has been almost impossible for much of the last century.

Update on the Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area

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

tfca.jpg