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Findings reveal critical wildlife corridors

Findings reveal critical wildlife corridors

Dr Mike Chase collaring a zebra for research
Dr Mike Chase collaring a zebra for research
Kelly Landen

Some animal populations make a year-round home of the Chobe, other species come and go. Finding out just how and when these migrating species move in and out of the Chobe is an important aspect of conserving this important river ecosystem.

Elephants Without Borders began studying the movements of elephants more than a decade ago, and has greatly improved knowledge of elephant ranges in this region of southern Africa. Working throughout the span of the five-country Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, EWB has recently expanded its projects to include other large herbivores.

On the western floodplains of the Chobe, this means zebra. Driving along the riverfront in August or September, one nearly always crosses paths with large herds of zebra. EWB’s aerial survey counts have shown that zebra - numbering approximately 3,000 - gather along the Chobe River during the dry season.

However, it has remained a long-standing mystery where the zebra go when the rains begin. In August 2012 EWB initiated a research project, which had support from the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, with funding provided by the Paul G Allen Family Foundation and San Diego Zoological Society’s Institute for Conservation Research. Researchers fitted satellite collars on zebra along the Chobe floodplains in order to be able to follow their seasonal movements.

During the hot, dry season, water-dependent zebra gather along the Chobe floodplains to drink and graze. At the peak of the season in October, many of the zebra cross the river, extending their grazing range 15 kilometres north into Namibia’s Caprivi Strip.

The monitored zebra showed that when the rains finally did arrive, usually in November, the zebra began to move south through the interior of Chobe National Park, in search of fresh grass. Suddenly the zebra began to move quickly, as if with an intended destination in mind.

EWB documented two dispersal routes: one south-east towards the Seloko Plains region, amongst the Chobe Forest reserves, and the second, a remarkable 260 kilometres straight line south to Nxai Pan, part of Makgadikgadi/ Nxai Pans National Park.

As EWB researchers uncovered these zebra tracks, they learned of another researcher, Robin Naidoo, supported by the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism, with assistance from WWF Namibia, who had collared zebra during the same dry season, across the Chobe River in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip. The zebra Naidoo monitored verified the exact same route, at the same time and speed, south to Nxai Pan.

EWB recently completed a wet season aerial survey of Nxai Pan to count the actual numbers of zebra that utilise this wet season range and verified over 1,500 zebra on the pan in one day. They also plan to survey Seloko Plains soon, which will provide a better understanding of zebra ranging distribution.

Migratory corridors are becoming more and more crucial to safeguarding large populations of wildlife. Further research - and more time - might reveal that the dispersal between the Chobe River floodplains to Nxai Pan may possibly be the longest trans-boundary mammal migration in southern Africa. And the dispersal to Seloko Plains is critical and timely to note, as there is a growing concern over possible land-use and management changes that are happening in the surrounding area.

EWB’s director Mike Chase and Robin Naidoo have agreed to jointly publish their findings. This collaboration will also provide a positive example of how researchers and organisations from different countries, within the KAZA TFCA, can work together, in the spirit of a trans-boundary conservation initiative.

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 12, March 2013)

Read more about the region in our destination guide:

Other related stories from the Zambezi Traveller:
Where do the Zebra go
Zebra Without Borders
Valley to Valley
A Confusion of Stripes
The secrets of Hwange’s zebra

From the Zambezi Traveller Directory:
Elephants Without Borders