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Joining the dots

Joining the dots

A young leopard photographed in Hwange National Park
A young leopard photographed in Hwange National Park
Dr Andrew Loveridge

Since 2008 intensive surveys for leopards and other carnivores have been carried out by ZimParks, Zambezi Society and Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Oxford University

The world over, big cat numbers are in decline. Tiger, lion, leopard, jaguar and cheetah populations have all plummeted over the last few decades. The reasons are almost universally loss of natural habitat, conflict with people over livestock and in some cases commercial or illegal over-use.

While big cat populations are shrinking, the world’s human populations are doing the opposite. In 2010 Africa’s human population hit one billion people. Projected population trends have the continent’s population doubling to 2 billion in the next 40 years. This is the fastest and most unprecedented growth in African history.

While increased population size may bring with it a larger workforce and burgeoning economic growth, failure to invest in the environment is likely to presage dramatic and irreversible losses to Africa’s wondrous habitats and diverse wildlife.

This is why the Kavango Zambezi Trans-frontier Conservation Area is so exciting. In a farsighted move the governments of five southern African countries, Angola, Botswana, Nambia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, have signed up to invest in conservation and the environment over a 300,000 square kilometre swathe of Africa - the largest conservation area in the world.

The vision of linking protected areas is exactly what is required to protect the large African mammals that require huge expanses of natural bush to survive. Big cats are arguably (along with other ‘charismatic’ species such as elephants) indicators that ecosystems are functioning and healthy. Lions, leopards and other species need abundant wild prey to survive, which in turn need undisturbed wild habitats. If either the habitat or the prey is lost then so, inevitably, are the large carnivores.

On the back of a long-term lion research project in Hwange National Park, my team and I, and colleagues in theZimParks, and the Zambezi Society, have been increasingly intrigued by landscape scale movements of big cats, particularly lions and leopards.

Aside from nearly 15 years of studying lion population dynamics and behaviour in Hwange, we are in the final year of a National Leopard Survey. Starting this year, with a research permit from Botswana Department of Wildlife, we have extended our team to include Dominik Bauer and Kristina Kesch who will be undertaking surveys for lions and other carnivores in north-eastern Botswana. These surveys provide valuable baseline information about carnivore population sizes and distribution, data which are critical for conservation managers.

We know from data we have collected from satellite radio-collared lions that they are capable of moving extensive distances, with records of study animals moving from HwangeNational Park into Zambia and northwards to ChizariraNational Park and Chete Safari Area. This is encouraging because it suggests that there is enough wild habitat connecting these areas to provide viable movement corridors for large mammals such as lions.

The big question is whether these habitat links will remain hospitable to lions and other large wild mammals with the expected increase in human activity in these areas in decades to come. Habitat changes from wild lands to agricultural fields are very difficult to reverse, so land use planning under the umbrella of the KAZA TFCA is crucial.

To provide planners and managers with the information they need, Nic Elliot, a doctoral student on the project, is using a cutting edge mathematical and spatial model to predict which parts of the KAZA TFCA would be most valuable to protect in order to preserve the integrity of the wider KAZA ecosystem.

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 13, June 2013)

Read more on the KAZA TFCA:

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Zambezi Traveller Directory:
Hwange Lion Research