Predators atop the pyramid
Predators atop the pyramid
Large predators are some of the most charismatic of Africa’s wildlife, epitomising the raw beauty of the continent’s wild places. Southern Africa is well endowed with protected areas and the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA), spanning parts of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, is a stronghold for many of Africa’s precious predators.
The lion population that spans the Zimbabwe/Botswana border, extending from Hwange National Park to the Okavango Delta, is one of the largest and most secure in Africa. Secure populations of endangered African wild dog and cheetah are also present in the KAZA landscape.
The existence of large predators in a protected area is an indicator of ecosystem health. We sometimes refer to them as the ‘mine canaries’ of African conservation. The term makes reference to the use of caged canaries by coalminers well into the last century. Canaries are very sensitive to carbon monoxide and methane, deadly gases common in coal mines, and were carried in cages into the mine shaft by the workers. If the birds showed signs of distress, the miners knew they should evacuate the mine to avoid the undetectable poisonous gases.
In the same way, healthy populations of lion, leopard and hyaena tell us that the ecosystems they inhabit are functioning normally. This is because large carnivores are at the apex of the food pyramid; they need healthy populations of prey species to survive, which in turn need well protected and productive wild habitats. Perching precariously atop this complex and delicate pyramid, the predators’ presence is reassurance that all is well.
However, if large predator populations decline for any reason, this is a sign that there might be a problem - with prey populations, habitat protection, or persecution of the predators themselves. Monitoring predator population trends to reveal these problems is an important part of managing protected areas. Large predators are challenging to protect. Not only do they need large intact ecosystems with plenty of prey species to survive, they also sometimes pose problems to the human communities living on the borders of protected areas.
Within the KAZA region there are several predator research initiatives, such as the Zambia Carnivore Programme, the Hwange Lion Project and Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, to name a few. These research projects are mostly collaborative partnerships between NGOs and national wildlife management agencies, bringing together research expertise and policy and decision makers, to ensure the best outcomes for predator populations. Research focuses on both fundamental ecology and practical monitoring of population distribution and trends, understanding conservation needs as well as the needs of local human communities who live side by side with predator species.
Recently, conservationists and wildlife managers involved in predator research and conservation in the KAZA region were hosted at Hwange Safari Lodge by ZimParks and under the auspices of the KAZA secretariat to form the KAZA Large Carnivore Coalition, a body that will work towards better understanding of predator conservation needs and implementation of conservation efforts across its area.