Botswana

Okavango

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Looking for lion and lechwe

Looking for lion and lechwe

Looking for lion and lechwe
ELEPHANTS WITHOUT BORDERS

ROBYNNE KOTZE & KYLE BURGER

The time is 06:00. We are lying awake in the tent on one of the rare mornings we’ve decided not to get up before the sun. Suddenly we hear a soft, rumbling contact call, “aaawwwww”. It’s close. Kyle and I scramble outside to find what I’m looking for: two sets of clear, fresh paw prints in the sand. It’s the Morula males, but they’re on the move. We quickly jump into the vehicle and find the two burly, tawny males strolling down the road. This is what we live for. The Okavango Delta is one of the last remaining areas in Africa believed to have a free-roaming lion population of over 1,000 individuals. The animals that live here face unique challenges from the environment: for five months of the year as floods come in from Angola, home ranges shrink dramatically and smaller herbivores become stranded on islands surrounded by the flood waters.

An increase in flood levels in the western Okavango Delta over the past few years has led to a shift in vegetation composition from palatable grasses to unpalatable sedges, resulting in reduced forage availability for many of the grazing herbivores. Indeed, recent aerial surveys conducted by Elephants Without Borders (EWB) have reported a decline in many of these species including red lechwe, tsessebe, zebra, blue wildebeest and buffalo. Determining whether the cyclical changes in flooding regime is the main reason for their decline is important in predicting whether these populations will bounce back in time, or if other factors are at play. We set out to find out what could be happening. Kyle’s study is aimed at determining to what extent these floods affect herbivore populations, and my study forms part of a long-term monitoring project collecting baseline data on the ecology of lions.

Firstly, as they are closely linked, it is important that we determine what drives changes in herbivore populations and then we can look at lion densities. This includes regular ground herbivore transects and seasonal aerial surveys to determine the abundance and distribution of wildlife, and vegetation sampling to monitor changes in forage availability. Another important aspect of our work is spoor surveys. This involves counting fresh tracks of all five large predators in the Okavango Delta - lion, leopard, spotted hyena, wild dog and cheetah - along the roads in our study area, as a means of assessing the abundance of large carnivores.

In this challenging environment however, hours of following fresh tracks often end at deep channels, where wildlife can cross or swim, but a Land Rover can’t. GPS collaring has therefore become a vital tool in our monitoring work, particularly in the dry season where floods render more than half of the study area inaccessible by vehicle. EWB are supporting our project by deploying collars on buffalo, zebra and for the first time in the country, on lechwe.

We are currently monitoring one established pride of lions; EWB has donated a second collar, and we hope to monitor more. All this will provide vital clues into the viability of wildlife populations and their resilience to change in the dynamic, ever-changing Okavango Delta, with the aim of informing site-specific conservation action.

Follow their progress on the Facebook pages of Looking for Lions and Elephants Without Borders!

More from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (December 2013)

More from the Zambezi Traveller:
Okavango Destination Profile