Quarterly Report Jul-Sept 2015

Winter is always a difficult time for inhabitants of the Reserve, which lies in a semi-arid area. No rain fell at all in the OWNR between May and August, but 27 millimetres registered at the Warden’s House in the first week of September. It was not enough to break the drought though. Our Weather Report shows that the annual rainfall for the reserve has declined gradually over the last four years, but this year has seen a sharp drop-off. The forecast for the rainy season ahead paints a gloomy picture with below-normal rainfall. Pressure on the ecology will continue to build.

Ecological Report

The effect of the low rainfall has had a remarked impact on the ecology of the OWNR. The Annual Phytomass Survey produced by our researchers that measures the availability of grass shows a significant decrease in 2015 compared to 2014. The growth of grass in a region is affected heavily by rainfall because their shallow roots cannot reach far down to where water is stored underground. Animals that graze to feed – warthog, waterbuck, wildebeest and zebra – depend heavily on the supply of grass and thus we can expect a decline in their numbers as the amount of available forage decreases.

Animals that browse the leaves of bushes and trees, which have deeper roots with more access to water than grasses, are less dependent on rainfall. As a result, browsers – duiker, giraffe, kudu and steenbok – numbers remain relatively stable.

Indeed, the Annual Game Count conducted by Balule Nature Reserve in September underlined this trend. The game count in 2014 focused on megaherbivores only, so there is no comparative count for other species. Nevertheless, using the counts of previous years, the populations of elephant, giraffe, hippo, kudu, waterbuck, wildebeest, impala and zebra all have decreased to a greater and lesser extent. Buffalo, on the other hand, have bucked the trend, experiencing a dramatic increase in population over the last few years, particularly in the southern and western regions. Predators, dependent on hunting other animals for food, did not decline in number as rainfall decreased. With the animals dependent on plants for food facing a decrease in food supply, it is possible that predators increased in count because of easier access to weakened prey.

In terms of trends over the past five years, predators have expanded to all regions in Balule and concentrations have become more evenly distributed throughout the regions. The large herds of elephants have expanded further south and west towards Mohlabetsi River, York, and Olifants West. Buffalo herds have expanded from isolated small groups in the east and southwest of Balule to larger herds in the southern regions. Buffalos are now found in all regions of the reserve.

Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit

The really good news is that the Black Mamba APU has moved from strength to strength since the last quarterly report, winning two high-profile awards as well as further expanding and improving facilities within the unit. As it always has been, their main focus is to patrol the boundary fences, concentrating on visual policing, early detection and crime prevention. Conducting all their usual patrols on the boundary fences and sweeping both the reserve and the buffer zones (west of the R40) for snares and suspicious activities, the total distance covered over this period on Olifants West on foot and in vehicles was 1552.45 kilometres.

The teams on Olifants West have taken the majority of the media attention over the last 3 months, mostly because their ops office is here. In July, the Black Mambas won the Best Rhino Conservation Practitioner of the Year award presented at a grand ceremony in Gauteng. This was followed up with an even more prestigious award from the United Nations Environmental Program, which saw the Black Mambas receiving the “Champions of the Earth” title. Two of the Black Mambas, Collet and Felicia, who are both original members and have been with the unit for over two years, were selected to receive the award in New York at the end of September. A few weeks before, they had participated in a major press conference and media release in Pretoria.

We hope that these awards raise awareness of how important it is to involve local communities within the conservation of our National Parks. The Black Mamba ideal and philosophy is aimed at achieving a real long-term change in attitude within the local communities, which is the key to securing the safety of our wildlife and conserving its natural habitat and environment in the long run.

Bush Babies Environmental Education Programme

Extending our community outreach programme, Lewyn Maefala was appointed as our Black Mamba Environmental Educator and Coordinator earlier this year. Tasked with raising environmental awareness through educational programmes within Balule Nature Reserve and in the schools in the surrounding communities, she hit the ground running.

The Bush Babies Programme currently has 262 learners at four primary schools actively involved. Although learners are being introduced to ecology, birds, reptiles and mammals, the main focus is rhino conservation, which is emphasized prominently in the classroom.

In the last week of the July school holidays, Lewyn also ran a mini Bush Babies course at the OWNR conference room for learners who do not have access to the Bush Babies Environmental Education Programme in their schools. Seven children participated in the four-day programme, ending with a game drive and a handing out of certificates. It is hoped to make the course a regular feature during school holidays.

Future plans include:

Expanding the programme to reach 10 schools, including high schools.
Creating an Environmental Education Classroom decorated with colours, quotes, and drawings to inspire students to participate actively.
Running a Bush Babies camp in our reserve so they can learn not just about conservation but also apply their newfound environmental education.
Creating a Bush Babies Conservation Club to empower former bush babies in their communities.
Introducing the Dress Me to Learn project so that students from impoverished families participating in the Bush Babies Programme have proper uniforms.
Growing a vegetable garden for the Bush Babies, encouraging students to care for their garden and their environment.

Research Update

Ongoing studies on Elephant Herd Dynamics show an increase in lone bull herd formation (22%) and decrease in breeding herd groups in comparison to last year. In the 2015 game count, there were 28 breeding herd sightings, 25 lone bulls, 28 bachelor groups, and four mixed herds recorded, which totals to 638 individuals. Calves represented only 1% of the population this year, compared with 5% in 2014. This could possibly be due to the exceptionally low rainfall and the observed decrease in breeding herd numbers this year. OWNR had the most bachelor group sightings (13) and mixed herd formations (2). Herd demographics data observed that nearly half of the elephant population in OWNR are young adults, which is probably linked to the greater proportion of bachelor groups here than in the rest of the region.

A new project has been launched on Lion Pride and Population Identification Techniques. The aim of this project is to gain a more accurate understanding of lion pride and population dynamics, with a focus on determining recruitment rates for the individuals in these prides. The territories of each pride will also be located and mapped. Thus far, individuals from two prides (York and Singwe) in OWNR have been identified using whisker patterns, scars and other distinguishing marks.

The Indigenous Nursery project has been resurrected at the Warden’s House, the primary objectives of which are:

  • To facilitate environmental education, specifically in conjunction with OWNR’s Bush Babies programme during the school holidays

  • To sell tree saplings and other garden plants to landowners in an attempt to “indigenise” their gardens and, through doing so, significantly reduce the number of human-wildlife incidences that take place in the reserve

  • To categorise the plant species diversity of OWNR and Balule Nature Reserve as a whole via the creation of an herbarium in conjunction with the indigenous nursery