I’ve recently spent a few eventful days in northern KwaZulu-Natal. I’m up here to finish my current Year in the Wild at Ndumo Game Reserve, on the border of southern Mozambique. This is the last of the 31 protected areas that I originally planned to visit in South Africa. Wow, this past year has gone quickly! All indications are that I’ll be continuing the project in some way next year, because there has been so much else to cover.
While I’ve been in this beautiful part of South Africa, I’ve met up with Chris Kelly, Michelle Swemmer, Christie Fynn and Kevin Emslie from Wildlife Act Fund, an organisation which focuses on monitoring endangered species in northern KwaZulu-Natal, and bringing volunteers from overseas to assist the researchers on the ground through their company Wildlife Act.
They work in both public and private reserves, including Mkhuze (part of iSimangaliso Wetland Park), Tembe Elephant Park, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park and Thanda Private Game Reserve. All these protected areas are situated in northern Zululand, and are some of the most scenic in the country, with coastal lakes, numerous rivers and estuaries, swamps, forest, grassland and bushveld.
These protected areas are critically important from a wildlife perspective. Other than Kruger National Park, South Africa has few regions which are blessed with so much diversity. So not only are there plenty of large fauna like elephants, rhinos (both black and white), hippos, crocs, lions, leopards and cheetah, but this part of the country also has the highest number of species of birds, insects, fish, amphibians and spiders. This is due to the many different types of habitats, as well as the climate: hot, humid summers, and balmy, benign winters. I
It is also one of the most difficult areas for conservationists to work in. The region has one of the highest populations in the country, and some of the poorest communities, with serious social challenges like AIDS, malaria, lack of education and paucity of jobs. Mozambique and Swaziland is nearby, with people moving back and forth across the open borders. All this places pressure on the reserves, animals and habitat the conservationists try to protect.
And organisations like Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and Wildlife Act find themselves running (or sprinting?) to stand still, trying their best to stem the tide of human pressures on our country’s wildlife and nature reserves. My last few days with Wildlife Act were revealing and emblematic of the situation.
I was hoping to spend time with Michelle Swemmer, the Wildlife Act monitor for wild dogs in Thanda Private Game Reserve. But as I arrived, she told me that the pack of 15 dogs, including 9 healthy four-month old pups, had moved – for now – to another game reserve, belonging to Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, which she hasn’t been able to access, because there are no roads in the reserve.
The dogs had dug under the fence which runs for several kilometres through the bushveld between Thanda and the King’s land. “I hate fences,” was Michelle’s quip. “Wild animals don’t understand fences. Neither do I!”
She has spent several years monitoring these wild dogs, spending every morning and every afternoon (and many nights), keeping account of their whereabouts and general wellbeing. Several of the dogs have radio collars, making them easier to track with telemetry. Understandably, she has developed a strong affinity for them.
So while I waited for Michelle’s dogs to return to Thanda, I headed across to Mkhuze, about forty kilometres north-east of Thanda, to meet up with Chris Kelly, who co-founded Wildlife Act. He’s been based at Mkhuze since 2006, where he started as a monitor of black and white rhino, then cheetah, elephant, wild dogs and vultures. Like Michelle, he has spent weeks, months and years in the bush, keeping tabs on these species in Mkhuze.
One could ask why wildlife monitors are required. Surely these animals are protected in the game reserves, and surely they would thrive? Why do they need to be monitored constantly?
But there’s so much more to the situation: poachers jump the reserve’s fences at night, and according to Chris, at Mkhuze they set literally hundreds of wire snares during the night, hoping to catch antelope whose meat they can sell to the communities, or simply eat themselves. The indiscriminate snaring, however, also kills or maims unintended targets, like wild dog, cheetah, genets, giraffe, rhino…anything that walks into the snare.
It’s worth acknowledging that the situation is nuanced: the communities in northern KwaZulu-Natal are some of the poorest, and there is a long cultural history of Zulu people hunting wild animals for meat. Subsistence poaching – snaring to feed one’s family – is understandable and forgivable.
Then there are commercial poachers, who see these reserves as opportunities for commercial gain – killing animals on a larges scale for meat to sell into communities, or killing rhinos and elephants for their horns and tusks, or killing lions, leopards, vultures, wild dogs, pangolins and cheetah for sale to traditional medicine markets (so-called “muti”). These poachers are prepared to kill both wild animals and humans in their quest for money.
So, wildlife monitors for endangered species are crucial, because there are simply not enough rangers on the ground to cover the huge, inaccessible wild areas. People like Chris and Michelle are able to focus on the animals themselves, letting the Ezemvelo rangers take care of law enforcement, repairing fences, setting ambushes and hopefully arresting poachers. Conservation budgets are being cut by provincial and national government, so organisations like SANParks and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife have little choice but to look to independent researchers and monitors to supply on-the-ground support and skills.
And so they should: let’s put the plight of some of these endangered species in perspective. Like black and white rhinos, cheetahs and even lions, African wild dogs are in danger of extinction. Wild dogs today number no more than 4 000 on the continent. They used to number several hundred thousand across Africa.
In South Africa there are no more than 500. Consider these figures: there are more cattle on one farm than there are wild dogs in our whole country. Wild dogs are one of the world’s most endangered species, and the second-most endangered carnivore in Africa after the Ethiopian wolf. Each one of them is a valuable specimen, to be cherished and admired, and protected. If just one of them dies, it’s a blow to the gene pool of the whole species; hence the monitors who keep tabs on them.
Wild dogs are “endangered with a decreasing population trend,” according to Roger and Pat de la Harpe’s book entitled In Search of the African Wild Dog. “These dismal statistics are due largely to their increasing contact with humans. Rapid urbanization throughout the continent has led to growing encroachment in the wild dogs’ natural ranges, which are being sliced up and isolated by the human footprint.”
“Contact with humans means contact with domestic animals and diseases like canine distemper and rabies, which have been known to wipe out entire packs. Perhaps their greatest threat, however, continues to be the ‘belief’ that they are wanton killers and are still frequently shot or poisoned when they are spotted.”
Wild dogs need large home ranges to thrive, and they do best when their packs are larger than 10 members (some packs reach 30 in size). They also do better when there is another pack in the area, for some reason, so it’s not a simple case of putting one wild dog into a reserve and thinking it will survive; it won’t. They need lots of space, and lots of companionship.
They are efficient hunters, working as a team and succeeding 80% of the time in bringing an antelope down. But they succumb easily to lions, which actively seek them out and kill them, especially pups, because wild dogs compete with lions for prey. Only 50% of pups live longer than a year.
Wild dogs are social and caring animals. After killing an antelope, adults will run several kilometres back to the pups, to fetch them to take to the kill to eat. Then the adults will stand back and let the pups eat first, unlike lions. While the alpha female is giving birth, the others will stand guard, or go hunting and return to regurgitate food for the mother.
Yet these remarkable and intriguing animals find themselves standing on the edge of extinction, and it’s ALL because of human pressures. But amid the doom and gloom, there are some committed people doing their best to stem the tide, and their work is inspiring and hopeful. Check out my blog tomorrow for more…
For more, go to vh275.dev-ls.co.uk and www.facebook.com/yearinthewild. Thanks again to my sponsors for making it all possible. CapeNature, South African National Parks, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Eastern Cape Parks, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Ford, Total, Evosat, Conqueror Trailers, Vodacom, Digicape, Lacie, Frontrunner, Safari Centre Cape Town, K-Way, EeziAwn, National Luna, Nokia , Garmin, Goodyear, Global Fleet Sales, Hetzner, Clearstream Consulting, Escape Gear and Trailcam Adventures.