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Welgevonden Management Newsletter

Clifftop Exclusive Safari Hideaway is proud to share Welgevonden Management Team’s Newsletter. We are delighted to have the opportunity to share exciting highlights from the past month with our subscribers.

Western pride female and cub survey the plains but do not go unnoticed by the resident rhinos © Neil Davison, Makweti Safari Lodge.

On the roads again: Roads Team update

Probably the only downfall of a rainy year is the havoc it plays by damaging roads. The Roads team is well aware of this as they have been kept busy with the aftermath.

The Roads team consists of 11 team members who together need to maintain the Reserve’s 592km road network in a drivable state.

In May the team were diverted from working on the roads to help with the burning of firebreaks which requires a lot of man-power due to the labour-intensive nature of the work. “The team put everything into assisting with firebreaks. It is a big job with long hours and we appreciate their efforts.” Mdu advised. Since completion of the firebreaks the team is back in the road business working tirelessly to keep the roads accessible for 4×4 driving.

“We have a lot to achieve before the next rains arrive,” says Mdu Vilakazi, the Reserve’s Operations Manager. The roads team are actively trying to get all the bad sections repaired but with over 500 kilometers of road, dozens of concrete ditches and crossings to repair, with only a handful of people and limited equipment, this takes time and planning.  Most of the main game viewing roads have now been repaired, but a few secondary roads and management roads must still be repaired and upgraded. “Major upgrading has been done to Low range pass recently,” Mdu explains. “The road is far easier to traverse now. Upgrades to Tshukudu pass are also underway.”

“We have managed to finish the upgrades to South gate access road, Random-die-berg, Serengeti Road, Tshwene Valley Rd, and Main Road so far which includes the re-gravelling of rough areas, light grading, the opening of drains and surface maintenance on the main roads which includes some concrete work”.

After Tshukudu Pass and the roads in that area are completed, the team will be moving to the west and later to the central of the Reserve if all goes according to plan. We thank you for your patience with road closures for repairs as we strive to keep the roads in the best condition possible.

Photos Top: Erosion due to heavy rains has impacted the work necessary for repair. Middle: Low Range Pass before addition of concrete strips. Bottom: Low Range Pass after repair © Mdu Vilakazi
The experience of seeing and learning about the last breeding pack of free-ranging wild dogs in the Waterberg is amazing and well worth the visit.

On the News Reel

The Welgevonden Environmental Awareness Programme (WEAP) in conjunction with the Waterberg Wild Dog Initiative (WWDI) have taken several groups of students to see and learn about the last free-roaming pack in the Waterberg who are currently denning in the area. These have been fantastic opportunities for the attendees. For any guests who would like to arrange to see these dogs and support the WWDI please see here.

WEAP was also involved in the community cleanup in Vaalwater last week, helping to instill important environmental principles such as recycling, as well as create pride in the environment we live in. The next community clean up event is on the 25th August for those who wish to participate.

Resident Research Ecologist Jonathan Swart is happy to be back on the Reserve after being charged by an escapee buffalo while cycling on the Schoongelegen Road. It is uncertain where the buffalo originated from as it was not one of ours. He is recovering well and thanks everyone for their well wishes!

Hardy, the bull elephant who had follow-up dental surgery earlier this month, is looking like he is healing well. He has reduced signs of distress and is not fidgeting with the tusk opening – all good signs! See how he’s doing here.

The tracking collar of the remaining orphan cheetah female was found in the northern part of the Reserve. The cheetah has not been sighted in a while but there was no carcass found. Given that the collar was still intact, the cheetah is presumably no longer alive. Mortality of cheetah in reserves with other large predators can be quite high. Although a sad loss, the last surviving orphan (a male) continues to thrive in Liwonde National Park in Malawi, alongside five female cheetah, keeping those valuable genes alive.

The last day of July marked the celebration of World Ranger day! We give thanks every day for the dedication of the men and women risking their lives everyday to protect our heritage.

A big thank you to our Welgevonden Rangers for the incredible work they do!

Jackal, jackal and more jackal!

Since 2017 jackals have reportedly been increasing and occurring in significantly larger numbers on the Reserve. Tales of packs of jackal, sometimes up to six strong, taking down fully grown impala and other ungulates suggests that jackal may be having a notable effect on the ungulate populations, especially on the young.

The reasons for these increases are purely speculative but could be attributed to the outbreak of Canine Distemper Virus in 2016. This outbreak led to the death of many apex predators and potentially the resident, territorial jackals. Consequentially, this would have created a niche for the influx of new individuals, further facilitated by the large numbers of game being introduced at the time which provided a surplus of resources for the jackals.

With the apparent poor survival rate of impala in particular, and continuous declines in their numbers on the Reserve, there has been a growing concern that jackal are responsible for this. Although this may indeed be the case, there are several other possible explanations such as drought or habitat quality, potentially leading to poor recruitment in the impala population.

“Given that the role and impact of jackal is not known on Welgevonden, it was deemed important to understand why and if they are having any unintended impacts to form part of the predator-prey modelling,” says Conservation Manager, Sam Davidson-Phillips. “I was very interested in understanding these dynamics and decided to pursue the answers for my Masters degree.”

Because of its size, Welgevonden models the amount of prey consumed by various large predators on the Reserve to ensure that prey populations are sustainable for the modelled number of predators we can maintain. However, we do not fully account for the impact of jackal on the prey populations as we only have a rough idea of jackal numbers in the Reserve and what they may be eating. “Jackal being both hunters and scavengers also will give an indication of available carcasses in the landscape particularly as result of apex predators,” Sam adds.

Without empirical and objective investigation, we cannot substantiate the effects of jackal on prey populations, therefore a project examining the density and feeding ecology of Welgevonden’s jackal population is important.

“This has never been quantitatively assessed on the Reserve. I’ll look at this by assessing occupancy probabilities and estimating jackal densities. I’ll also be determining what the jackal are eating using information gathered from their scats and estimating the predation impact from jackal on the ungulate species.” Sam explains.

To answer these questions Sam will be using Panthera camera trap images to assess whether occupancy probabilities have increased over the last eight years. To achieve this, he is hoping to individually identify jackals by the unique contours of the saddles on their black backs. Camera traps, lent to the Reserve by the African Institute of Conservation Ecology, have also been set out and will record jackal images over the next year, to assess seasonal differences across the Reserve. Scat collection has also started with over 300 jackal scats collected to date!

By understanding these factors, Sam intends to give further insights into the predator-prey relationships on the Reserve relating to jackal and the viability of future management actions, as well as supplementary research required.

A pair of jackal reinforce their bonds on the plains. Inset Top – Bottom: A jackal takes down a wounded impala © Mike Jones. The camera traps are placed along game paths to maximise captures. The images of jackal captured allow identification of individuals using their black saddles. Jackal leave their scats prominently placed on top of bushes and shrubs. Sorting of scats collected can be tricky ©Sam Davidson-Phillips.

Every dark cloud has a silver lining

Last month we brought you the sad news of increased incidents of rhino poaching in the Waterberg area. Well, this month we are very pleased to announce that five suspects have been arrested in connection with the poaching incidents on a farm in the Marken area. The majority of the rhino losses on the farm took place in the last eight months. The group arrested was responsible for all of these incidents. One of the suspects was out on bail for a rhino poaching case (arrested by Welgevonden Reaction, ESU and E&CI in 2020) regarding an incident in Marakele National Park at the time of arrest.

A hunting rifle with ammunition was hidden in the vehicle. Below: Money associated with criminal activity was confiscated at first arrest ©Kassie Knoetze

While the arrest has brought some calm to the area, we remain at high alert. The key to the arrest, as in most cases, was the collaboration between different role-players and departments in the region.

“We applaud the Endangered Species Unit (ESU) of Limpopo for their dedication to not leave any case behind, irrelevant of how much time has passed,” says Kassie Knoetze, Welgevonden Reaction Manager. “We have been very fortunate to assist due to our excellent relationship with the South African Police Service (SAPS) but also our ability to act as support to the team, the ‘Bosveld Misdaad Ondersoeke’ and Environmental and Corporate Investigations (E&CI – SANParks), who were also involved in the arrest.”

Within the same week, ESU called upon us for assistance with a suspect. Welgevonden Reaction responded and seized the vehicle together with SAPS ESU. The vehicle had a large calibre hunting rifle with ammunition hidden in a compartment within the vehicle. The contents of the vehicle were confiscated, and the suspects arrested.

Special mention should be made of the acting provincial commander, Major General J. Scheepers (SAPS), for initiating and implementing the ESU task team. The team is being led by Captain P. Meyer who heads up the entire Limpopo Endangered Species Unit.

“The team is well organised and eager to make a difference and protect the heritage of our country. I salute these men and thank them for their contribution towards the protection of our endangered species,” Kassie added.

Once again, our excellent working relationships with SAPS, and the ESU in particular, is what makes these arrests possible. Welgevonden is very proud and humbled to be working closely with SAPS and SANParks as we strive to reduce crime in general.

It is in unity that we will succeed.

Game On! Game transects with Welgevonden Research

Imagine you are watching a beautiful herd of wildebeest peacefully grazing on one of the Southern plains. You can see the bull standing off to the side guarding his harem, clusters of cows accompanied by last season’s calves and yearlings play fighting and frolicking care-free in the afternoon sun.

The research team assisted by students record data in the CyberTracker app ©Margerie Aucamp. Below: Counting, sexing and assessing condition of large groups can be difficult. Middle: Map examining the percentage of grass tufts grazed in 2020.

This herd tells us a story, a story about success. Success in breeding, success in fecundity and, if we watch the herd over time, success in survival. By examining these traits in herds, and observing multiple herds, we can draw meaningful conclusions about the populations on the Reserve.

Population demography is a powerful ecological tool. By measuring and calculating elements that are common to all populations such as the size, density, fecundity, mortality, sex ratio and age structures we can tell a lot about the status of the population. Is it stable, or is it increasing or decreasing? Better yet, if there are any problems, we can pinpoint where these potential issues lie.

For example, if your wildebeest herd, and others across the reserve, are showing a low ratio of calves to cows compared to the previous year, it is indicative that the fecundity of the population has dropped. If this were to persist over time, the low recruitment of young to adult stages would result in a decline in the population.

If we were to monitor the herd monthly and noted that in December the number of calves was high, but in subsequent months these numbers dwindled – we could conclude that calf mortality is high.

All these observations give us empirical data to understand the impacts on prey populations. This combined with predator kill observations helps us to understand the predator-prey dynamics of the Reserve. Of course, with the power of identifying problems comes the opportunity to implement solutions.

Every month the Biomonitoring Officers conduct game transects throughout the Reserve to capture this data. They drive slowly along the transects and record every single animal and herd they encounter. Each individual’s age and sex is captured and a GPS location of the herd/animal is taken. Body condition is also recorded for the popular prey species such as impala, wildebeest and zebra. The data is recorded on the CyberTracker app which allows Research Ecologist, Jonathan Swart, to remotely access the data for analysis.

Because herd locations are recorded, Jonathan is also able to look at animal distribution patterns over time and see where the animals are spending most of their time. This, in combination with data from vegetation surveys (e.g. map above), allows him to assess the grazing dynamics on the Reserve.

Data collected on these game transects, once analysed, informs many management decisions and are critical for the maintenance of the predator-prey balance on the Reserve.

Number of lambs/calves are counted and each individuals body condition is assessed.

A change of guard

Earlier this month Management announced the exciting news that we had sourced two lionesses to be introduced into the Reserve through the Lion Management Forum (LiMF).

Lion management is always a controversial topic, but Welgevonden has always strived to follow the best management practices when it comes to our lion population. For this reason, significant time is allocated to predator management at the biannual Welgevonden Scientific Advisory Committee (WSAC) meetings.

For an ecologically stable system, our Reserve can house seven adult killing lions. This number comes from modelling the predator-prey dynamics and the impact of all apex predators on the Reserve. However, lion are highly social animals with a dependence on social structure. It is important to take this into consideration by allowing cubs to come through in the prides. This obviously needs to be carefully monitored as the lion population can quickly grow into a size that is difficult to manage down again before having a large impact on the Reserve’s herbivore population.

“Cubs that are produced need to remain in the pride until they are at least sub-adults before they can be removed, which means there will always be a time lag before the population will be returned back to the target level again,” says Research Ecologist Jonathan Swart, “All of these factors are considered by Management and the WSAC when taking decisions regarding the lion population.”

Over the last few years, the number of killing lions had fallen to five and a decision was made to increase this number back to the modelled seven.

Matters got complicated with the two Western pride sub-adult females really coming into their own at quite a young age – the killing lion population was suddenly back at seven. However, this was not the ideal situation.

“The two lone young lionesses that originated from the Western pride were sired by the Western Pride male,” Jonathan explains. “These females will soon reach maturity and to prevent incest within the Western pride a decision was taken to replace them with two new young adult lionesses that would enhance the genetic diversity of our population.”

The Western pride females at a warthog bait last year, the likely reason they would not approach a bait this year.

The additional rationale to introducing two new lionesses is that they will provide a third pride to the Reserve as they are not related to any of the other lions. “If the lions listen to the plan, this will alleviate some vehicle pressure on lion and game viewing sightings by having the lions more spread out on the Reserve.” Jonathan adds.

The young Western pride females were caught and relocated to their new home on Tumbeta Private Reserve in late July. “The capture at Windmill plains went smoothly,” said Conservation Officer Armstrong Maluleke, “These two are smart and did not react to our bait, so we had to go with plan B to dart them from the helicopter. We were prepared for this inevitability and Dr. Caldwell and helicopter pilot Lambert worked well together to quickly dart the lionesses.”

The next step in the process is to bring in the two new lionesses. The Conservation Team has been working hard with Shambala Game Reserve to catch the two new lionesses and as soon as all the pieces fall into place we will welcome them to the Reserve.

Sightings of the Month

After a cold morning in the South, Dean Oelofse and guests happened upon this Aardwolf trying to get some sun. The Aardwolf was skittish initially but their patience paid off when it emerged from the burrow to bask. “After seeing lions trying to take down a buffalo, cheetah on numerous occasions and elephant and rhino daily, this was one our most enjoyable sightings we’d had!” says Dean. © Dean Oelofse (@deanoelofse)
Biomonitoring Officer Margerie spent some time observing an enthusiastic honey badger digging out dung beetle brood balls and snacking on the delicious larvae inside © Margerie Aucamp. Check out the video here!
When WIL student Fredwin Cloete called in a pangolin sighting on Lion Ridge East in the middle of the day, Margerie who was nearby jumped at the opportunity! The pangolin was spotted by one of the EPWP staff whilst travelling between work sites. © Margerie Aucamp