Wow…all I can say is wow! The last two months have flown by. The Reserve is slowly starting to change from greens to yellows and brown as we head deeper into the autumn season, but thanks to the fantastic rains the Reserve is still looking great. Our ethereal streams are still flowing, new arrivals continue to excite, and the sunsets and sunrises impress more than ever.
What has truly caught my eye over the last two months is the amount of grass on the Reserve, something which has been a concern over the last few drought years. So, I jumped in to learn more about this primary resource. I joined MSC students sampling the Reserve grasses and our Research Camp conducting grass biomass transects, and the phenomenal intricacies of grass and its almost invisible, but undeniable beauty have opened my eyes to the wonders lying beneath our feet. I cannot wait to share this with you!
The season has also seen us welcome three new lion cubs to the Western pride, which means there are a total of five cubs toddling around. Excitement peaked mid-March with the introduction of a group of black rhino to the Reserve and the first white rhino births of the season have been the cherry on the cake.
Well, let me not give away all the juicy bits – grab yourself a cuppa and let’s jump into the news!
The newly introduced young black rhino bull munches on some bushwillow while giving guests a beautiful sighting © Dane Levenderis.
Welgevonden provides sanctuary to additional Black rhino
In mid-March, a Welgevonden task team left the Reserve on a mission, their task? To assist in capturing and relocating black rhino to their new home on Welgevonden Game Reserve. The team arrived at their destination in the early afternoon and were quickly debriefed on how the operation would work.
“We knew it was going to be intense from the get-go,” said Armstrong Maluleke our Conservation Officer, “the goal was to capture and secure all the rhinos within 36 hours to get them to the Reserve within two days. This is easier said than done knowing that black rhino love thick bush, which would inevitably complicate the capture.”
Working with a professional team of veterinarians, helicopter pilots and game capturers our team slotted in to assist with loading and the collection of data from the rhino while they were prepared for loading onto the transportation crates. Experienced persons are needed to work with rhino in particular as, under anaesthesia the risk can be high that the animals stop breathing.
“We needed to collect all the data for RhODIS as quickly as possible to reduce the time the animal is ‘down’ for. We needed to notch the rhino for identification in the field collect blood samples, microchip the body and horns, measure the horns, and document the metrics for the RhODIS database. This is for tracking and tracing of horns and rhino should anything ever happen to the animals,” Pip Davidson-Phillips added.
The Rescue Rhino Programme established in 2015 has been remarkably successful. Welgevonden undertook the programme with two main goals. Firstly, the rapid escalation of the poaching crisis during the time had the potential to decimate South African rhino populations. The increase in the costs required to mitigate the poaching onslaught were (and are still) extreme, with many owners no longer able to carry the burden of these costs. As such, Welgevonden provided the opportunity for sanctuary with effective security, by offering owners the ability to house their animals on the Reserve at no cost. Secondly, white rhino were identified as major ecosystem engineers driving the formation and expansion of nutritious grazing lawns, which are a vital resource to the large population of general grazers on the Reserve. This directly benefits the Reserve’s Plains Project. With the timing of these two goals coinciding perfectly, the Reserve increased the rhino population. Since then, the programme has led to the overall white rhino population doubling during the past five years and, although not without challenges, has put the Reserve at the forefront for the conservation of these precious animals.
It is through this conservation success with white rhino, that the introduction of privately owned black rhino onto the Reserve was eventually facilitated.
Black rhino had long been a species to introduce to Welgevonden. However, with only ~ 2 000 black rhinos in South Africa, these animals are critically endangered, and this makes finding founding populations tricky. Applications to the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Black Rhino Expansion Project, for Welgevonden to be considered as a viable partner to establish a population, were unfortunately unsuccessful. The greatest concern of the WWF was doubt surrounding whether the vegetation could support a population of 50 animals, the project’s guideline to prioritise the establishment of larger populations. However, Welgevonden management, together with the Welgevonden Scientific Advisory Committee, were confident that the Reserve could support a decent black rhino population and an opportunity was being missed to contribute to the conservation of this precious species.
In 2018, with the threat of poaching still rife, an opportunity arose for a small population of “rescue” black rhino to be introduced to the Reserve. The initial concerns regarding the suitability of vegetation and habitat were rapidly quelled as camera trap footage of the rhino showed that month after month the rhino remained in fantastic condition. Since then, experts have shown particular interest in the habitat and the suitability thereof for black rhino. The lack of information and research from this habitat type has led to an MSc research project starting last year that is focusing on the diet and distribution of these animals within the Reserve. The potential implications of this research for the conservation of the species are significant, as they could avail a wider habitat range for the species to utilise than is currently thought.
The recent introduction of more “rescue” black rhino was again triggered by a surge of poaching activity in their original reserve. As the sun began to rise on Friday the 19th of March, the Team took comfort in the fact that these persecuted animals had made it to a more protected home. The releases were very successful with all animals showing off their wonderfully sassy nature before making their way into the bush.
Welgevonden is truly honoured to provide refuge to this small but precious population of black rhino. The aim is of course the establish a breeding population to help grow the metapopulation numbers for this endangered species. In order to achieve this Welgevonden needs to source a mature bull (> 10 years) so that the cows can begin breeding on the Reserve.
If there are any Members that would like to contribute towards this, please contact the Management offices.
There have been some great reports of sightings floating on the radio waves, with the animals proving to be quite relaxed around people. So, get out there and welcome these beauties to our Reserve!
Rewarding sightings of relaxed black rhino are being enjoyed by all © Gerhard Pieters. Above: The black rhino crates required some coordination to offload.
Bye bye to the boma spotties
At the end of February, the three spotted hyaena that were being held in the boma were relocated to their new home on Tumbeta Private Game Reserve.
With the Spotted hyaena population thriving on the Reserve and now exceeding the modelled capacity for Welgevonden, it was decided last year that a small clan of spotties should be rehomed to get the numbers back to the Reserve’s modelled maximum.
Welgevonden always prioritises the rehoming of animals as a population control strategy and was happy to donate these animals to Tumbeta. The small Private Game Reserve is located roughly an hour away making the relocation ideal to minimise the travel stress on the animals.
The hyaena relocation also marked the first large intervention for our two new WIL students who learnt a lot from veterinarian Dr. Peter Caldwell of Old Chapel Veterinary Practice and the entire relocation process.
After a smooth relocation the two males and large female were placed in a boma on Tumbeta for a period of time to acclimate and were released onto the reserve at the end of last month.
Here the spotties will form a founding population for Tumbeta and will have more space to roam freely and breed. Spotted hyaena populations are decreasing outside of protected areas, despite being listed as Least Concern by IUCN. This makes the establishment of breeding populations within protected areas crucial for their conservation.
We are happy to report that the clan is doing very well in their new home where their laughing cries fill the sky, adding a true sense of Africa in the reserve.
The Vegetation station
You’ve heard it a thousand times before, but I will say it once more…veg is the most important part of the meal. For the majority of animals living here on the Reserve, veg is the entire meal and that makes understanding how much of it we have vital.
Grasses are one of, if not the most, important primary producers in terrestrial systems. Sitting at the very bottom of the food chain, grasses convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates which consumers can then utilise as food. Being at the bottom of the food chain means that changes in grass availability can have knock-on effects that impact entire ecosystems.
Of course, resource availability naturally changes across the landscape and the Welgevonden landscape is vast and diverse! This means that the Research Team need to collect data across all areas of the Reserve (120 sample sites to be exact) to make sure the numbers accurately represent the amount of biomass, or potential food out there. This is a big job every year, made bigger by the fact that the assistant research coordinators will be completing all transects themselves this year due to the absence of any volunteers.
Each of the 120 transects is 100m long and the team needs to stop at 3m intervals to assess the biomass with a Disc Pasture Meter. This strange-looking device works by dropping a metal plate of known weight (attached to a pole) from a predetermined height above the soil surface, then measuring the height at which the plate comes to rest. The denser the grass, the higher the plate will come to rest at. Calibration of this device then provides an indication of the available grass biomass. The team also assesses the contribution of the top three species to the biomass at each 3m point, notes the amount of herbivory on the grass tufts and the grass cover. All this data is captured on a mobile device in a CyberTracker database which syncs to the server and allows our Research Ecologist, Jonathan Swart, to access the data collected. With this data Jonathan can assess the biomass available (kilograms per hectare) in various terrains such as hill slopes, plains, plateaus and valleys, track the annual relationship between biomass and rainfall, and assess the grazing status.
With high quality information like this the Research Team and management, together with the Welgevonden Scientific Advisory Committee (WSAC) are able to make informed decisions about the status of the Reserve, the expansion of grazing or overgrazing and whether the strategies implemented are effective in plains management. This affects all kinds of decisions, whether we can sustain the game populations or whether introductions are required, our fire management plan and our drought management plan to name a few.
We wish the Research Team all the best for the hard slog ahead and look forward to the completion of their transects!
On the News Reel
The discovery of a large clay pot and what appears to be a historic ritual site (most likely rain making) in the Taaibos valley caused quite a stir. The pot was spotted during last years aerial census and, although not an ancient heritage site (post 1800’s), it does give incredible insight into the cultural intricacies and how people went about their lives in the Waterberg during this time. The site will be left intact to preserve its value as an archaeological relic.
Interventions took place on a young white rhino heifer who was gored by either a bull or possibly by her mother who just days later gave birth to our third white rhino calf for the year! The heifer has thankfully since fully recovered and is off finding new friends.
The Reserve is on a fantastic 702 mm rainfall for the season! A we head into the wet cycle we hope for more years of above average rain to help the Reserve recover from the drought.
The two buffalo herds have both welcomed their newest members to the herds with each herd growing by seven calves with some cows still expecting.
Conservation has completed the mowing of three plains and ten stepping-stones to carry the grazers through the winter.
In extremely sad news, one of our cheetah females, relocated to Dinokeng Game Reserve last year gave birth to her first litter of cubs (see here) last month, however she was killed in a snare shortly after. Although this is devastating, we are relieved to hear that the cubs are being rehabilitated.
A black rhino heifer, who appears to have had a run in with another rhino, sustained injuries to her tail and hind quarters. After a few days of searching, she was treated for her injuries. Subsequently, it was discovered that the heifer had been attempting to integrate with white rhino and this is how she is sustaining injuries. Once she has recovered from her injuries and gained body condition, management will attempt to reunite her with her mother.
Burning of firebreaks has begun with the Marakele fence line. Other firebreaks and block burn sites are being prepped as management gets ready for the fire season…here’s hoping for a quiet one!
Our K-9 dogs and handlers arrived back on the Reserve recently. Ice (left) is our sniffer dog and Audie (right) is our tracking dog.
Online with the K-9s
Throughout South Africa and wider afield, well-managed, disciplined and committed K-9 units enhance the effectiveness of their ranger teams and have proven to be a crucial tool to track down poachers and detect wildlife products, illegal weapons and ammunition.
With the poaching game changing everyday Welgevonden needs every tool in its arsenal to protect our own. COVID related delays and some logistical factors aside, our K-9’s and handlers have completed their training and the unit is ready and eager to deploy.
Training of the two dogs, which are both sponsored by the MyPlanet Rhino Fund, took some time but the wait has been worthwhile. Ice, our Dutch Shepherd, has been trained as a detection dog to pick up known scents of weapons ammunition, rhino horn, pangolin and ivory. Dutch Shepherd’s are highly intelligent, easily trained dogs which are extremely loyal. This makes them ideally suited to the task. Our Blue Tick dog, Audie, is trained specifically for tracking of human scent. This dog breed has a history of use as a hunting dog and is muscular and speedy with an uncanny knack for problem solving.
“It’s been our goal to establish this capability for some time now, so this is an exciting moment and one that our team has strived towards,” says Security Director Kassie Knoetze as the dog handlers returned from training with their dogs, “We are looking at having a fully functional K-9 unit by the end of April which will add another tool to our crime fighting toolbelt.”
The Rapid Response Unit, of which the K-9 unit is a subset, is a fully sponsored part of the Counter Poaching Unit. The handlers, employed through the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP), vehicles and equipment sponsored by StopRhinoPoaching.com (SRP) and equipment by (SRP partner) Wixworth Gin will form a formidable team to combat crime in the community.
“The vision is that the K-9 unit will service not only WGR but the entire surrounding area and will be available to assist with preventing crime in the community” Kassie adds.
A beautiful vista of the lime spreading in the South offset against dramatic thunderclouds © Jonathan Swart.
The Fertilisation situation
You may have noticed that last month the Conservation and Operations Teams, guided by our Research Ecologist, collaborated to undertake the fertilisation programme, which for this year meant spreading 180 tons of lime over ten experimental plains dispersed across the Reserve. The fertilisation programme has been running for several years now as part of experiments to improve the nutrient value of Welgevonden’s grass.
Grass requires a delicate balance of elements to grow; namely Phosphorous, Nitrates and Potassium. A deficit in either of these means that even with all the water and sunshine in the world the grass cannot thrive. Welgevonden sits on old farmlands which have been depleted of their nutrient value. By adding fertiliser to the soil, we reintroduce these nutrients to the system, providing the grass with everything it requires to grow. Each year the Team alternates the spreading of fertiliser, with the spreading of lime. In addition to being nutrient poor, Welgevonden soils are also acidic. Most grasses prefer a soil pH between 5.8 – 7.2, and when the pH is within these preferred ranges it means that the nutrients are available for grasses to use. However, when the pH stays from these optimum levels the uptake of even plentiful nutrients is restricted. What the lime does is offset the acidity in the soil and improve the availability of these nutrients to the plants.
“The spreading was quite tricky this year,” says Jonathan Swart our Research Ecologist, “With the lime being slightly wet I had to closely monitor the spreading rate and continually make adjustments. The soil was also waterlogged in some areas and these had to be avoided to prevent getting bogged down.”
The lime spreading took just over two weeks to complete and went quite smoothly. There were no punctures or breakdowns and only about a day’s delay due to rain. It was an immense effort to get this done and required a team effort.
“I am grateful though for the assistance I received, particularly from the Operations Team and some members of the Conservation Team who were together responsible for the smooth running of the operation – all their hard work was highly commendable and much appreciated.” Jonathan adds.
Finding novel ways to improve Welgevonden’s grazing value as part of the Plains Project is something that sets our Reserve apart. We look forward to seeing the impacts of these endeavours and learning from the process.
Novel early poacher detection system takes the world by storm
South Africa, with its rich biodiversity of wildlife, is at the forefront of the global wildlife crime crisis. Wildlife crime is the fourth most lucrative form of organized crime worth up to $23 billion per year – that’s over R 320 billion! As a result, trafficked populations of animals such as pangolin, rhino, lion and elephant are plummeting, with a noticeable increase in wildlife crime over the last ten years.
Of course, the solution to this problem is simple. We need to reduce the demand for poached and trafficked animals, but this takes generations of time and this we simply do not have. In response to this global problem novel anti-poaching strategies have rapidly developed. With ground-breaking improvements in drone technology, DNA tracking and a variety of GPS implementations authorities continue to fight back against the poaching scourge. However, the biggest problem faced by these technologies is that they are nowhere near as effective as they need to be, and often mean that poachers have already completed the deed before they are detected.
In 2018 Welgevonden Game Reserve, together with partners IBM, MTN and Wageningen University, began testing a cutting-edge poacher early warning system based on the movement patterns of non-targeted sentinel animals. The thinking behind this project centred around the fact that poachers entering a reserve are far more likely to encounter common species (such as impala, zebra, wildebeest and eland) before they encounter a rhino or other target, and the response of these sentinel animals in the presence of a poacher is likely to differ from normal animal behaviour. Prey species change their behaviour in the presence of a predator by for example increasing their speed and changing the spatial distribution of the herd. It would be logical to assume similar response to a poacher, and by tracking and monitoring these behavioural adjustments, sentinel animals could alert officials early to the presence of a poacher in a reserve.
From Article: examples of how normal behavior varies spatially a. topography and tree cover in the study area (white to green with increasing tree cover); b. movement speed and directionality of wildebeest during the afternoon (blue to red with increasing speed; length and darkness of line segments indicates degree of directional preference and orientation indicates the preferred movement direction); c. modelled habitat suitability of wildebeest during the afternoon as function of habitat characteristics (white to green with increasing suitability). Above: A bust of rhino horn cargo in Malaysia ©Manan Vatsyayana
To assess this the team analysed the movement responses of these savanna herbivores to simulated poacher intrusions. The sentinels were fitted with wearable sensors that wirelessly transmitted information about the animals’ whereabouts, speed, acceleration, direction of movement, energy expenditure and herd cohesion to a database at Wageningen University where, using machine learning algorithms, the team was able to predict whether movement patterns accurately reflected poacher presence.
Using this combination of wireless biologging, predictive analytics and animal behaviour the models showed that the presence of human intruders can be accurately detected and localised by algorithmically identifying characteristic changes in sentinel animal movement. This research has just been published in the very reputable journal Scientific Reports, the 7th most cited journal in the world!
There is always more research to be done. The next logical step will be to separate the responses of sentinels to humans, from their responses to other predators, something we expect will differ sufficiently enough to be possible. Once this is completed the incorporation of this research into an anti-poaching strategy will be hugely beneficial as this early warning system has the main advantage of being able to filter out periods without poaching activity (saving resources). That being said, with the potential of false positives, an extra layer of verification will be required (either by sending out a drone, or visually examining the patterns), but the role of this system is not to be a fully automated system to dispatch anti-poaching units but to help wildlife reserves make informed decisions about how they manage their anti-poaching resources.
Grass: the greatest plant family on earth
It is the first icy morning of the season and I, still groggy from the early wake-up, find myself on the top of Kolobe Road at sunrise. I’m snaking on foot behind two botanists as their GPS tentatively tries to recalculate its route to our destination. Having met up with MSc students, Arend De Beer and Tamryn Venter, during their field season in early 2020 I had promised to join on one of their forays to collect samples. Now, over a year later, I’m starting to question my life choices as the first cold snap of autumn bristles my skin. Just in time, the GPS settles on a location with a triumphant beep. We have made it to the plot.
While the botanists launch into a flurry of activity, unpacking all sorts of weird and wonderful equipment, I take stock of where we’ve ended up. Tall Burkeas, Terminalia and patches of Bushwillow are broken up by large sandstone boulders, a standard patch of rocky Welgevonden bushveld. A large Kuduberry stands proudly nearby and a bird party of cuckoo-shrikes, flycatchers, bulbuls and white-eyes forages lazily through the foliage. While I marvel at the birdlife, I suddenly realise… I’m supposed to be looking at the grass.
So, I turn my attention downwards and stare intently at the grassy covering on the occasional open ground and sneaking though gaps in the rock. It looks green and lush and as I stare, I start to make out subtle differences in the hues, the shape of the leaves and the inflorescences. Whilst in my reverie, Arend has already laid out a rope defining the boundaries of his 20 m x 20 m plot and is now attentively scouring this area.
“How many species do you see so far”, I jokingly ask.
“Seven, in the meter radius that you’re standing in alone”, he casually replies. Mind blown!
Grass. It’s so much more than what our lawns are made up of and we tend to forget that the grass family is probably the single most important plant family on the planet for mankind. Grasses feed the world, supplying up to 60% of food for global consumption. Wheat, rice, barley, sorghum, rhye, oats and maize (South Africa’s staple), are all grains belonging to the grass family Poaceae which comprises of over 10 000 species!
As Arend records species and their percentages within the plot, Tamryn is on a mission to find new species. She finds the 1,750th grass species for the Reserve tucked behind a rock next to the Kuduberry. It is Eustachys paspaloides, and it is what the botanists refer to as having a “true digitate” inflorescence. This means its fingerlike inflorescences stem from a single point on the central axis or stem. These inflorescence arrangements are key to identifying grass species and that is why such studies need to be conducted before the grass flowers disappear.
Tamryn’s MSc will compare the factors driving fine-scale species richness in Lapalala Wilderness Area and Welgevonden. To see whether the factors correlating to species richness in one Reserve are comparable to the other, Tamryn collects and preserves a sample of every species she finds in a giant, dilapidated (but functional) plant press. She sandwiches the new species between the toaster advertisements in the newspaper lining the press and notes meticulously the coloration of the leaves, the size of the blades, the inflorescence shape and more. Once she has built a grass database for each Reserve, she’ll compare the factors such as aspect, elevation, soil type and rock cover to see how these correlate to and predict diversity in the reserves. While on Welgevonden the botanists have found at least 40 new grass species for the Reserves species list.
Now that my eyes are tuned in Arend points out his favourite Waterberg grass. “It’s Diheteropogon amplectens, it is a very beautiful grass,” he says. A touch of pink catches my eye and I look even closer, elegant and intricate flowers decorate the spikelets – he is right – it is a very beautiful grass.
Arend now begins to collect individual samples of the most common species in the plot to assess their functional traits. He delicately wraps the roots in paper towel and soaks this with water before storing them in labelled zip sealed bags. They will need to finish up quickly now to get back home to complete the functional traits assessment before the grass loses integrity.
Functional traits are characteristics of grass such as the width, lengths and thickness of the blades, the strength of the grass or the dry matter content. To sum it up, blades of grass from the same species can differ in these traits which in turn affects their nutritional content. Traditionally, grazing value of a particular species has been assumed to be good or bad regardless of the variation in environmental conditions or ecotypes. But we know that grazing value, which is determined mainly by the crude protein, fibre content and digestibility of the grasses, varies within species, between species and across space and time!
The impact of assuming a species is eating “average” grass, when in actual fact the grazing value in our area may be poor, can have a huge impact on the herbivore population and the herbivore species composition that can be supported. So, Arend will compare the actual nutrient quality of the grasses to their assumed value to see what this means for Welgevonden. He will then relate the nutrient quality of the grasses to the functional traits of each species to see whether functional traits can be reliable indicators of grazing value. For example, if the grass is tough to break it has a higher fibre content or if it has a smaller leaf it is less sweet and so on. In addition, Arend is assessing the soil in each plot to see how exactly this impacts the grasses within a plot on Welgevonden. All of this information will help management understand the dynamics between grass composition, how much there is and the ability of the Reserve to sustain large herbivore populations in the long run.
Arend is currently in his lab analysing the soil samples, we wish him luck and look forward to his results!