We sit quietly in a rusted, green pickup, observing nine lion cubs as they wrestle, roll, and pounce, their mothers resting nearby under the shade of an acacia tree. Occasionally, a pair of giant amber eyes curiously peers in our direction.
As the sun sets, we head back to the research camp of the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, one of the longest running conservation research projects in Africa. Within two kilometers of Icamp, the truck’s headlights illuminate a female leopard in stalking position on the periphery of the sand road. A group of impala are grazing nearby, unaware of her presence. We turn off the truck’s headlights, hoping not to disturb her hunt, but shortly thereafter an impala sees the leopard and lets out an alarm call. We continue our drive back to camp and call it a day.
That evening I drift to sleep, with the rustling of elephants outside my tent, wondering what carnivores I will observe tomorrow. There is a plethora of possibilities as Botswana, a landlocked country located in southern Africa, is home to some of the highest diversities of carnivores in Africa.
This abundance of carnivores, however, may be under threat as Botswana has recently reported declining wildlife populations, increasing pressures from illegal hunting, and large scale changes in land use and management policies. In order to establish conservation measures that will help reverse these perceived trends, information is needed on the distributions, densities, and ecology of Botswana’s wildlife populations.
Our research aims to help address this knowledge gap through what we term, The Three I’s. First, we are identifying a sustainable method for monitoring carnivore communities across northern Botswana. Second, we are implementing the monitoring program by building collaborations with local organizations and agencies. Lastly, we are inspiring future generations of Botswana to care about conservation. We began this research in the summer of 2013. Our first objective was to decide where to conduct our research. We selected three focal study sites; the sites experience different levels of human impact, ranging from livestock grazing (high human impact) to a game reserve (low human impact). This allows us to elucidate how carnivore species and carnivore communities are influenced by human land use practices. The Botswana government can use this information to predict the impacts of changing land use and management policies.
To identify a monitoring program we are using camera trap and track surveys. Camera traps are remote sensing cameras that detect heat and motion from passing animals. The cameras take photos of anything that passes in front of them 24 hours per day and in all weather conditions. They have been used to monitor elusive carnivores all over the world, including tigers, jaguars, and fossa. Track surveys, alternatively, are the preferred method for monitoring wildlife in Africa because they do not require any technical equipment. Their ability to monitor whether populations are increasing or decreasing, however, is widely disputed. We are employing these methods to estimate the densities and distributions of up to thirteen species of carnivores (e.g., African wild dog, leopard, lion, and serval). Our study will be the first to use camera trap surveys, in combination with advanced statistical models, to estimate the densities of an entire carnivore community.
In a field where money, time, and personnel are limiting factors, this multi-species study design could result in considerable savings as well as a more efficient use of available data. Additionally, this design can be implemented internationally in areas where population data is sorely needed for multiple wildlife species.
The long-term implementation of our carnivore monitoring program requires the involvement and training of individuals from local organizations and communities. Thus, throughout our project we will be working to build trust, collaborations, and capacity (i.e., skills). We will offer multiple field training workshops and presentations to the local communities, government agencies, and research institutes to build local capacity in regards to monitoring wildlife populations. Participants will receive hands-on training with, for example, setting up and operating camera traps and designing track surveys. When we host these workshops, we will also request feedback on what we can do to ensure our research will be valuable to the country of Botswana and the conservation of their carnivore communities. Our goal is to have local wildlife guides or officers continue to implement our relatively easy field methodologies. They can then collaborate with researchers (e.g., from Botswana Predator Conservation Trust or the Okavango Research Institute) to model the populations. This will provide widespread, comparable data on carnivores across the country and allow the government and local communities to make informed decisions regarding carnivore conservation and management.
To inspire future generations to be concerned with conservation we are creating Wild Joys. Wild Joys will be a conservation outreach program for children from rural communities and a joint effort between a local wildlife guide from the community of Sankuyo, Monthusi Sinvula, and me. Tourists pay tens of thousands of dollars to visit Botswana and view the awe-inspiring array of wildlife. Children from local communities, however, rarely have this same opportunity as their family's do not have the resources to travel outside of their village and into wildlife areas. Consequently, many of the children's wildlife encounters are negative, examples being when elephants raid their family’s crop field or carnivores prey on their livestock. Wild Joys will take children into the bush to provide them with positive wildlife encounters and expose them to natural history, animal behavior, and field research techniques (e.g., camera trapping, track surveys, and radio-telemetry). This will be a weekend program geared towards children ages 8-15 and will be taught in Setswana, the local language. We trialed the program in August 2013 and took out 42 children over the course of 6 days. The children had a wonderful time, learned a lot, and for many of them, had their very first experience seeing lions, leopards, and African wild dogs.
Our project strives to positively impact both the wildlife and the people of Botswana by identifying and implementing a carnivore monitoring program and by inspiring the youth of Botswana to care about conservation. For more information on our project, visit www.lindseyrichresearch.com.
Update: Lyndsey Rish has received a Fulbright grant to study carnivores in Botswana. Read more about this here.