This wildlife volunteering vacation is all about safeguarding some of Africa’s most iconic animals such as the leopard, elephant and cheetah. Almost all of Africa is under some sort of human impact and Namibia is no exception. Most game species roam on farmland, which is either privately owned or communal, and as such is managed by humans in one way or another. Wherever humans and wildlife come together, conflicts tend to appear, and human-wildlife conflict has been identified as one of the biggest threats to biodiversity worldwide. Sound scientific knowledge is key to mitigate this conflict and to make wise management decisions that balance the need of humans, wildlife and the environment. In a sense lack of knowledge is one of our biggest environmental problems. We believe that knowledge is the key to conservation and the most effective way to mitigate human-wildlife conflict. Therefore this expedition will study the ecology of leopard, cheetah, brown hyaena, elephant and game species with the ultimate goal of using the knowledge gained in conflict mitigation work, for example to improve game herd management and minimise losses amongst local farmers.
Aims & objectives
Our vision is a sustainable coexistence of humans and wildlife in Namibia. Our mission is to implement, through the acquisition of sound scientific data, important conservation issues in the day-to-day management decisions of landowners and to mitigate human-wildlife conflict on a local and regional scale. To achieve this, the expedition will study the
(1) Density, abundance, spatial distribution, home range size and habitat preferences of leopards
(2) Abundance, density, reproductive rate and population growth of game species
(3) Impacts of elephants on the vegetation and the ecosystem on medium-sized and large game farms.
In doing so, the expedition will
(A) Focus on capturing leopards, but may also opportunistically capture brown hyaena, cheetah, caracal, etc. for radio collaring and subsequent intensive monitoring of their daily movements, activities and behaviours
(B) Evaluate leopard intra-predator interactions, as well as inter-predator relationships between leopard and other predators
(C) Collect serology and other tissue samples of all captured animals for genetic and immunological studies
(D) Conduct game counts using different methods such as strip game counts, waterhole counts and camera trapping
(E) Monitor the local elephant population to investigate its impact on the ecosystem
(F) Conduct community work focusing on children of low-income families through cooperation with local schools.
Namibia is a leading example in the field of nature conservation and the protection of species and ecosystems, not only in Africa, but in the world. 45% of Namibia is under some sort of protection, be it through national parks, private game reserves or communal conservancies. In the latter, wise management allows people to benefit from nature and sustain their livelihoods through consumptive and non-consumptive utilisation of wildlife and other natural resources. In addition, farmland, especially if well managed within the framework of the commercial conservancies, contributes to the rich Namibian biodiversity, providing habitat for impressive flora and (mega)fauna assemblages, as well as intact and functioning ecosystems on a large scale. But here to human-wildlife conflict is a growing cause for concern, especially in the light of growing human populations and an increasingly economically-driven society. Predators preying on livestock (whether in reality or only in people’s imagination) and elephants destroying water wells and habitat (very much in reality) pose a serious problem leading to wildlife persecution and declining populations.
But even game farms high with high densities of antelope and other species are not without problems. Most farmers buy in valuable game and erect high, game-proof fences in order to prevent their valuable (re-)introduced animals from escaping. This entails various problems such as genetic isolation, blocking of migration routes, higher susceptibility to diseases and the potential for overgrazing. Management of game farms is admittedly difficult as areas are vast with animals by and large roaming freely within. Even the most basic information such as abundance and reproductive success are generally based on guesswork only. As a result, most game farms are overstocked and therefore overgrazed. Some farms are even highly overstocked and vegetation severely degraded.
Another field of our research addresses these problems. Game count methods for farmers developed and tested as part of the expedition’s work; reproduction rate is monitored and used to calculate growth rate on a regional scale; the environmental impact of certain species (such as elephants) is investigated to derive management recommendations.
The pan-African problem of human-predator conflict due to predation on livestock (and now, with the booming game ranching industry, also antelope species) is well documented. However, practical solutions on how to minimise the risk of predation (especially in game ranching) are lacking. Our intensive monitoring of a number of large predators will shed light on their predation habits and preferences. Results will be implemented in advanced risk avoidance strategies.
Commercial farmland (which is mostly comprised of fairly undisturbed natural areas) comprises about 43% of Namibia. Beside the protected areas, game or cattle farms are thus the biggest ecological units. The Namibian government has social development (infrastructure, schooling, medical services, housing, etc.) as its priority and will thus not spend money on expanding its current national parks. With nature tourism being the global number one growth industry, the private sector has a golden opportunity to participate in and profit from the expansion of conservation land. The expedition’s research area is a relatively large 15,000 ha (150 sqkm) farm that will provide important data that will be used to develop a sample management plan to serve as a blueprint for improved management strategies for other game ranches and conservancies all over Namibia.
Leopard (Panthera pardus), African elephant (Loxodonta africana), cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), caracal (Felis caracal).
Other species present
The research area supports a high diversity of plant and animal species. The predominant vegetation type is the Kalahari thorn bush savannah, connected to the grass-dominated dune lands of the Kalahari desert to the south.
Amongst the roughly 70 different mammal species found in this area the following carnivores also occur on the study site: African wildcat, black footed cat, black-backed jackal, Cape fox, bat-eared fox, banded, slender and yellow mongoose, suricate, small-spotted genet, honey badger and striped polecat. Other large mammals commonly seen include southern white rhino, giraffe, sable antelope, waterbuck, greater kudu, eland, Burchell’s zebra, mountain zebra, oryx, blue wildebeest, black wildebeest, red hartebeest, impala, springbok, warthog, common duiker, steenbok, klipspringer, different bat species and numerous small species.
There is also a large number of man-made dams (artificial small lakes) and waterholes that support a rich bird life (over 230 species counted so far).
Your typical day begins early in the morning with breakfast at base camp. You will then split into small groups to complete the research tasks assigned to you for the day. Depending on the task, you will return to base camp for a lunch break with time for a siesta during the hottest part of the day, or you may stay out in the field for the day. Everyone will return to base for dinner and on some days you may be out on a night drive. After dinner, we will have talks, discussions and brainstorming/planning sessions for the next day.
In the event of an animal having been captured (or another exciting event), where possible all members of the expedition team will be called together to witness and/or participate in the immobilisation/sample collection procedure.
Please note that every team member will be rotated through all activities and that research groups will return to base for the night where food is prepared by the expedition cook. There will also be rest and admin days as required.
Capturing and collaring
The capture method of choice will be by cage trap, which is a safe way to capture the target species. You will be involved in setting up the traps on various locations throughout the study area. Cage traps will be checked daily by one team. If an animal is captured, you will inform the rest of the expedition via two-way radio. All expedition participants will then have the chance to join in and assist in or witness the handling of the captured animal. The captured animal will be darted, immobilised and samples for research will be taken. After that, the animal will be fitted with a VHF or GPS collar and given an antidote to be released as soon as it has fully recovered.
Monitoring of leopards
Once an animal is collared, you will observe and study its movements and behaviour. This will be the main daily activity of at least one team. Depending on the number of collared animals within the study area at a given time, two teams may be assigned to this task. You will be provided with a VHF-tracking receiver with a directional antenna and will work from vehicles, followed up by foot patrols under the leadership of an experienced tracker. You will follow collared animals on a 12 – 24 hour delay, based on downloaded GPS information and record information about the animal’s behaviour (preferred places to rest, drink, hunt from, preferred prey species, frequency of kills, etc.) and, where available, collect samples from kills as well as scat to obtain further insights into predation habits. In the event of a sighting of a collared animal, you will do everything in your power not to alert or disturb the animal, but keep it under visual observation and record its natural behaviour.
You will help to install and monitor camera traps all over the study site to monitor carnivore activity in different habitats, to quantify the number of different individuals and to assess potential locations for capturing them. At base you will help to sort and analyse pictures, and add them to a database.
One team will set off early in the morning to locate elephants with the help of a tracker and VHF telemetry. Once you have found the elephants, you will stay with them (at a safe distance) and record their behaviour, location, habitat use and other parameters.
You will conduct two different types of game counts. A strip game count from one of the expedition vehicle driving along a transect (i.e. a pre-defined route) through the study area, as well as counting animals visiting a waterhole. Of primary interest here are population demographic data (e.g. male: female ratios, age composition of herds, number of sexually mature females with calf, etc.).
You will also assist with data entry into the expedition’s laptop and help with the analysis of camera trap images.
At 825,418 sqkm Namibia is the world's thirty-fourth largest country. However, after Mongolia, Namibia is also the least densely populated country in the world (2.5 inhabitants per sqkm). Namibia is also very rich in wildlife. It holds the world’s largest cheetah population, which is probably the species’ last stronghold world-wide. There are over twenty species of antelope ranging from largest, the eland, to smallest, the Damara dik-dik. The oryx, a striking antelope with long symmetrical horns and distinctive black and white markings is featured on the Namibian coat of arms.
The core of the study site is a private game reserve in central Namibia of 15,000 ha (150 sqkm) of very well preserved thorn bush savannah.
The study site has a very varied landscape (altitudes from 1500 – 1800 m) with different habitat types and as such contains ideal habitats for all of Namibia’s indigenous mammal species, including elephant and rhino. There are 14 waterholes fairly evenly distributed over the study site. The area has, for many years, not been used for any commercial farming activity, thus leaving the pasture and bush in prime condition. In addition to this, the area has a number of sites of archaeological interest (rock art).
Needless to say that the habitat diversity accommodates an equally rich diversity of fauna & flora and there are many typically African species present (leopard, cheetah, brown hyaena, caracal, African wildcat, elephant, southern white rhino, giraffe, sable antelope, waterbuck, greater kudu, eland, Burchell’s zebra, mountain zebra, oryx, blue wildebeest, black wildebeest, red hartebeest, impala, springbok, warthog, common duiker, steenbok and klipspringer and many smaller mammal species).
On this expedition we are working with the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the University of Namibia, the Namibia Polytechnic University, as well as other local authorities and communities. Swarovski Optik, Motorola, Vectronic Aerospace, mtc Namibia and the Yves Rocher Foundation also support this expedition.