For the past six months biologists Kristoffer and Leah Everatt, from the Centre of Wildlife Management at the University of Pretoria have been investigating the status of carnivore populations in Limpopo National Park. This three year study is the first scientific investigation of large carnivore status and distribution in the Mozambican component of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park.
The husband and wife team arrived in early September to establish their first study area in the central region of the park. “We had very little expectations for what we might find in Limpopo, with the Park being in the early stages of its development, and with prey populations being much lower than what are found in other National Parks.”
“Since the resettlement of villages within the Park is still in progress, and activities such as cattle herding and bushmeat hunting are still being practiced in some of the wildlife areas, we expected that lions and other carnivores may be affected by snaring and retaliation killings.”
To meet the challenges inherent to studying such elusive, low-density species in a vast study area, the researchers are adopting a combination of traditional and innovative new survey methods including prey counts, track surveys, call-ups, remote camera-traps and scat surveys using a specially trained detector dog (similar to dogs trained to find explosives).
Already the researchers are gaining valuable information on the status and distribution of large carnivores in the region including the presence of cheetah across the entire sandveld portion of their first study area. Using individual spot patterns from photographs the researchers have identified 10 individuals, including a pregnant female and several multi-male groups. “This is very exciting news, being the first hard evidence of a resident breeding population of cheetah in the Park, and more importantly in Mozambique since being extirpated during the countries years of civil war.”
The researchers have determined that there are four lion prides of 2-7 lions each, occupying about half of the available habitat in the central region of the Park. Although the study has documented lion-cattle conflict, their preliminary findings suggest that lion prides are largely restricted to regions in the park furthest from human settlements. The study has also found evidence that lions are being impacted by human activities, including deaths due to snaring and photographs of lions carrying snares around their necks. Although the researchers have documented a pack of six wild dogs in the park, this Critically Endangered species is considerably less common and the researchers suggest may be more susceptible to local human persecution.
“Despite the challenges of working in a place with little infrastructure, and having to deal with a number of challenges, our project is proving successful and our preliminary results are very encouraging for lion and cheetah conservation in Mozambique. This project illustrates the importance of Transfrontier Parks for these threatened species, and is already bringing positive interest to Limpopo National Park from the outside conservation community, especially in relation to its potential importance for cheetah conservation. Large carnivores are both crucial to ecosystem health and offer high tourism value, and so the re-establishment of these populations is very promising for the future of the Park.“