Banhine National Park, Biodiversity, Conservation, Great Limpopo TFCA, Limpopo National Park, Lubombo TFCA, Maputo Special Reserve, Mozambique, Partnerships, Rewilding, Water security, Zinave National Park

Sky Count: Wildlife Numbers Shaping Conservation

In October 2023, an aerial census was conducted by the Maputo, Zinave, Banhine and Limpopo national parks to determine their wildlife populations, with support from Peace Parks Foundation and Mozambique’s National Administration for Conservation Areas (ANAC). Early estimates indicate a substantial growth in wildlife species across the participating parks, all attributed to successful conservation efforts.

Putting Data into Play

The census results serve as a foundational dataset for making informed conservation and population management decisions. This includes strategies to mitigate potential negative impacts of high wildlife density, and wildlife relocations to other parks. The census data can also help the park structure their rewilding: where to place core sanctuaries and water, and to transfer wildlife to.

Assessments of the overall diversity of species present, combined with an evaluation of the quality of habitats and the impact of environmental changes on the parks’ ecosystems, can help guide habitat restoration and conservation efforts. The data will inform protection and economic management decisions, including those related to rewilding programmes, water management plans, and to maintaining a balanced landscape to ensure the long-term health of the parks’ ecosystems.

A buffalo herd catches the eyes of the counting crew as they move across the Limpopo National Park landscape.

Critically, the census helps to keep track of populations of endangered or threatened species within the park to ensure that adequate measures are taken for their protection and recovery – in particular, where to focus anti-poaching efforts.

A series of firsts

This census marked several firsts, including the first time that a full census had been conducted in all four of the parks. For the first time in 10 years, a census was operational in Banhine Park as a result of the restructuring of the parks’ boundaries. This was also the first census conducted across the entire northern Limpopo National Park since it’s been under full protection and conservation, and therefore without the presence of communities.

Keeping Count: An Observer’s Role

Such extensive censuses relied on two aircraft supplied by Peace Parks: a fixed-wing aeroplane surveying the centres of the park, and a Robinson R44 helicopter, with counters following transect lines over specific target areas within the parks.

The aerial census was conducted in two ways. The fixed-wing survey covered the centres of the park along tracts predetermined by GPS, transporting the observers in an aircraft supplied by Peace Parks. In the Robinson R44 helicopter, also provided by Peace Parks, counters followed predetermined transect lines over protected areas of high game concentration, close to rivers and waterbodies that wildlife frequent, to tally all the animals they could see. The transect formed the central line, from which the team counted all the animals that fall within a specified distance on either side of that line. This enabled the team to divide where they see the animals along the transect on either side of the helicopter into specific categories of distance from the centreline, or from the helicopter. As each animal was counted, the data was captured by the accompanying ecologist.

For example, here in the Maputo National Park, the transects are in total a kilometre wide. You’ve got strips of 500 meters on either side of the helicopter. The 500 meters is divided into five different sectors where you see the animal, with the sector indicating the distance from the centre to the helicopter.

Cathariné Hanekom, District Ecologist of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife
Cathariné Hanekom, District Ecologist of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, assists with the aerial count from the helicopter, a challenging job which demands intense focus for up to three hours at a time.

The piloting and data counting were conducted by each park’s team individually, with support from experts who will undertake the data capture, analysis and reporting. The parks aimed to employ the same personnel for each census to be consistent in their methodology. ANAC’s local rangers have an opportunity for training in this field and, through its partnership with Peace Parks, knowledge is being transferred within the transfrontier park space.

Air sickness: Keep on Counting

Like sea legs, these counters also had to find their wings because they’re on the plane about six hours per day, for up to eight days.

The four observers sit exceptionally still, for up to three hours at a time. These observers are at risk of air sickness, which is a real thing and tricky for the census, because it can’t be cancelled. The census needs to carry on, and you need to be focused and aware enough to keep counting despite the fact that you’re not feeling 100%.

Hannes van Wyk, Aviation Manager & Chief Fixed Wing Pilot: Lubombo, Great Limpopo and Malawi-Zambia transboundary landscapes

Aside from the reliance on the skills of the pilot and observers, another challenge to effective counting can be visibility. This can be impacted by vegetation cover and topography; time of the year – affecting leaf cover; differences in size, colour and habits across species; time of day, burning – which causes dark backgrounds that obscure animals; and the groundspeed of an aircraft, which needs to be slow enough to enable effective counting. This was accounted for by conducting the census during the long dry season when leaf cover of bushlands and woodlands is at a minimum and visibility from the air at a maximum.

Encouraging Early Results

In Limpopo National Park results indicate substantial growth, and a far wider distribution of wildlife in the park. Elephants were one of a number of species for which data sets were compiled from numbers recorded.

In Maputo National Park, a far wider distribution of wildlife, populating all corners of the park, has been observed. Some of this wildlife will now potentially be relocated to Banhine National Park.

Zinave is reaping the fruits of a massive rewilding programme that was recently undertaken, resulting in the establishment of the big five, and an early estimate of 20% growth in more common species of wildlife. This population will grow further once the sanctuary fences are dropped and those animals start reproducing.

In Limpopo National Park results indicate substantial growth, and a far wider distribution of wildlife in the park.

The preliminary results in all the parks give us confidence that we know what species are there, and that can guide us also for relocation and repopulation of other parks.”

Antony Alexander, Peace Parks’ Senior Project Manager for Mozambique

The success of the censuses paves the way for similar efforts in other parks, providing valuable insights for conservation and rewilding initiatives.

Zinave National Park is an integral part of the Mozambican component of the Great Limpopo transboundary landscape. At more than 4,000 square kilometres it is a challenging expanse for an aerial census, but understanding the growth and flow of wildlife populations here contributes vitally to the suitability and success of ambitious rewilding projects. These efforts are helping to sustain and restore the landscape dynamics of the larger ecosystem, already bring a boost to Zinave’s biodiversity and balance.

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