Due to the very poor rains in 2014 Mankwe is extremely dry which has posed a huge fire risk. Fortunately we started our fire breaks early in anticipation of runaway veld fires, what we hadn't bargained on was the amount of arson attempts we were going to suffer. There have been 17 deliberately started fires over the past month, fortunately our fire breaks held and prevented too much damage. It is a common practice for poachers to start fires either to create a distraction or to entice animals to the fence line. Thanks to our team for their hard work over the past few weeks, there were some frightening moments and very long days.
Scavenging species may not be cute and cuddly and do not have the iconic status of the 'big five' but they are essential to any eco-system as nutrient recyclers and without them the world will become disease ridden and infested with flies and maggots. The increase in diseases like rabies was noted in India when the population of vultures declined by 99%.
In 2006 the Earthwatch Research Project, focusing on Brown Hyena commenced. The study was started as little research had been done on Brown Hyena, they are listed as threatened and are a persecuted species. Pilot studies were carried out to find out the best methods to study this rarely seen nocturnal species, once the methods were established 9 years of research was conducted. The populations at Mankwe and Pilanesberg National Park were monitored using latrine surveys, spotlight transects and camera trapping. The project expanded to surrounding farm lands and rural areas with the help of several PhD students, data was analysed and publications were published in scientific journals, the findings were passed on to the IUCN Hyenadae working group to ensure that necessary conservation measures are taken to protect and conserve them. It is estimated that around 1700 brown hyena remain in the wild and at the current high levels of persecution this number could decline in the future. During the study it was found that the Planesberg National Park has a high density of Brown Hyena and the population has remained stable over the 10 year study. Mankwe Wildlife Reserve has seen an increase in hyena activity and has an established breeding den, the increase is largely due to the recent arrest of poachers and the increased awareness and levels of protection they are now receiving due to the Earthwatch project.
The project evolved in 2011 to include other threatened scavenging species, namely the Cape Gyps Vulture, White Back Vulture and the Black Backed Jackal. The research shows that the biggest threats facing the vultures are poisoning, power line collisions and 'muti killings'. Their numbers are declining rapidly and urgent conservation measures have to be implemented in Southern Africa to try and save them from extinction. The data collected from GPS tracking devices revealed that vultures travel vast distances, so all Southern African countries need to be made aware of the problem and implement conservation measures to ensure the future existence of vultures.
We would like to thank the Earthwatch Institute for their support in making this project possible. To the 45 teams of Earthwatch volunteers that have assisted us in collecting the data, your contribution is invaluable, it was a great pleasure working with all of you . To the scientists, namely Dr Dawn Scott, and Dr Richard Yarnell and PhD students who have been the back bone of the project, thank you for your advise, analysis and implementation, Lastly thank you to all the staff that have assisted with the teams, Dougal , Lauren, Penny, Charles, Niall and Andrew , it has been so good working with such a passionate team.