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This research project takes place in the southwestern quarter of Botswana. The area under study covers 80,000km2 of semi-arid savanna wilderness. The Government of Botswana has taken laudable steps in establishing a system of Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) as vast buffer zones, situated between protected areas, and more densely settled areas with large numbers of livestock. These WMAs have been designated as multiple land use zones, conservation hunting being a primary activity, with benefits going to local communities. The area is mostly unfenced, permitting free movement of large wildlife including predators.
The future of hunting as a viable land use in these southern arid WMAs of the country is uncertain. Aerial survey data show a collapse of large migratory antelope populations regionally following a severe drought during the 1980s, with no current sign of recovery. Although aerial survey has revealed trends of larger antelope species, data on predators is lacking, as is data on myriad smaller species, some of which could be sustainably utilized for subsistence by local communities, such as steenbok and springhare. Reliable data is sorely needed in these vast areas for sound conservation decision-making.
Our research involves collaboration with the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Safari Club International (SCI) Foundation, hunting concessionaires, private ranchers, and most especially indigenous trackers from local communities. On the ground, we work daily through the dust and heat alongside exceptionally talented trackers, many of whom are also employed in seasonal hunting operations. Together we cover vast stretches of 4×4 sand trails bisecting the landscape, meticulously gathering spoor (track) data on the diverse mammalian wildlife community.
In the broadest sense, our primary objective is to better understand applications of tracking for measuring species diversity, distributions, detecting changes in abundance, and even estimating true density. We’re using a variety of experimental approaches including comparisons with other methods such as aerial survey and ground line transects. Tracking has a distinct advantage over direct-observation methods like aerial survey and line transects in that numerous visibility biases resulting in poor detectability are avoided. The Kalahari’s consistent sandy substrate and renowned trackers provide conditions ideally suited for testing and application of this technique.
A second objective is to obtain a detailed spatial picture of how human activities are affecting wildlife in this ecosystem. Wildlife distribution and abundance is measured over landscape gradients of increasing land use intensity, from protected areas, through WMAs, to the communal grazing areas. We’re particularly interested in species distribution and abundances in the multi-use, hunted WMAs. We want to know how these areas are functioning as buffer zones to Botswana’s protected parks and game reserves in their support of wildlife populations.
Through this project, the work made possible by SCI Foundation is revealing first estimates of large carnivore numbers in the WMAs. This new knowledge will have implications for potential quota-setting for large cats. Preliminary results show that the WMAs maintain widespread and healthy, although naturally low-density populations of both cheetah and leopard, while lion distribution appears more sensitive to adjacent grazing areas and human-wildlife conflict. Animal census data resulting from this program will ultimately provide wildlife managers with information to help establish and support sustainable hunting quotas.