For Stellenbosch University (SU) elephant expert Dr Katharina von Dürckheim, being in the bush is her “true north”. She has pursued this passion as a wildlife scientist, wildlife editor and in working for NGOs.
Through postgraduate research she has delved into elephants’ sense of smell, and into finding ways to solve the conflict between people and these African giants.
As leader of the new Wildlife Free to Roam (WFR) research programme, she now focuses her efforts to help create connectivity corridors that allow wildlife to roam more easily between many of southern Africa’s protected areas within large transboundary conservation areas.
WFR is based in the SU Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology in the SU Faculty of AgriSciences and is supported by the Peace Parks Foundation. It was set up in honour of the late Duke of Edinburgh, HRH Prince Philip, in recognition of his decades’ worth of conservation leadership.
Dr Von Dürckheim is currently recruiting students to her research team and dealing with the logistics of setting up a base in some of the wilder parts of Southern Africa.
Her team will be working in the Greater Limpopo (GL) and Kavango Zambezi (KAZA) transfrontier conservation areas (TFCAs) – huge areas of land straddling many countries that allow for unhindered movement of wild animals across borders, where need be.
These TFCAs were formally endorsed as transboundary conservation areas by the governments of among others South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Angola, Namibia, and Botswana, through dedicated brokering done by the Peace Parks Foundation since 1997. It has since seen the rewilding of various southern African parks, including the translocation of wildlife to restock Zinave National Park and Maputo Special Reserve in Mozambique.
“The next important step is to create opportunities to connect these parks with each other. We must identify functional corridors and state forest reserves that will allow wide ranging species, such as the African elephant, routes to move along,” says Dr Von Dürckheim, who counts Dr John Hanks, former CEO of the Peace Parks Foundation, as one of her most valued mentors.
“However, spatial bottlenecks are occurring. Some say that within three years, many of these corridors will be functionally extinct, with the expansion of rural settlements.
“There’s a certain human density across which elephants and lions will not move. It leads to populations becoming isolated, and inbreeding happens. Connectivity is therefore important, and to look for corridors and pathways that allow wide-ranging species like elephant, lion and wild dog to roam.”
Through WFR, the idea is exactly that: within each TFCA identify, understand, manage and, where possible, secure existing ecological networks that allow for greater wildlife movement in the regions, especially in view of climate change and rural population expansion. The team will also study how specific species use these as corridors. The work will be done in conjunction with stakeholders and local communities.
The programme’s scientific advisor is Professor Michael Samways, an emeritus professor in the Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology, who conceptualised the Mondi Ecological Network Programme.
This endeavour has helped forestry operations ensure that their landholdings are managed as functional ecological networks with corridors that optimise biodiversity conservation.
Greater freedom of movement is something that the 12 000 elephants of the Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe (part of the GLTFCA), for instance, desperately need.
“The elephant overpopulation problem in Gonarezhou is more of a spatial than a numbers question. How and where do we create safe linkages to protected areas north and east of it, and how do we make sure they are part of a functioning ecological network?
“Interestingly, female and male elephants use ecological networks very differently. Females and their calves are risk adverse, and therefore stay in ‘safe spaces’ such as national parks. Bulls will more readily roam widely across regions and even countries, and are not deterred by the presence of settlements.”
Some of her previous research suggests that elephants can be “umbrella species” or great ambassadors for whether ecological networks work, and for the “corridor cause”. Their pathways are used by many other wildlife, including ungulates and predators.
“Elephants leave urine and dung behind on these pathways. These are like communication hubs. They contain olfactory messages that allow them to monitor which other elephants are around and are possibly ready to mate.”
There are extensive elephant pathways in for instance the Kavango Zambezi TFCA, stretching from the Mudumu National Park in Namibia into Angola, and from Angola to the east and the Zambezi River. Many of these connect protected areas with one another. These days elephants use them to quickly travel through areas where people are present, often at night.
“Pathways criss-cross communities who have settled along the river to plant their crops. These ancient corridors need to be conserved. They need formal recognition to optimise spatial planning in the area, and to mitigate possible conflict between people and wildlife.”