The most important thing about wildlife management is managing the wildlife, right? Wrong. It all starts much deeper, as Chris Pike, conservation officer and professional hunter, explains.
I’ve just finished a tour of the UK talking to gamekeepers, stalkers, deer managers and students about how we do things in South Africa. I encountered a huge range of views and opinions about wildlife management, but most people seemed to focus on the wildlife itself and its immediate environment.
Maybe it seems strange, but whatever the reason, it seems that the way African wildlife management has developed, particularly in South Africa, is to look far beyond just the wildlife. In fact wildlife is literally the last thing we consider!
Let me explain first, though, the roots of game management in South Africa. It all began in 1898 with the fledgling Sabi Game reserve. This small area of savannah bushveld later expanded into what today is the greater Kruger National Park. It currently covers an area of over five million acres. Together with several other national and provincial parks, the South African Government controls over 16 million acres of conservation land or 6.8 per cent of the total land mass of South Africa. Sounds impressive?
Well, arguably more important are the country’s private landowners – they currently own over 45 million acres of conservation land in South Africa. This makes up nearly 17 per cent of the total land mass of the country and this figure is increasing on average by 700,000 acres per annum.
So why has private ownership and conservation become so important in South Africa? It all started in the late 1980s with the advent of the private game reserve, and this helped conserve natural eco-systems. This allowed landowners to own and manage natural game animals, if enclosed by a game proof fence. These private fenced game reserves can range in size from 1,000 acres to over 100,000 acres. Before this, the Government owned all the game in South Africa, and there was little motivation to conserve it.
A key consideration when managing these game reserves is that each one needs to be treated as a separate ecological unit. This is because firstly, they’re closed units that do not allow free movement of game species, and secondly because each area has a different history. Land-use history can drastically change the amount and make-up of the biomass available to game on a property. Picture one is a stark example of this – the property on the right has been badly over grazed by stock in the past while the property on the left has been run at an optimal level. Both of these are currently game reserves but as you can imagine will have very different management plans and stocking rates.
This is where the qualified game reserve manager (gamekeeper) fits into the South African private game reserve. It is his responsibility to monitor and maintain all ecological processes on these reserves. The game reserve manager has three management priorities that need to be monitored for the system to function successfully. These are, in order of priority: the soil, the vegetation and lastly the game.
The number one management priority is the soil. Its protection and wise use is essential for the survival of the system. Without soil, no plants or producers can grow, and no energy transfer can take place. Soil erosion is a major problem in South Africa and has necessitated much work being done by managers in an attempt to rehabilitate affected areas.
The second management priority is the vegetation. It provides cover for the soil by protecting the surface from rain drop erosion, as well as holding its structure together with its roots. Vegetation also provides food and cover for game species and, without this, the transfer of energy will once again not be possible. In South Africa, monitoring the vegetation is one of the most important functions of a game reserve manager. He or she is able to pick up early signs of over-utilisation and population change, and can plan to alleviate these negatives before permanent damage can be done to the system.
The third management priority is the wildlife, the game. The animals come last in the list of management priorities. It is vital to manipulate the game numbers on a reserve, to alleviate pressures on the vegetation and soil. Overpopulation of certain species can lead to severe degradation of the available biomass and lead to a catastrophic collapse of the entire system, as the dead blesbok in picture three illustrates. Game populations in South Africa are controlled by two key methods: capture and relocation; or utilisation through hunting.
In following these three management priorities, the game reserve manager needs to look at the specific needs of all game species and populations within the closed system. In the past, game movements were based on rainfall and food availability and this led to seasonal expansions of their home range. Due to the closed nature of the reserve, these basics for survival need to be provided all year round. Key among these is the creation of artificial water points, usually fed by boreholes. Food availability needs to be very carefully monitored to ensure that there is always sufficient to sustain the population within the reserve.
Well, this all sounds very interesting and great in theory, but as you can imagine, is a lot easier said than done. Time to introduce… Complexity! In South Africa, each game species has a different feeding regime that needs to be considered. These range from grazers, made up of selective and bulk short or tall grass grazers, browsers, made up of different height classes (from the tiny duiker to the towering giraffe), to mixed feeders. Mixed feeders browse and graze at different percentages at different times of year according to seasonal climatic changes. Considering that a reserve might contain up to 30 different species of herbivores, this is a very challenging part of the management regime. And this is the reason why greater emphasis is put on vegetation monitoring. By keeping a close eye on the vegetation, it’s easier to spot the early signs of a certain section of the vegetation layer being over-utilised. The manager will look at the game species which feeds on that specific layer and then take steps to reduce numbers in order to alleviate the pressure on the vegetation.
Animals’ feeding regimes are only part of this particular picture – the game manager has also to consider other animals which may have similar or overlapping feeding regimes. A classic example of how a system can fail if this competition is not managed correctly happened in the early 2000s. Catastrophically, in just one season a game reserve in the Eastern Cape Province lost 11 white rhinoceros due to starvation. This was entirely due to an over-population of warthog combined with no vegetation monitoring being done. Warthog and white rhino have a very similar feeding regime – both being bulk short grass grazers. The warthog population exploded and management did not pick up that they had eaten up all the available short grass on the reserve. Consequently, the rhino had no usable grazing and, due to their high energy intake needs, died of starvation over a very short period of time.
Managing habitat closely needs an in-depth appreciation of what the animals are doing on your patch. So, next time, I’ll be looking at the control of game, and how genetic mixing is a vital tool in South Africa’s game reserves. ν