Carnivore Conservation in South Africa: A Keepers Diary

Many thanks to Olly O’Malley for writing this guest blog about his trip to South Africa to visit a Wild Dog conservation project.

As well as other in-country conservation projects, Knowsley Safari Park currently supports wild dog conservation carried out by the Endangered Wildlife Trust in South Africa. Two of our carnivore keepers, Olly O’Malley and Nick Parashchak, visited the Waterberg Wild Dog Project to meet with the team and find out first hand what carnivore conservation involves in rural South Africa. The Waterberg Wild Dog Project is a research project carried out across farmlands. By interviewing farmers to find out if they have problems with carnivores stealing their stock and by carrying out a diet analysis on the area’s carnivores, the EWT are able to make informed decisions about which areas are problem zones needing attention and which farmers are unnecessarily persecuting wild dogs and other predators. As wild dogs are not the only predators that are shot at by farmers, its really necessary that all carnivores in the area are taken account of as the only way to ease the pressure on wild dogs is to ease pressure on all the predator species.

Elephant crossing

Not an eveyday rearview

Day 1: Our first day began with meeting Kelly Marnewick, manager of the EWT’s Carnivore Conservation Programme, responsible for overseeing the Waterberg Wild Dog Project as well as many other carnivore projects across South Africa. Kelly also introduced us to Harriet, the EWT’s director of science, and between them they explained to us how they have established a group of reserves between which wild dog populations are exchanged to keep up a healthy gene pool, much like the work done in zoos by studbook keepers. In the last 10 years, this approach has doubled the number of wild dogs outside of protected areas in South Africa.

Day 2: A visit to the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria allowed us to meet the carnivore keepers in a South African zoo and see how lions, tigers and wild dogs are kept in their native country. Surprisingly similar to European zoos!

Day 3: We met with Michelle and Matt, the researchers carrying out the Waterberg Wild Dog Project. They introduced us to Kobus, the wildlife trade officer for the provincial council. Kobus explained to us the practicalities and difficulties of enforcing wildlife laws in the Waterberg. The development of game farms in the area has led to a massive increase in prey items for the top predators such as leopard and wild dog, with some farmers stocking their land with more animals than their land can support. This makes farm land ideal territory for some predators and so conflict occurs between the farmers and the surrounding wildlife.

Days 4 and 5: We went with Michelle and Matt while they carried out interviews with local landowners and searched for carnivore scat on their properties. We met a number of landowners with a range of opinions. One showed an honest interest in wild dog conservation but was nervous about them being near their property. Another was actually the manager of a reserve rather than the owner and showed a much more ‘can-do’ attitude, saying that it was his problem to figure out losing stock rather than blaming it on the native predators in the area. This manager was looking into keeping newborn calves near houses and buildings to deter predators from approaching weak calves and mothers.

During this week we heard that 2 wild dogs had been recently killed in a traffic incident and a pack of 7 wild dogs was shot by farmers.

Suckling zebra

Suckling zebra

Days 6 and 7 saw us head to Pilanesberg national park for a weekend of pretty intense safari. We stayed at a campsite just outside the gates to the park and spent every waking hour driving the game trails. What a weekend!! We saw everything from lions hunting to elephants bathing to zebra suckling. We were however stopped twice by routine anti poaching patrols, which showed that even in the protected areas, some animals are still at risk of human persecution.

Days 8 and 9 were spent visiting farms again to interview landowners. Again we met people with attitudes that possibly differ from our own, but then again, South Africa is a very different country to our own. The landowners were all pleased to help the researchers and provide access to their land. During one visit we were called to a recent kill. A young cow had been killed by a predator and Michelle and Matt were asked to identify the culprit species. In this case it was thought to be a caracal, a cat much smaller than a leopard, but still capable of hunting relatively large prey. The landowners were present and were very understanding of the conflict but were visibly frustrated at their loss of both stock and earnings.Olly and Nick help out with a leopard

Olly and Nick help out with a leopard

Day 10: A Leopard had recently been caught in a cage trap by a farmer who saw him as a problem animal. The EWT were asked to relocate this animal to another area where he may be less of a threat. The leopard was taken to a wildlife reserve with more than enough prey and space to support his needs and was released into the bush. We were invited to watch the release, and with baited breath, we all watched as the young male nervously stepped out, then thundered off into the undergrowth.

Day 11: Back to the city. We spent the day at Johannesburg zoo to learn more of African zoo keeping. It was great to share information and both sides really seemed to learn a little from the other! In the evening we were invited to a black tie fundraiser held by the EWT and a collection of Mount Everest summiteers from South Africa were gathered to help raise money for wild dog conservation. In rented tuxedos (and hiking boots!) we met a great group of people from the conservation world and also the climbing world. The night was a roaring success and raised £50,000 for wild dog conservation. Also Knowsley Safari Park were given public thanks for their contributions.

Day 12: To the labs! As well as financially supporting the Waterberg Wild dog Project, we are also contributing to their research. We brought back 600 faecal samples collected by Michelle and Matt to analyse in the labs at Manchester Metropolitan University. Today was spent at Pretoria University learning how to analyse the scats we helped collect. It was really interesting to see how, using a microscope to analyses hairs in the scat, you can actually identify the species that have been eaten.

After a day or so to say our goodbyes and prepare the 600 samples for the journey with their permits, we headed back to Britain. The trip was amazing, we learned a lot about what difficulties conservationists in South Africa face, but also found out how determined they are to make an impact.

Olly working in the lab

Olly working in the lab

Olly O'Malley and Nick Parashchak with researcher Michelle Thorne

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Get closer to the action at Knowsley Safari Park a great family day out at Knowsley Safari Park where you can get up close and personal with many exotic animals such as lions, white rhino, ostrich, antelope and of course Knowsley’s infamous troop of baboons.

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About safariuk

I am the Visitor Service Manager for UK tourist attraction Knowsley Safari Park. I have been in the post only for a few years and consider myself very fortunate to work in such a fantastic place. Not many people outside of Africa can take their lunch break while looking at elephants! This isn't the official blog for Knowsley Safari Park but my own views and opinions on things that may be happening at the park, in the leisure industry or anywhere else.
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