WEI Field Report – June & July 2014

Winter is always a busy time of year for the WEI field team as we attack our bird and habitat surveys at 40 sites throughout the reserve. This is also the time of year when dissertation students from the UK-based Operation Wallacea join us to assist with our research programme and increase the number of replicates of our 10km vehicle-based game transects.

Accompanied again by Professor Stewart Thompson from the University of Oxford Brookes in the UK, this year’s dissertation students are tackling a wide range of topics, from home range analysis of different age classes of white rhino, to the influence of herbaceous vegetation type on zebra distributions. This is also the time of year when we receive the completed dissertations of last year’s students. Feedback from these dissertations will be featured in a WEI annual report completed by our Research & Operations Manager, Tom Avent, in the Spring.

This year, Jonathan Swart and Tom Avent also made some changes to the habitat methodologies so that they could be brought more in-line with the current research priorities at Welgevonden. These have also simplified the way our sites are set up which certainly makes it easier for us on the ground! At the time of writing we have finished 30 of the 40 sites and have an anticipated completion date towards the end of August.

We have also started an exciting new partnership with the Panthera big cat conservation organisation, not just here on Welgevonden, but also on Atherstone Nature Reserve. One of their current PhD students, Ross Pitman, had already collected some data on Welgevonden but has asked us to help out with camera trapping work every winter so that he can increase the scope of his research into other areas.

At the beginning of June, our team set up 40 camera stations – each consisting of two cameras – at various locations on the reserve, and since then have been going out to check the cameras two days a week to collect the data onto USB pens and change the batteries. Once we have this data, we then sort and catalogue the photos back at the WEI Research Camp. This involves the rather pain-staking (but very rewarding) process of going through each photo to record exactly what is there, even if it’s just a set of tyres from a game viewer! This might not sound like too much of a task, but when you are collecting an average of 5000-6000 photos per week, it takes up quite a lot of time.

Although this was very time-consuming, it did provide our team with some amazing pictures from the traps (see below).
On Sunday the 27th July, we began a new project with Dr Laura Graham studying the impact of the helicopter census and PZP contraceptive darting on elephant stress hormones. This involves tracking the elephants for a minimum of 3 days a week, identifying certain key individuals within the herd, waiting for them to defecate and move away, and then collecting the faecal samples. These then need to be sorted back at camp and preserved in alcohol for analysis by Dr Graham in the University of Guelph in Canada.  This project will continue for 3 weeks leading up to the darting in mid-August and at least 3 weeks afterwards. At the moment this is just a pilot study, and it has been predictably difficult to collect samples, but we will continue with the project and hopefully get enough data for a feasible study.

We have also been working on updating the rhino identikits, in order to assist with population estimates and locations of individuals.

Photos credits – Panthera Limpopo Leopard Project