This expedition is primarily based in Dinokeng Game Reserve in the Highveld. This reserve is home to the Big 5* and was formed through the donation of land from multiple small and large landowners in the area, many of whom still live within the reserve in fenced homesteads. The animals can roam freely around the individual properties within the reserve, leading to a higher than usual occurrence of human-wildlife interactions. Opwall teams are assisting local researchers to assess the success of this novel model of South African conservation and provide the reserve management with the empirical data they need to make evidence-based decisions. On this project you will be involved in distance sampling from vehicles for large mammal species, completing bird point counts, undertaking surveys of browsing and grazing pressure and analysing camera trap data for elusive species such as lion and hyena. You will spend some time in the field with locally trained guides and guards, with the remaining time spent in camp completing an African wildlife conservation and management course. For your last week you will be based in Sodwana Bay and will then complete a PADI Open Water dive training course or an Indian Ocean reef ecology course by diving (if already trained) or snorkelling.
*Big 5 refers to African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard and rhinoceros.
Operation Wallacea and our partners, Wildlife and Ecological Investments (WEI), coordinate large-scale research programmes to provide an empirical backbone for key conservation projects in South Africa. Our main aim is to assist conservation managers with pressing large-scale issues that they do not necessarily have the resources to address themselves. The South Africa research programme covers a series of reserves across the country, each using slightly different management strategies to conserve diversity in their reserves. Big game areas in South Africa are fenced to avoid the spread of disease and conflicts between communities and dangerous animals. However, in densely populated areas such as around Dinokeng Game Reserve, human-wildlife interactions are still common. Here, our research teams are looking at the extent of these interactions with a special focus on large mammal species. Large mammal distributions are monitored regularly through game transects, and a matrix of camera traps set up throughout the reserve. By combining this information with our knowledge of areas of dense human activity, we can begin to understand the drivers behind large mammal movement and any potentially disruptive behaviours they exhibit. The use of roads in the reserve is also monitored through camera traps and behavioural observations to quantify how roads and vehicles affect animal movement, survival, and behaviour.
The restriction of natural movement caused by fences can also lead to potentially unsustainable levels of vegetation impact when mammal populations are high. Elephants, for example, are keystone species and high feeding pressures can lead to excessive impact to the vegetation. By directly monitoring feeding impact on vegetation and its knock-on effects to other taxa, such as birds, our teams can assist the reserve managers to better understand how to manage their elephant populations to maintain a healthy and diverse ecosystem. This monitoring is especially important in Gondwana Game Reserve, which is situated in the florally diverse fynbos region. While the vegetation here is highly valued for its diversity, it holds little browsing or grazing value for many of the game species commonly found in tourist reserves. The management here have therefore asked us to monitor how the large, enigmatic game species are utilising the various vegetation types found within the reserve.
Our expeditions run during the South African winter, so in Dinokeng temperatures can drop as low as 0-2 degrees at night. It is also dry season, however, so the chances of rain are slim here and days are usually sunny and warm with temperatures up to 18-22 degrees. The temperatures are generally warmer at night in Sodwana, and the sun can be quite fierce when out all day at the beach.
Fitness level required
Low. There are some short hikes over rough terrain, but most of the work is in or close to the game-viewer vehicles.
Accommodation at both sites is in shared tents. In Dinokeng, beds are provided but at Sodwana you will need to bring a roll mat to sleep on. Both sites have hot running showers and flushing toilets provided in a separate block and constant electricity. There is reasonable phone signal in Dinokeng and good signal in Sodwana, but no wifi at either site.