The only floral kingdom contained within a single country, the Cape Floral Kingdom is home to endemic and highly threatened fynbos vegetation. Gondwana Game Reserve is situated within this kingdom and is currently trying to balance the conservation of the over 8000 plant species in the region with the reintroduction of large herbivore species such as elephants. This fenced reserve represents a pocket of protection for these species, amid a landscape dominated by agriculture. Floral and avian diversity and composition within the reserve are currently very poorly understood, and the reserve management are eager to understand how different land use and management histories are affecting them. Experimental exclosures have been erected to understand how fire and herbivory interact to influence plant diversity and grazing potential. Each site has four treatments of burned and not burned, grazed and not grazed. Data on vegetation composition, density, and grazing impact are collected both inside and outside of these exclosures to assess the effect animals have on vegetation. Likewise, mammal dung counts help determine how animals are using the sites. Bird point counts are also performed at these locations, allowing us to determine the effects of treatments across vegetation types on avian diversity across the reserve.
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 wildlife 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 reserves surrounded by densely populated areas such as Dinokeng Game Reserve, human-wildlife conflict can be a major challenge. Here, our research teams are looking at the extent of this conflict with a special focus on large mammal species. Large mammal distributions are monitored regularly through game transects, and nocturnal mammal distributions are assessed using 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 how human disturbance can alter large mammal movement and behaviour.
The restriction of natural movement caused by fences can also lead to locally dense mammal populations with high levels of vegetation impact. Elephants, for example, are ecosystem engineers and their impact can alter vegetation structure and composition. By directly monitoring both fire and 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 elephants can affect long-term change in the ecosystem. Monitoring of this type is also highly important in Gondwana Game Reserve, which is situated in the biodiversity hotspot of the Cape Floral Kingdom in the Western Cape. This Big-5 reserve has converted agricultural land to conservation, with the large mammals feeding on old agricultural grasslands as fynbos vegetation holds little nutritional value for large herbivores. Reserve management here have therefore asked us to monitor how the large, enigmatic game species are utilising the various vegetation types found within the reserve, to conserve the diversity of critically endangered vegetation types while supporting Big-5 tourism and conservation of the area.
Our expeditions run during the South African winter, so rain and wind are regular at this site. Temperatures can get up to 18-20 degrees during the day, but will regularly drop below 5 degrees at night. The wind-chill can make this feel very cold, so warm and waterproof clothes are essential.
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.
You will be staying in large safari-style tents with bunk beds. Hot running showers and flushing toilets are provided in a separate block, with large, structured tents used for the kitchen and communal areas. There is very patchy phone signal, but basic wifi is available for work/research. Electricity is mainly provided by solar power, supplemented by a generator for a few hours each day.