Gondwana Game Reserve is a fenced reserve situated in the hyper-diverse Cape Floral Kingdom, which is dominated by fynbos and renosterveld. Many large mammals that were previously extinct from the area, including elephant, rhino and buffalo, have been reintroduced to the reserve and the income that results from tourists coming to see these species allows the reserve to protect the area. However, while the dominant fynbos and renosterveld are highly diverse and endangered plant communities, they offer very little nutritional value for large herbivore species and the large mammals graze predominantly on old agricultural grasslands. The reserve management must therefore carefully balance the desire to protect this amazing floral diversity with the need to maintain healthy megafauna.
By assessing the movement and habitat preferences of large mammals, Opwall and its partners hope to assist the reserve in future management decisions. To do this, regular large mammal surveys are conducted in which all visual encounters with the herbivores are recorded. The GPS location of the animal, the species, condition score, number of individuals and age-sex class of each individual are also noted. Students will also assist with habitat mapping across the reserve at a broad-scale and detailed vegetation surveys, in which the level of physical impact on the plants from key herbivores is recorded.
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.