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Scientific Services in the Kalahari

10 March 2008

by Michele Hofmeyr

How do you monitor changes in the environment in a place as vast as the Kalahari? This was on the minds of staff from SANParks Scientific Services as they travelled the long road from Skukuza in the Kruger National Park to Twee Rivieren in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

This immense Park was formed by an amalgamation of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa (proclaimed in 1931) and the Gemsbok National Park in Botswana. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park comprises an area of over 3,6 million hectares – one of very few conservation areas of this magnitude left in the world.

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is home to the distinctive Gemsbok with its long horns, the curious Suricate (Meerkat) and the impressive Black-maned Kalahari Lions, not forgetting the huge nests of the Sociable weavers and the Pygmy falcons. These are the smallest falcons in Africa and are often seen around Sociable Weaver colonies preying on the birds.

During several days of meetings and visits to specific areas in the park, staff from Scientific Services discussed the issues of management and monitoring with staff from the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. “The lessons learnt from monitoring techniques applied in the Kruger Park can be applied to this park” says Dr Rina Grant, Systems Ecologist from Scientific Services in Skukuza. “We want to help Kgalagadi management to set up monitoring programmes that can help them detect changes in the ecosystem and hear about their environmental concerns in the park. Although the veld may look different and it’s much drier than the Kruger National Park, we can still work together to achieve our biodiversity conservation goals” says Rina.

The meetings discussed how to implement a strategic adaptive management approach to biodiversity conservation in the Park and also advice from Scientific Services on how to use remote sensing and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) for their monitoring programmes. Issues that seem to be of concern to Kgalagadi management is the apparent decline of certain species such as springbok and hartebeest and the effects of high numbers of wildebeest gathering at artificial waterholes.

In addition, the ecosystem in the Kgalagadi is largely affected by rainfall, which results in ‘eruptive” cycles of green grass, more insects and rodents and the resultant increase in raptors (birds of prey) and smaller carnivores such as jackal and caracal. These eruptive cycles need to be monitored carefully, especially with the overriding concern of global climate change and the predicted changes in rainfall patterns across the sub-continent.

Fortunately Kgalagadi staff has been involved in various monitoring programmes over the years and this information will be used to construct “thresholds of potential concern” for the new monitoring programme, which will allow for early detection of changes in vegetation, animal numbers and climatic conditions over time.

“We look forward to collaborating with Kgalagadi Transfrontier staff as they develop their monitoring programmes” says Dr Rina Grant. Changes in the landscape, however subtle, may often elude detection until it is too late. As SANParks is tasked as biodiversity custodians in this park, setting up detailed and appropriate monitoring programmes is crucial for conservation management of this protected area.